Do Boomers Have the Guts—and Wisdom— To Course-Correct Our Nation?

 
 
 

MAKING GRAY THE NEW GREEN

Ken Dychtwald

EACH DAY, ANOTHER 10,000 BABY BOOMERS TURN 65. BORN IN 1950, I’M A MEMBER OF THIS COHORT. As we migrate into elderhood, our huge numbers and influence will transform America into a “gerontocracy.” And the growing costs of our anticipated illnesses and entitlements will further strain our economy.

Are we prepared? No.

Just as society’s institutions were grossly unprepared for our baby boom, we have done far too little to prepare for the coming age wave. While our demographic heft is not our fault, its impact will be our legacy. The question now is whether we—not our children—have the guts and wisdom to set the proper course corrections in motion.

Based on 40 years of research, dialogue, analysis and activism, I have come to believe that there are essential—and achievable—course corrections needed if we want to capitalize on our newfound longevity. Here are five challenges and interlocking solutions.

Course Correction 1: Create a new purpose for maturity

In our modern age, maturity has no socially worthwhile purpose. Although medical science has focused on how to prolong life, political, religious and cultural leaders have not yet created a compelling vision for what tens of millions of men and women might do with those additional years. Currently, 40+ million retirees spend an average of 49 hours a week watching television. Without envisioning a new purpose for old age, we could be creating an elder wasteland and setting the stage for age wars in which the needs of young and old are pitted against each other.

Solutions:

1. Since elders are experienced adults—not teenagers with wrinkles—diversify today’s volunteerism to better leverage the talents and skills cultivated over a lifetime.

2. End the proliferation of what Gray Panther founder Maggie Kuhn called retirement enclaves—“senior playpens”—through the encouragement of community-based intergenerational programs, activities and housing.

3. Mobilize a global Elder Corps in which tens of millions of boomers are recruited to share their knowledge, skills and wisdom with youth in need.

Course Correction 2: Foster healthy aging–on all fronts

In the ancient Greek fable, the goddess Eos falls in love with the warrior Tithonus. After requesting that Zeus grant Tithonus immortality, she realizes that she forgot to ask that he also remain eternally healthy.With each passing year, Tithonus grows older and sicker. Ultimately, the once-proud warrior is reduced to a collection of pained, foul, and broken bones—but he continues to live forever. Tithonus’ story is a fitting allegory for what is occurring in our health-care system today. While we have eliminated many childhood diseases, the nightmarish diseases of later life could become the physical, social and economic sinkhole of the 21st century.

Solutions:

1. Commit greater resources (yes, even in times of budget cuts) to the scientific research required to delay or, even better, eliminate the diseases of aging—with particular attention to Alzheimer’s.

2. Establish legally binding standards of geriatric competency and provide the training and continuing education necessary to ensure that health-care professionals are properly skilled and compensated for caring for an aging population.

3. Establish a more humane, moral and respectful approach to late-life palliative care and the dying process.

Course Correction 3: Encourage lifelong learning and re-careering

With the exponential pace of new ideas and technologies, old dogs are going to have to learn new tricks. Rendering oneself obsolete—or being rendered so by the pace of change—isn’t good for anyone. And since two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past 65 are alive today, longevity is truly humanity’s new frontier. Unless we unleash the untapped potential of maturing men and women, we will be wasting our greatest growing natural resources: longevity and wisdom. With the emergence of “homo-longevus,” gray could be the new green.

Solutions:

1. Replace the linear life paradigm with a “cyclic” one that views the longevity bonus as a time for late blooming or new beginnings.

2. Eliminate the rampant ageism that permeates our workforce so that all workers can be judged on their competencies, not their birthdays.

3. Re-orient our educational systems (particularly community colleges) to distribute learning across the life course and help adults reboot their skills.

Course Correction 4: Assume responsibility for a lifetime of fiscal fitness

Approximately one third of all boomers are earning attractive salaries, have invested wisely, and will benefit from their share of the more than 10 trillion dollars in inheritances. Another third will likely extend their work lives five to seven years. Yet around 25 million boomers have accumulated high levels of debt, have virtually no savings or investments, no pensions and no inheritance promise. If live-for-today boomers don’t start saving far more responsibly, they will find themselves struggling with a poverty-stricken old age.

Solutions:

1. Upgrade financial literacy through a bold national education “intervention” that targets people at every stage of life.

2. Encourage increased personal savings rates, possibly through mandated, tax-advantaged savings programs. And stop measuring the health of the economy by consumption levels: It functions as an enabler to a society addicted to living beyond its means.

3. Affluence-test entitlements, including Social Security and Medicare, to match the diverse needs and capacities of tomorrow’s elders.

Course Correction 5: Re-set the obsolete markers of aging

Aging boomers will not only live longer than previous cohorts, they’ll grow “old” much later as well. When Otto Von Bismarck picked 65 to be the marker of old age in the 1880s, in preparation for Germany’s first pension plan, the average life expectancy was only 45. On the day Social Security began, the average American could expect to live 63 years. Life expectancy is 78 today—and steadily rising. If it continues to elevate without ongoing adjustments in the age of eligibility for “old age” entitlements, every intergenerational financing program, including Social Security and Medicare, could ultimately crush the money—and future—out of the younger generations forced to support them.

Solutions:

1. Remove all economic, legal, hiring or retaining disincentives for older adults who wish to—or need to—keep working. And provide more flex-work, job-sharing, phased retirement, mentoring and sabbaticals, so that everyone can have more balance over this longevity-caused extended work life.

2. Unhinge old age entitlements from the obsolete marker of 65 and “index” them to rising longevity. For example, when life expectancy was 72 (in 1975), it might have made sense for the retirement age to be 65 (90% of life expectancy). Using the same formula, now that life expectancy is 78, “old age” entitlements should begin at 70.

3. Stop powerful special interest groups from blockading thoughtful debate about this much needed course-correction. Dialogue is needed: New and fair solutions are required.

Are we up to the task? As a generation, we have had the wind at our backs for a lifetime. Even with all of our ongoing complaining, we know that we have been blessed. But now we need to rekindle our youthful idealism and marry it with our extensive talents to make sure that the aging of our generation won’t inadvertently destroy the future for our children and their children. Do we have the guts and wisdom to step over the current political preening and set the proper course corrections in motion? I believe we do. And I surely hope that we will take the actions necessary to save the future—before it’s too late.

Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Age Wave, a firm created to guide Fortune 500 companies and government groups in product & service development for boomers and mature adults. His client list has included more than half of the Fortune 500. He is a psychologist, gerontologist, documentary filmmaker, entrepreneur and best-selling author of sixteen books on aging-related issues, including Bodymind, Age Wave, The Power Years and Workforce Crisis. Ken has served as a fellow of the World Economic Forum and he is the recipient of the American Society on Aging Award for outstanding national leadership in the field of aging. His article in The Harvard Business Review, “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” was awarded the prestigious McKinsey Award. In 2007, he had his debut as a documentary filmmaker with the highly acclaimed PBS special “The Boomer Century.” His second PBS special “With Purpose” aired nationwide in 2009.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. For more information, please visit: www.agewave.com.

For more information on this and related topics, visit the link on our Resources page.

Forty Forward!

Your comments on this article?