Baby boomers – those born 1946-1964 – represent the largest population growth in US history. What will they do in retirement, and what impact will that have on society and the economy?
That generation of Americans raised on “Leave It to Beaver,” who came of age during the battles over racial segregation, fought in (or over) the Vietnam War, joined the Peace Corps, marched for women’s rights, and populated suburbia with their offspring are now senior citizens.
We’re talking about baby boomers here – people born between 1946 and 1964, the first of whom turned 65 on New Years Day.
OK, so it’s mainly a big deal for demographers, wonkishly charting and graphing society.
In fact, boomers have been eligible to join the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) for 15 years, and they’ve already seen three of their number become president – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama (at the youngest end of baby boomerhood).
But the image is distinct.
They’re still boogying to geezer rock. (Thank you Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.) Though their tie-dye may be fading and their pony tails dangling beneath bald pates, many are still certified political lefties – even though most boomers’ political dissent these days comes as the graying base of the solidly conservative tea party movement.
Beyond image is the reality of a generational cohort that sent astronauts (of both genders and all races) into space, built a post-war economy on everything from Chevrolets to computer chips, invented “exurbs” and the shopping mall … and failed to heed Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about a “military-industrial complex” as the United States became the most powerful nation in human history – and consequently was at war or involved in military intervention someplace on the planet virtually the whole time since 1946.
If baby boomers seem ubiquitous (we’ll get to the self-absorbed part in a minute), their numbers tell the story.
“At over 76 million people, baby boomers represent the largest single population growth in US history and have had an enormous impact on every institution in the country, as well as lived through some of the most interesting times in American history,” begins a recent report by AARP “Approaching 65: A Survey of Baby Boomers Turning 65 Years Old.”
Another number indicating boomer clout among the senior citizen class: On average, 7,000 a day are turning 65.
As the nation tackles health care and economic issues related to retirement – need I mention Social Security, Medicare, and Wall Street-based pension plans? – their sizable cohort will have increasing influence in Washington. Most members of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate are boomers.
They already do have political clout in the form of AARP, a major lobbying force on behalf of older Americans.
(That can be controversial. In a burst of tea party-fueled anger, about 60,000 members quit AARP in 2009 over its advocacy of Obama-backed health care reform. Still, it was a relative blip for the organization, which gained 400,000 new members and had 1.5 million membership renewals during the same period.)
So how are boomers feeling these days?
Quite self-aware, for one thing.
“There is a sense among members of the baby boom cohort that they are special or unique,” according to the AARP report. “This sense of uniqueness has been reinforced throughout their life cycle.”
“The impact of the baby boom generation and of specific baby boomers cannot be underestimated,” the report continues. “In every aspect of American life, from entertainment to politics or to sport, baby boomers are the prime movers…. One only needs to look at the number of remade television programs and movies from the 60s and 70s to see how entertainment decisions are being made by boomers or for boomers.”
Boomers are “generally satisfied with their lives and optimistic about the next third of life.” Seven out of 10 “say they have achieved all or most of what they wanted out of life.”
Not surprisingly, they’re concerned about health and economic issues, and most see themselves as working beyond the traditional age of retirement, at least part of the time – not necessarily because they have to but because they want to.
One main reason: They’re more college-educated than any previous generation and therefore more inclined to define themselves in terms of their careers. “It is much harder to visualize retirement if your job is what you prepared for by spending years in school, spending more years in graduate or professional school, working long hours to advance at work, or practicing what you consider to be your life’s work,” the AARP survey concludes.
So happy birthday, boomers. Amaze and amuse your grandkids. Put that old vinyl copy of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on the stereo, turn up the volume, and let's see your best dance moves.