The following article appeared in The Age news publication in 2011 as the first of the baby boomers hit 65. This was a disturbing time for many as they reached the age where they always expected that they would cease working, and indulge in never-ending recreational pursuits. However, many are continuing to work for necessity or identity, and we are slowly realising that we are likely to live much longer than our parents and grandparents. What this longer life will look like is uncertain, but it is most likely that it will not be like the ageing experiences of the past. The boomer generation is going to change the landscape yet again.
They are the generation that changed the social landscape, reshaping – and at times revolutionising – how we live, work and play. Now the boomers have reached a new milestone.
”I hope I die before I get old.”
Pete Townshend, My Generation,
The Who. Age 20, 1965
THE first babies of the boomer wave – the generation who shouted loud the anthem composed for them by Townshend, cranking up the volume, thrashing their air guitars and alienating their bemused parents – turn 65 this year.
Some 200,000 of them, the 1946 crop, will hit the milestone in Australia in 2011, with another 5.4 million coming up behind to swell the senior demographic to unprecedented dimensions. Each week more than 1000 Victorians are turning 65. Whether you are inside or outside the boomer legion, brace yourselves – it may be a bumpy ride.
Most boomers will presumably be grateful not to have been granted their youthful wish for an early dispatch. If they could reprise the lyrics to reflect what surveys tell us about their mindset today, My Generation (@2011) would more likely chorus something like ”Hope I Die Before I Get Alzheimer’s”, or ”Before I Run Out of Money”, or ”Before They Put Me in a Home”. Or, characteristically, they might just stick out their chins and subvert the whole paradigm: ”Define ‘old’.”
Nonetheless, for a cohort distinguished by trenchant refusal to grow into their parents, to find themselves qualifying to collect the old age pension (the women got there last year) is a confronting moment.
What with the creaky hips, collapsed jawlines and shrinking newsprint, you’d excuse a bit of crankiness. As one author wrote in, abruptly deflecting an invitation from The Age to reflect on his imminent 65th, ”I can think of few things I would rather do less – for example, sliding down a giant razor blade.”
However reluctantly, the boomers are positioning to redefine old age, just as they have recast every other category of the demographic continuum on the push through. From the generation that invented teenage-hood, embraced the sexual revolution, fought the gender war, manufactured consumer culture, wrestled the work-life balance, fractured traditional family and rode the wave of prosperity until it crashed around their ears in the global financial crisis – now comes The New Old Age.
By the time they hit 65, most boomers have acclimatised to the shock of senior status, says social commentator Hugh Mackay. They have negotiated fraught middle age, coming to terms with the externals of gravity.
Nonetheless, many will struggle with questions of identity when they pull in the shingle of their occupation. Then there are issues of relevance, spirituality, legacy and death, together with the less existential questions of financial security and bodily decay. The last of these looms particularly large for those boomers caring for elderly parents.
At some deepest level, Mackay reckons many never imagined they would set foot on the grey landscape. Hence quite a few arrive without the stash of savings they might have wished they had, and perhaps with more baggage than they bargained. After all, ”We’re here for a good time/Not a long time”.
”That was their generational ethos,” Mackay says. ”That is why they were the inventors of instant gratification. They were absolutely impatient, voracious consumers of everything – education, travel, sex. They married young, had kids young, they went into it all with their ears pinned back.” He anticipates nothing less as they move through what was once retirement and into their senior years.
For example, in regard to work, ”what they are talking about is not retirement, but in classic boomer style, they are ‘refocusing’,” says Mackay. ”That might mean chopping back a bit at paid work, playing a bit more golf, doing a bit of volunteering, but not absolutely stopping work. That would be a sign that you are old.” Their vision is to enter a new ”airy, sunlit upland” drifting between work and play.
In this landscape they can embrace maturity, and will demand for themselves the venerable status of elder. Many of them are signalling that they will turn their energies to philanthropy and volunteerism – perhaps to make amends, perhaps to redefine themselves, perhaps even acting from altruism.
Most will cling fast to the demeanour and accoutrements of their younger selves for as long as they can. As Professor Simon Biggs – formerly head of gerontology at King’s College London, now continuing his exploration of mature identity at the University of Melbourne – has observed, many will continue to use consumerism to buy the props that declare who they are – the clothes or holidays or houses, books or music or indulgences.
But whereas in middle age this may have been invested in what Biggs called the ”masquerade of youth”, at 65, most of the 1946 babies interviewed by The Age seem more inclined to spend money and time on things that reflect their inner core, hopefully straddling youthful attitude and maturity.
To understand where the boomers will take old age requires an understanding of where they came from. Their life courses – while individually diverse – have been propelled by strong political, economic and social winds prevailing through their formative years. As children of the Cold War, they were shaped by contradictory influences, explains Mackay.
”One was the looming prospect of nuclear war, the thought that at any minute, either deliberately or accidentally, we would all be history. That co-existed with the surprise of postwar economic boom … full employment, massive explosions in manufacturing, housing, business in general.”
The baby boomers climbed aboard the economic escalator, enjoying whatever wealth and opportunity they found on the way up. As it turned out they weren’t claimed by nuclear fallout, but neither did they enjoy an entirely rosy ride – particularly those at the leading edge of the boomer wave.
”They hit this very turbulent period. The big credit squeeze of the ’70s, the massive recession of the ’80s, even more severe than the one in the ’90s. So their generation experienced the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression,” observes Mackay. ”They set new divorce records. ‘All you need is love’ didn’t quite turn out. They had a lot of pain.”
They were in the thick of the gender revolution – wonderful for many women, confronting for some, and deeply challenging for their menfolk. And in the midst of all the economic upheaval came the info-tech revolution, late enough to be a real challenge ”They have been here for a long time, and it hasn’t always been such a good time,” says Mackay. ”However, they have always seen themselves as iconoclasts and social pioneers. At every stage they have seen themselves as being younger than their parents at the same age. And brighter, fitter, better fed, better dressed, better educated, with better taste.”
They will determinedly do old age better too. But it is a fraught landscape. At 65, big questions loom. How will I spend the next 20 or 30 years? Will I work? Can I afford to play? Will I lose my marbles? Where will I live? How do I engage with the world? And the question ringing loudly in the internal world of a generation for whom self-absorption and self-actualisation was not self-indulgence – who will I be when I am old?
‘THERE is a certain point in one’s life where you start to count forward to where you are probably going to die, rather than counting back to where you started your life or your career,” says gerontologist Professor Hal Kendig, head of the ageing, work, and health research unit at the University of Sydney.
That moment is now upon many boomers. In this they are not so special – their forebears met it with no more relish. But boomers have an ace up their sleeve – time. ”Old age used to be this very short period between when you stop working and when you get frail and die, especially for men,” says Kendig. Today, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures conservatively anticipate a 65-year-old man surviving into his mid-80s, and women nudging 90.
Earlier generations arguably accepted too easily negative and lower expectations for older people, Kendig says. But whereas they slipped into their cardigans and comfy chairs for a relatively brief stay in God’s waiting room, the boomers are busting through into the so-called Third Age.
Like Mackay, Kendig also looks to the boomers’ past to get a fix on their future. He tracks the nexus of their key life stages against critical moments of history – such as growing up in rising affluence and the new suburbia, and entering adulthood in a period of tumultuous social change. The identity they forged in the 1960s will now inform who they are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. But for a couple of reasons, just how that will turn out is not entirely clear.
The first caveat, says Kendig, is that the boomers are not necessarily as wayward as we think. The second is that once again the boomers are moving into a new life stage at precisely the same moment history churns violently, their retirement plans ripped apart by the GFC.
”The sharpness of that economic shock had a very frightening effect on people on the verge or retiring, and was even worse on those who had just retired,” says Kendig.
Despite all the hyperbole about boomers as carefree change agents who partied like there was no tomorrow, Kendig points out that every baby boomer was raised by a parent who came to adulthood during the Great Depression. ”They grew up with core values from parents who had to fix their socks and worry about the next meal. So we baby boomers have our stoical parents somewhere deep within ourselves.”
The GFC brought those values to the surface.
When Kendig and his colleagues surveyed 1000 boomers on the impact of the GFC last year, they found almost 40 per cent of those working were financially hit hard. As a consequence, more than 41 per cent of women, and almost 32 per cent of men, decided to postpone their retirement plans.
Between those electing to stay in paid work because of financial necessity, and those who want to work to preserve their identity and engagement in the world, the boomers are set to maintain a visible profile in the workforce. The sixtysomethings and even seventysomethings will be hanging around the office a while yet.
This is a good thing, Kendig argues – both for older individuals, and for society. The boomers are greying just as a trough in births plays out in an increasingly depleted workforce. ”That is a major change, one that has precipitated lots of reactions which get focused on baby boomers. One of them is ‘we can’t afford these guys’.”
Much of the focus of public policy discussion on the cost to government of demographic change ”in a sense blames the older population … but it’s structural, not personal”. Kendig wants to see more policy encouraging older productivity, in part as an antidote to anticipated shortages of workers.
”Employers are recognising, at a time of low levels of unemployment, that baby boomers are worth keeping. That’s a huge change – a new era in history. Australia is recognising the big bugbear for the future is not youth unemployment, it is having enough workers for everyone, including the government – so our attitudes are starting to change.”
Continuing to work will help boomers who have failed to put aside enough money for retirement to maintain their lifestyles. ”It is true that many boomers have expectations far beyond the old age pension,” says Kendig. But he dismisses perceptions that they will syphon up public resources they are not entitled to at the expense of younger generations. ”Older people care about their kids and the future and all the rest. It’s not going to happen.”
Kendig emphasises that work is not just about money, but about continuing to contribute to families, to communities, and to maintain a sense of self. He uses the allegory of a farmer who, with advancing age, downsizes to a garden, and then tends a few plants on a shelf.
”One of the fundamental questions is how one maintains, often with fierce effort, one’s ongoing core identity, regardless of how the body changes, and changes in the the way people look at you and treat you. Work for the continuing self is probably the major challenge of growing older.”
On this he is in fierce agreement with Associate Professor Peter Hunter, a geriatrician and clinical leader at Alfred Health. ”The biggest issue for doctors in terms of the ageing process is not clinical, but managing the psychosocial aspects – how people see themselves in the community.”
Hunter is not expecting to see the 1946 babies coming into his care for another 20 years – he’s still largely preoccupied with looking after their parents. In that context, he has seen enough of boomers to be worried about what is to come.
”We’ve just seen the tail end of the ‘nation builders’ generation, a very stoic group, grateful for anything they get out of the health system, out of education, out of government.”
Their children have made it clear they expect rather a lot more. The boomers are well known to their health carers as educated, demanding, and very articulate about what they do and don’t want. They are very vocal in speaking up for what they expect for their parents, which can sometimes lead to difficult conversations about treatment. ”In some situations, where treatment is futile, we have to say no to people.
But some families want everything.” He is not relishing the prospect of telling the boomers, 20 years hence, that some of the services they expect will not be available to them. But he warns that unless there is a policy decision to significantly increase health spending as a nation, that will be the reality.
Considering their physical profile as they grow older, the New Old will not be cheap or easy to care for. ”Thirty years ago, the thing that killed people in their 70s and 80s was cardiovascular disease,” says Hunter. Now they will survive to acquire a different profile of ailments.
”In the next 20 years some of the real health problems will be neurodegenerative diseases, the most important one being dementia. The risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after the age of 65,” says Hunter. A report by Access Economics for Alzheimer’s Australia estimates there will be 1.1 million Australians with dementia in 2050, compared with 245,000 today. Almost 25 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men aged 85 to 89 have dementia, rising to almost 50 per cent (women) and 37 per cent (men) at 95 years.
The other looming issue in healthcare is that many of today’s elderly are able to stay in their homes courtesy of informal support from extended family and volunteers. But with the fracturing of families and of the expectation that the young will care for their old, and the depletion of the ranks of people delivering services such as Meals on Wheels, the burden on state structures will increase at the same time as boomers are fighting to stay in their homes.
”A lot of baby boomers suffer under a sort of national delusion that the same benefits currently provided to their parents will be available to them in 20 years’ time,” says Dr Diana Olsberg of the University of New South Wales. ”I’m uncertain that this will be the case.
”Boomers are very proud of their independence. They certainly don’t want to be separated out into retirement communities as sort of older-people’s ghettos. They want to remain within the community.”
The area of her academic investigation is ”ageing in place – which is not necessarily that older people want to stay in the big family home, but nor do they want to be portioned off to some little bedsitting room”. Her surveys show older people hosting lots of visitors in their homes. They want room for hobbies and work. ”But there is quite a lot of acceptance of mobility and downsizing.”
Olsberg urges a shift in policy to encourage older people to downsize without the proceeds penalising their pensions, and to be able to adapt their living quarters to make them safer as they grow frail. ”If you look at the data, after they have a fall they just never recover, with huge costs to the state. If we can keep people living actively within their homes, this undoes a lot of the dire warnings on the health costs of an ageing population, which are predicated on long periods of hospital and residential care.”
Despite the reams of newsprint and scholarly studies devoted to exploring boomer character, their sheer number and diversity mean as a pack they defy generalities. But one of the dominant themes in the literature today is that many ageing boomers are afflicted by a sense of moral discontent, still searching for elusive happiness.
A survey released last month by the US Pew Research Centre underlined this thesis, painting the boomers as pretty glum. They trailed all other age cohorts in overall life satisfaction. Some 80 per cent of American boomers were unhappy with how things were going in the country, 21 per cent felt worse off than their parents at the same age, and 34 per cent figured their children would fare worse than them. (And by the way, they told the surveyors, old age begins at 72, NOT 65.)
One of the problems in gauging the mood of Australian boomers is that there is relatively little deep survey work locally, and the US and the British findings don’t necessarily fit here, says Associate Professor Elizabeth Ozanne of the University of Melbourne.
Nonetheless, the Pew findings resonate with a 2006 paper for the Australia Institute which argued that ”contrary to their image as successful and self-satisfied, many baby boomers nurse a sense of disappointment, a barely articulated sense that it was not meant to turn out this way”. The paper argued that the perception of the boomers as the ”lucky generation” was distorted by preoccupation with wealthy boomers, and obscured the starker realities of their lower-income peers.
How Australian boomers might respond to angst over life, the universe and everything is still anyone’s guess, says Ozanne. ”Will they become more narcissistic and consumerist, versus having real social commitments? It could go either way.”
Last year, she published a paper exploring the potential of boomers to negotiate ”a new social contract and cultural maturing in an ageing Australia”, a discussion which dug under the assumptions of who boomers are, to identify the realities of the subgroups most at risk as they age – the divorced, the lonely, the poor (who are disproportionately women), and ethnic and indigenous populations.
In the same way that some ageing experts want stronger policy on health spending and workplace reform, Ozanne would like to see a broader public conversation about ageing, one which encourages older people to rethink their social contribution. She wants to see campaigns eroding the ageism that still prevails in society. She is hoping this might in part be achieved as new pathfinders emerge – inspirational people who change the rules on ageing behaviour and become role models for engaged elder-hood.
As society adjusts to the realities of a new, mature demographic and all that entails, Simon Biggs points out that at an individual level, boomers have much to look forward to in their Third Age.
For all their youthful objections to conformity, most boomers toed the social line, escaping their families of origin only to find themselves locked into predefined roles. They married, became parents, got a job and a mortgage.
”As [psychoanalyst] Carl Jung observed,” says Simon Biggs, ” the cost of conformity in contemporary society is considerable when you look at the potential of most human beings.” Around midlife, people begin to feel constrained by their roles, but it is in later life that they might find the freedom to develop neglected parts of themselves.
There is, he says, capacity for a second-half epiphany. Again, he looks to Jung to explain the rich spiritual dimensions of later life.
”You are becoming more aware of yourself as a person, more individuated, and simultaneously aware that you are just one of the grains of sand on the beach.
”So you get a huge dose of being in perspective, as well as this notion of being more oneself.”
In terms of spirit and soul, ageing well is an act that can defy gravity.
Jo Chandler is an Age senior writer.
How do you imagine your next 30 years? Hugh Mackay, who provided many of the insights in the article, has just released a book that addresses the critical issue that may be confronting many of us. His book, “The Good Life” investigates “what makes a life worth living?”. With changing circumstances as a result of moving out of traditional employment and limitations arising from financial and physical changes, defining and achieving successful ageing is liking to become a significant focus of the baby boomers over the next decade.
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