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."
Or redeem, which was the call from Michael Kinsley two months ago in The Atlantic in an article called "The Least We Can Do": "Self-absorbed and self-indulged, the postwar generation is leaving a bitter legacy: crumbling infrastructure, crushing public debt and a reflexive cynicism about all institutions, from churches to Congress to the media." He suggests boomers cough up about $14 trillion to fix things. Yet even he notes the contradiction: The boomer tech revolution revived capitalism. Boomers bought their own education with student loans, the first to arrive at adulthood in debt, then paid for their parents to retire "in greater comfort than they themselves can reasonably expect." Many have supported their children well into adulthood.
Many boomers in their formative years watched the Watergate scandal and President Nixon's resignation and Wright says they "forged a new attitude about the role of the executive branch that still rages today." Too diverse to be loyal to one political party, they have nonetheless voted in large numbers for nearly a half-century. "What intrigues me is how they will vote as a larger 'older' voting bloc in the near future." Will they think of a future beyond themselves? he wonders. "Will they vote for legacy or larceny?"
"Our ultimate delivery is how we're going to transform growing old and what it means to have a long life. Our contributions are far from over," says Thornhill.
"THE MAKINGS OF A FINANCIAL DISASTER"
Boomers have been called the build and spend generation, the instant-gratification crowd, the first to use credit to achieve their parent's living standard quickly without earning it. They are better educated than previous generations, but some have drug abuse and other issues not encountered at their age before.
For many reasons, boomers are blazing their own path into old age. Many will choose to work well past 65; others will have no choice because of poor financial planning. Insurer MetLife says fewer than half of boomers it surveyed plan to retire before 69.
For some, retirement won't be an option until their 70s or beyond if they want to maintain a lifestyle. And the boomers who have saved for retirement find themselves in worse shape than they'd expected because of the recession, which wiped out a lot of investments.
Nearly half are at risk of running out of money during retirement, says the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Some of them will try to maintain their lifestyle and go broke in 5 or 10 years, one of its officials said. Others will try to scale down discretionary spending.
"Until two-and-a-half years ago, I'd have said yes, I was financially prepared for retirement," says Doug Payne, a Salt Lake attorney and baby boomer. "Not now. Based on recent economic events, I think we were on the edge of a precipice of economic meltdown, at least potentially. I'm a little more insecure than I was."
More than a few experts predict that boomers will bust the nation's economy.
Baby boomers make up more than 70 million people in a nation of 300 million, says Danny Brock, a financial advisor at Brock and Associates. "This will cause devastating effects as baby boomers are pulling dollars out of the stock market and paying off debts," he predicts.
He also sees a generation that's used to being taken care of. "People are more worried about what the government can do for them than what they can do for themselves," he says. "If they continue to live paycheck to paycheck, they won't have enough because Social Security won't cut it."
Some boomers have unrealistic expectations, says Utah Commission on Aging director Maureen Henry. "That's one area where we absolutely are not ready, because the landscape of retirement financing has changed so dramatically. Surveys show that more people think they have pensions than actually do. They're not saving, or are saving at very low-rates for retirement, yet they think that things like long-term care will be paid by Medicare, which it won't. It's a looming crisis that won't hit when they turn 65, but in 10 to 30 years."
Add in a much longer lifespan, adds Mark Supiano, director of the U. Center on Aging and chief of the division of geriatrics at the VA Hospital, and you have the makings of a financial disaster, both personally and nationally. "It sounds obvious, but stay healthy. Do whatever you can to prevent disabling conditions and long-term function that will lead you to require long-term care," he advises.
MORE DIFFERENT THAN ALIKE
A chasm exists between the oldest and youngest baby boomers. "Being a baby boomer does not make you part of an affinity group," says Thornhill. "It's a label. All generations find differences across the generation."
Some demographers declare there are, in fact, three generations of boomers. In its detailed analysis, MetLife says "leading edge" boomers include those born 1946-51, a group that includes Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, David Letterman and Meryl Streep.
They came of age against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the battles for civil and women's rights. Told they were old enough to die in the war at age 18, they demanded the vote at that age, as well. They responded to President John F. Kennedy's call to better their country and shared Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. They were the generation that openly defied their parents when it came to sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Though they make up just 27 percent of boomers, they typify many of the cultural characteristics associated with the entire generation, MetLife says. They were the first generation for whom college was common. About 77 percent of them are now grandparents, many actually raising their grandchildren.
Attorney Payne and South Jordan accountant Ed Worthington were born in 1956 and 1958 respectively. The mid-boomers, born between 1952 and 1958, were the biggest segment, at 38 percent. Some engaged in the '60s social revolution, but many were too young. Mid-boom women migrated into the workforce en masse. And they are still in prime earning years, so they may be able to recover from the losses of the 2008 recession, One of their challenges will be funding what could be a long, resource-sapping retirement. Al Sharpton, Bob Costas, Condaleeza Rice and Donnie Osmond are all middle boomers.
Young boomers were born between 1959 and 1964 and not all of them even identify themselves that way. Jonathon Pontell, a cultural historian, said those born in 1954 to at least 1965 were really "Generation Jones." The WiseGeek Website notes that the "statistical importance of Generation Jones can't be overestimated. They were the early computer pioneers and include people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Further, they have a strong tendency to influence elections and they are an extremely valuable market group to advertisers." These "Jonesers" are, it notes, about a third of all Internet users. Older boomers, too, have become adept at navigating the Web and social media.
"Trailing edge" boomers represent 36 percent of the cohort. They tend to be more sober, influenced by a shrinking economy and damaged national stature. Magic Johnson, Marie Osmond, Sara Palin and Barack O'Bama are among the boomer babies, most of whom will live another 30 years or more. They may have children at home, two incomes and still, experts say, they're not preparing financially to retire.
If you sat down with Millard, Payne, Worthington and Tera White, all boomers, it would be clear how wide an umbrella the term baby boom is.
Millard, main telephone operator for Intermountain Healthcare's corporate office, is a grandmother 29 times now, her children and stepchildren grown. Her husband Kenneth, an architect and city planner whose credits included Nauvoo, died three years ago.
Her house is paid off and she's fairly secure. She works three days a week, but has no interest in retiring completely. Her nest is too empty and quiet. Once the youngest in her crowd, Millard says she looks around and she's the oldest in her ward, the years creeping up while she was doing other things. Following a bad fall, she feels more fragile than she did a decade ago.
She wants to do a bucket list while she can. "I'm trying to figure out what it is I want to do."
White is thinking about what she wants to do, too, but from the other side of the baby boom. She's not thinking of things she'd like to do before she dies. Born at the end of the boom, she's no longer married and that has changed her financial picture. She's been a stay at home mom and though she's at a peak employment age, she hasn't worked for a long time. Going back is daunting. Should she try to find work with benefits? she wonders. She's heard there's not much out there now. Maybe she'll take her chance with her old career as a hairdresser.
Somewhere between them on the spectrum are mid-boomers Payne and Worthington.
Worthington would like to retire in his mid-60s, but "we'll have to wait and see. That's my goal and I think I'm on track for it." He and his wife, Linda, have six kids, ages 13 to 28, and they're what is fun for him. "I enjoy doing things with them, having them around. ...Sometimes I love to just sit and listen to them and not say a word."
He considers himself a baby boomer, while White does not. But he says he is more like the young ones than the old.
Ask Payne his generation's highs and lows and he offers this: "The greatest foolishness would probably have been the sexual revolution or experimentation with drugs or both, the excesses of the early- to mid-'70s. But I think they questioned the status quo, authority, the thought that financial success equals success. That's all good. You should focus on other things besides making money."
DON'T CALL ME OLD
Because boomers are so diverse, the organizations that serve them must be, as well, says Laura Polacheck, director of AARP in Utah. "Someone 50 years old today might have an 8-year-old, while a generation ago, that was more unusual."
Boomers often deal with children who come back after college, as well as cope in some cases with aging parents. Local senior centers are trying to reinvent themselves for a generation that sees itself as younger and hipper than its predecessors. The cafeteria-style atmosphere is being replaced by personable cafes with both stylish seating and trendy ways to stay in shape. Meals are healthier, low in sodium and offered at donation-only prices.
"We need to adapt to people who are used to eating out," said Salt Lake County Aging Services director Sarah Brenna.
The St. George Senior Citizens Center attracts younger seniors with classes ranging from Tai Chi to line dancing.
And speaking of senior citizens, they'd rather not be called that. It makes them feel old.
Advocates are collaborating to prevent dementias and other cognitive diseases, which will affect half of those 85 and older. Because of a healthy lifestyle that helps people live longer, that's a potential problem for Utah, says Carrie Schonlaw, the Five County aging director.
Utah has one of the largest per-capita Alzheimer's rates; the St. George center teams with the Alzheimer's Association to prevent it.
"We offer activities to keep the brain healthy, which is a good prevention," says Shanna Bland, center supervisor.
Delaying severe cognitive decline — one of the happy byproducts of delayed retirement, by the way — is only half the medical preparation for the boom tsunami.
Physicians trained in geriatrics are in short supply, but around age 65, two-thirds of seniors have at least one chronic disease; 20 percent have five or more and see as many as 14 physicians over an average of 40 doctor visits a year, says the American Medical Association board chairman, Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven.
The drastically increased number of older Americans will inevitably mean more people dependent on long-term care. Area aging agencies are creating home-based care options, which are more cost-effective and better for seniors than nursing homes. Money to support informal caregivers like neighbors and relatives will ultimately save thousands, says Brenna.
Besides care for themselves, boomers may need support caring for others, says Supiano.10 comments on this story
A suburb-obsessed America is coming to terms with needs that include walkable neighborhoods, more bus routes and other public transportation, even street signs that are easier to read. Baby boomers have brought more awareness of the need for multi-generational and intergenerational design, Wright says. But it's all a work in progress.
"I say, and it is a wisdom from the past, 'May you live in an interesting age'," says Wright. "And that would be us — both a blessing and a curse. It will become what we make of it — but it will be interesting, if that is what we want."