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by Patricia Fry

Baby Boomer Style

There's been a lot of hype about the baby boom generation—those born between 1946 and 1964. And why not? For over 50 years, this generation, at 76 million strong, has created and reshaped trends in everything from the economy to fashion. And they're about to change what it means to retire.

How will senor citizens be defined in coming decades? What will retirement look like? How will the aging of the boomers impact society? These questions are being contemplated by many, including the baby boomers, themselves.

Polls show that boomers are not a carbon copy of their parents when it comes to retirement planning. Numerous surveys are conducted each year in an attempt to forecast how the boomers are preparing and what they will do in retirement. According to John Rother, Director of Policy and Strategy at AARP, "What we do not find in our surveys is the image of ?I'm going to move to Florida and play golf all day.'"

Some experts look at the boomers as rather spoiled and self-indulgent. Helen Dennis is a Lecturer at Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California. Her specialty is aging, employment and retirement. She says, "Boomers, because of their sheer number, have had things on their terms. They're going to want retirement on their terms rather than fitting into a system that doesn't make sense to them."

Paul Yakoboski is Director of Research for the American Council of Life Insurers. He agrees that this generation will not retire in the traditional way. He says, "There's an evolving definition of what it is to be retired. For example, my dad hit 62 and he was done. He walked out of the office and didn't go back. He puttered in his garden, hung out at the donut shop and he did not work anymore. This is a stereotypical retirement, which isn't what many current or future retirees have in mind. They have in mind retiring from a career job and then doing something else—setting up their own business or going to work for someone else—but doing it more on their terms."

Boomers don't even accept current terminology related to retirement. Dennis says, "Boomers say they're never going to age and retiree is not a word they relate to. Boomers are going to generate a whole new vocabulary. It's going to be cool to be retired. They're going to make it cool."

While no one seems to know what new words the baby boomers will coin, Rother says they do know which ones they'll discard. "There are certain words that are not favored: the word elderly, for example, and old. Even senior citizen is kind of disappearing."

But boomers, like the rest of us, will age. And most will eventually retire. Greeting them, says Rother are countless choices. "There will be more options for this generation, including the option to continue working."

An Aging Workforce

In fact, the face of the workplace is starting to reflect the influence of the baby boom generation. Overall, America's workers are older.

In 1980, there were 16.9 million men and women between the ages of 45 ? 54 in the workforce. That number increased to 26.4 million in 1996. Statisticians predict that it will reach 34.9 million by the year 2005. Workers 55 and older numbered 16 million in 1996 and are expected to reach 22.2 million in 2005.

Who are the baby boomers, anyway? Rother reports on recent survey findings. "Boomers, as a group, are more highly educated and, compared to their parents' generation, they're much better off financially. But they're more diverse than any other generation that has come before. That makes it hard to generalize." One thing they do have in common, according to Rother is, "A majority of boomers actually see a continued role for work in retirement." And studies show that most of them plan to go back to work out of desire and not need.

"We're going to release a survey next month," says Rother, "that shows about half of that generation sees work (in retirement) as fulfillment and a quarter see it as a necessity. We estimate that about a quarter of the current boomer generation is completely unprepared for retirement. That is, they have no savings, no pensions and, often times, no health insurance. They're skating on very thin ice."

Dr. James Thorson of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska in Omaha explains why some don't plan better for retirement. "People are silly enough to think that social security is going to take care of them. That's just simply a psychological mechanism we call denial." He shares this story: "I have a sister who is 62 and she has moved from company to company. She was a skilled legal secretary and made a good wage, but she never stayed with any one company long enough to qualify in a vested pension. Now all she has is social security and she's kind of surprised."

But studies show that we are better off now than in years past. Thorson reports, "The poverty rate in seniors has declined dramatically since 1970. It's only about 13% of all people 65 and over. It used to be 30%."

Yet, we're still not planning as carefully and completely as we could, according to Dennis. She says, "We're not saving at the rate we need to insure an economically stable retirement."

We've established that a percentage of boomers will have to work after retiring to improve their quality of life. But what about those who choose to work—who look forward to working in retirement?

Rother explains, "When you talk to boomers, you discover that work is central to their lives. Their job, for most of them, is their source, not only of income, but also their social network and their self-image. So, many people have a very hard time imagining life without the job."

Dennis agrees. "While many boomers believe that they will need to work after retirement, others will want to work at something that is really fun and enjoyable—working off of their boat, for example."

In their 1998 Executive Summary, resulting from a major research initiative with Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc., AARP reports the following:

  • Most baby boomers believe they will still be working during their retirement years.
  • 8 out of 10 say they plan to work at least part time during retirement.
  • 35% said they will work mainly for the sake of interest and enjoyment.
  • Roughly ? say they will work for the income.
  • 17% hope to start their own business,
  • 5% will enter a new job or career.

Thorson doesn't believe the boomers will follow through with this trend, though. He calls this notion a popular myth. He says, "If you take a look at individual cases, you'll see that when seniors find they have to stay on their feet four to six hours a day, they'll decide it's not worth it. Although the skilled worker is highly prized, they don't last very long."

The workforce is already aging, however. Dallas L. Salisbury is president and CEO of EBRI (Employee Benefit Research Institute). He says, "The average age of many workforces is now well up in the 40s. With the oldest boomers now getting to 55, this wave will continue. Combine this with the slow projected net new growth of workers 18 through 35 and the corporate sector is living with the necessity of hiring older workers and training them. When it was viewed that employers were resistant (to hiring older workers) it was because there were so many young workers available with good training and willing to work for a relatively low wage. When trying to fill a job, why hire the older worker with old training who, due to seniority, thinks they are worth more than the job is budgeted at, when there is an alternative. For the last several years, and for most of the next two decades, the only way to fill jobs in the United States will be to go with the market and that means many older workers." And he points out: "The 9/11 situation makes this even more the case as the issues of foreign workers in the US has moved to a tighter mode."

Who's Hiring the Older Worker?

Are employers interested in hiring older workers? Rother says "No. It's really only a relative handful (of employers) at this point, but some are starting to respond. We think that more will in the future. They may find that older workers are their best source and will be more highly motivated to make it attractive for workers to stay. But right now, we don't see very many employers acting like that."

Those who are utilizing the older generation are pleased with their decision. Anne Streeter is Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations for the Work/Life Programs at Baptist Health Systems in South Florida. This company is proud to hire the skilled older work. According to Streeter, "The aging of the workforce in general, as well as the recent economic downturns that are impacting retirement investments, are contributing to more older workers." She reports that 23% of their 8600 employees are over 50.

"So many of our older workers have been with us for years," says Streeter. "We value their contributions. We don't want to lose long-service, older workers. Where possible, we try to adjust work environment, responsibilities and schedules to accommodate their needs. We also want the older worker to help mentor younger workers—to share their wisdom and corporate culture history."

She explains how they accommodate older workers. "Flexibility is key for many. For example, we have a 71-year old nurse who takes off summers with her grandchildren."

Baptist Health Systems also tries to accommodate workers with physical disabilities. Streeter says, "We've purchased hospital beds that actually stand patients up to assist nurses in getting patients in and out of bed. This will prevent injuries that could lead to losing a valued nurse." They also have an ergonomics expert working through the Employee Health Office who evaluates workspace and makes recommendations on changes necessary to accommodate employee's physical needs.

Camping World in Bowling Green Kentucky, is another senior-friendly company. The average age of their customers is 58-years-old and it follows that 30% of their employees are 50 and 49 percent are over 40.

Boomers and Elderly Care

What are some of the other implications of aging and retirement for the baby boom generation? According to Thorson, many of them have set a pattern in motion that might backfire on them in their older years. They have chosen not to have children. A full 20% of this population have no children. They've been busy making money rather than raising families. And Thorson believes these individuals will pay a price. He reasons, "People who are alone later in life don't do well. They are lonely and they don't thrive. About 40% of people in nursing homes have no children."

With a decline in younger workers, who will take care of the aging boomer? Thorson says, "Literally, there are not hands enough to care for the old folks of the future. We're going to have baby boomers who are seniors going into long term care sometime around the year 2020 and it will just get worse and worse. And unless we increase the number of non-skilled immigrants in this country, there will not be hands enough to wipe the old bottoms of the baby boomers."

Those with families will most likely become more involved in their senior years. Dennis explains, "I think that family responsibilities will last longer. I've probably worked with over 6,000 employees preparing for retirement on the non-financial side. It is not unusual for them to have 10 and 12 year olds, let alone children in college. It's also not unusual for them to have 5 and 6 year olds from second marriages. This is another piece that's a little different. The notion of blended families is more common among boomers and there are more people in the family system."

Remember, this is also the sandwich generation—folks who still have kids at home to raise as well as the responsibility of aging parents. Thorson sees this trend emerging already. "People are living longer," he says. "Seventy-five-year-olds tell me that their principal problem is parent care. I had a 75-year-old friend with a 94-year-old mother who had to go into a nursing home. The mother was very angry and said, ?You can take care of me at home.' My friend said ?Mom, I'm an old lady. I can't do it anymore.'"

Another area where boomers differ from previous generations is in their perception of health. Dennis says, "Boomers are pretty health conscious."

Rother has noticed this, too. He says, "Among our members who are boomers, the dominant thing they ask from me is help preparing financially. But the second most pressing concern is, ?How do I stay healthy?'"

Dennis urges boomers to project even beyond health and seek enrichment in life. She says, "You can have a great financial plan and you can be healthy, but if you haven't figured out the quality of life stuff, you may have a retirement that's not very fulfilling. When I say meaningful, it's meaningfulness in relationships? in purpose. Boomers have been looking for meaningfulness and I say, stay on the quest." She encourages aging boomers to embrace this time in their life. "Don't perceive this as a crisis, but more as an opportunity to become more of what you've ever wanted to be."

After Eugenie G. Wheeler of Ventura, California retired, she involved herself in a variety of projects and work that she thought would fulfill her ambitions forever. Each time she would embrace a new interest, she would say to herself, "This is it." Now she says, however, "The retirement process is a process not a forever after proposition." And she advises those who will listen to her or who read her weekly newspaper column, The Time of Your Life, "Don't introduce any finality into your planning. I retain a sense of possibility to be sure I don't let any neat experiences pass me by."

Boomers and Consumerism

The boomers will not be the only group affected by their aging. Experts predict that the whole world of consumerism will be influenced by their choices. David Demko, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of Age Venture News Services, explains. "Expect continual and increasing expansion of product and service industries that target boomer needs: creature comforts that represent rewards for life success, status symbols that counter societies' devalued perception of being old. Boomers, like most retirees before them, will face fairly typical physical (advancing infirmity), emotional (declining efficacy) and social (isolation) challenges. However, boomers will confront those challenges in new ways. Unlike their self-sacrificing ?greatest generation' predecessors, boomers are rather insistent about living life on their own terms. They believe in change and believe in their ability to function as change agents."

He offers this example, "Predecessors confronted wrinkles and gray hair on a philosophical level—acceptance. Boomers, on the other hand, rush into the marketplace for bottles of hair dye and cosmetic surgery. Same challenges—two very different generational responses. Boomers will be super consumers in their quest to age on their own terms."

Demko talks about the three reasons he believes boomers will actually succeed in changing the way we think of aging and retirement. He says that boomers will walk their talk for three reasons: "First, public (government, AARP) and private (brokerage firms) sector initiatives are motivating boomers to plan for retirement. Second, financial tools like reverse mortgages have the potential of converting over $800 billion in home equity into hard cash for eldercare services. This vehicle alone fits the ?you can have your cake and eat it too' philosophy embraced by many boomers. Third, boomers are set to receive an inheritance mother load of historical proportions estimated at ten trillion dollars. Yes, boomers will face typical age-related challenges, but will respond with ?let's go shopping.'" Demko concludes by saying, "Those who observe this phenomenon will be forever changed by what it means to live, retire and age in modern American society."

Boomers aren't quick to downsize their lifestyle, for example. According to a report published by the National Association of Home Builders, the baby boom generation has larger properties than the national average and would prefer to have even bigger homes. Forecasters predict that the trend for baby boomers is to stay in the family home or to buy something roomier. Boomers are also remodeling their homes to create the space they crave.

Tips for Successful Retirement

Demko believes that, "Retirement is more a state of mind than a stage of life. It's what you make of it, it's what you discover is in it for you." He recommends making a list of the 10 things you would love to do if you could afford to retire. And ask yourself how many of these things are you doing now. He says, "People find time for the things they love to do."

And this brings us to defining your goals. How does the boomer want to spend his or her time? Following their passion? Here are some tips to make this the best time of your life.

  1. Enjoy whatever measure of income you have. Don't look at your retirement funds as your children's inheritance.
  2. Some experts suggest easing into retirement. Cut back to part time or flex hours for several months before breaking the ties.
  3. Establish a lifestyle outside of work, including a social life, hobbies and interests. If this is a problem, tap into your list labeled, "Things I'm going to do someday."
  4. Renew and/or invent activities you and your spouse can enjoy together.
  5. Talk to others who have retired. Ask them for tips.
  6. Seriously consider staying in the area where your family and friends are.
  7. Make retirement a time to bond with your extended family, especially grandchildren.
  8. Plan your retirement with your spouse. Retirement is a family affair. Make sure you agree on how you want to spend these years
  9. Establish and maintain a balanced lifestyle that includes giving (volunteering), productivity (working), creativity, physical activity, time out of doors, a measure of spirituality, interaction with others and time to reflect.
  10. For years, the three-legged stool has been used to define the basic needs in retirement planning. Rother says they currently use a four pillar approach. He explains. "In effect, you need four things to build retirement." His list includes:

    1. Savings and investments (including pensions).
    2. Social security (which is about 40% of one's retirement income).
    3. Work.
    4. Affordable health insurance.

It looks like everyone will need to plan for when the baby boomers start retiring.

While boomers are doing financial and lifestyle planning, the business community must prepare to supply the products and services boomers will need. And America's companies will need to restructure in order to welcome the older worker.

The world is changing, folks. And part of that change is driven by the 76 million baby boomers who are about to come of age.

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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