When I first earned my brokerage license, a registered representative was a stockbroker and we fought over the right to answer any inbound telephone call. We sold bonds and stocks and unit trusts. We sold “yield” and depended on the research department for stock ideas. The best of us did a lot of homework on stocks and read annual reports that arrived in big envelopes in the mail. The two top salesmen in my first office wrote covered options and sold muni bonds. Financial planning and managed accounts were in beta—deep beta—and performance comparisons were mostly about beating the bank savings rate and what your client bragged about to his golfing buddies.

We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby Boomers
At 78 million strong, the baby boomers created historic economic growth but they also caused positive disruption in pretty much every industry and they seriously adopted technology. The sheer size of the boomer generation is key to understanding their impact: They outnumber their parents by three to one. Whenever they want something, there are suddenly three times as many people wanting it. The progress in my lifetime is remarkable. Cars are better, wine is better, TVs and computers fit in your pocket. My first desktop quote machine had a 4-inch diameter screen with “bid,” “ask,” “last” and “volume.” My most common telephone call was someone asking me for a quote. It was a simpler time, but the simplicity couldn’t last.

The Age Wave Has Crested
Now there is new urgency to take on a problem we’ve anticipated for decades: the arrival of the demographic tipping point. The long-heralded baby boomer retirement phase has begun, with more than half the generation now over the hump. That shift in age brings new demands for income and safety and guarantees—especially in a period of heightened anxiety from Covid-19 and volatile markets.

The data reveals that during the recent crisis, there was selling by retirees fearful of another 2008-style collapse. When the current historic bull run began in March 2009, the baby boomers’ median age was just 53—the prime time for saving and accumulating. They were low-maintenance clients then. Today, the now 64-year-olds are a different advisory ball game. The oldest boomers, at 74, are even further away still and have significant service demands. These demographics require very different businesses, and the industry needs to provide appropriate support.

Embrace The Complexity
The advice industry is evolving like every other mature industry—shaped by technology, innovation and customer preferences for better products, better service and lower cost. Consider automobiles, computers, personal electronics—even sneakers. Winners in corporate evolution have harnessed technology but hidden its complexity under the hood or inside the box so the product is simpler and easier to use while also becoming more resilient and reliable.

One observation about the advice industry is that we wear our complexity on our sleeve—forcing clients to endure lectures about portfolio theory, endless disclaimers, non-intuitive business practices and highly variable customer service. Too often over the years we have made clients feel like they are asking for too much, and believed we are really doing our best. Yet we still struggle to provide the transparency, simplicity and certainty of solutions that clients crave. The boomers have learned they don’t have to settle—and their kids are even more adamant. Besides dealing with a general change in attitude, we now have to reveal the complexity, focus on it like a tech firm and then work to earn the benefits of complex systems to drive better outcomes.

Embrace Complexity
When I was a kid, Apollo 11 gave us a great new line to use in business: “If we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to … ” And now there is more computing power in your smartphone than on the Saturn V that carried the astronauts in 1969. So don’t say we can’t provide retirement income solutions that are optimized for tax, buffered for inflation, protected against the risks of our longevity and supportive of health-care costs. Clients don’t believe we can’t do it—and won’t stay with advisors or firms that can’t help them maximize limited assets over an uncertain retirement span.

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