Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — If it's even slightly warm outside, Carolyn Millard flips the top down on the shiny red Mini Cooper, the grin coming automatically as the wind ripples her mostly red hair. She's sporty and cheerful like the car. Social Security and Medicare are not the images that come to mind when you see Millard. But she is, indeed, racing toward retirement age, her birth in 1946 placing her on the front end of the famed Baby Boom — a wave that, starting Saturday, will see 10,800 Americans turning 65 every day for the next 19 years.
As University of Utah gerontologist Scott Wright says, it's the equivalent of "a Boeing 747 full of baby boomers" turning 65 every hour. By 2030, the U.S. population older than 65 will have doubled to about 71 million. Average boomers who reach 65 in 2011 can expect to live at least 18 more years and one in nine will live to 90 or older.
Even Utah, perpetually hailed as home to the youngest population because of its high birth rate, will be pressed as the next quarter-century brings a 165 percent increase in the 65-plus crowd, to more than 480,000, according to the Utah Association of Area Agencies on Aging. By 2030, Utah will house an estimated 43,500-plus people who are 85 and older.
The answer to the question, "Is America ready for it?", depends on who you ask and what you mean by "it."
A GENERATION OF CONTRADICTIONS
The aging-in of boomers is not going to be a sonic boom that rattles windows and is gone. Between 1946 and 1964, the official bookends of the "Baby Boom," there were 76 million births in America. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated boomers comprise 26.1 percent of the population — about 78 million people, adding in refugees and immigrants of similar age. It's a worrisome total amid talk there won't be enough young workers to support Social Security benefits for boomers and dire predictions that Medicare will fail completely. In 2031, when all boomers are over 65, the Social Security Administration predicts only 2.1 workers for each beneficiary, compared to today's 3.3.
It is a generation of contradictions, say experts who often disagree on how to characterize boomers. They are the most selfish generation, blasts author and Federal Reserve Bank of New York chairman Peter Peterson, running up massive debt, failing to save, living for the moment. "Transformers," counters Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project in Virginia. "Boomer women looked at childbirth and said, 'No, that doesn't really work for me.' I'm going to interview the doctors and find the one I feel best about, take classes, read every book and involve my husband all the way. I need him in the room to participate.' They changed forever how women give birth. They looked at retirement, how workers stopped on their birthdays and stepped aside. 'No, we're not going to do that, either.'… Well, we will also be transforming what it means to grow old in America over the next 20 years."
As young adults, boomers ushered in rock-n-roll, a sexual revolution and drug experimentation, political activism, tolerance and a push for equality. Author Mark Freedman, in a book about boomers transitioning to retirement, said their energy and time can change not only their own aging but renew communities. Author Leonard Steinhorn has called boomers "the Greater Generation," an homage to the societal changes they wrought, including tolerance and equality.
"Unrealized" is how Tom Brokaw described the boomers in a TV interview — a response that set consultant Thornhill bouncing up and down, swatting his TV as he yelled, "We're not done yet."
And that, perhaps, is a more absolute truth than a symbolic one.
"There's a lot of debate right now about what the Baby Boomer legacy will be," says Wright, associate professor and director of the Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program at the U., and himself a dead-center boomer, born in 1955. "There's still time for some of us to change things if we want. There's room to reinvent."
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