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Growing Old, Baby-Boomer Style

Experts examine the impact on U.S. society as aging baby boomers move closer to retirement.
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Will Boomers Stay Healthy? continued...

Other signs suggest, however, that boomers will enjoy not just increased longevity but better health as well. In 2006, American men could expect to live 3.6 years longer, and women 1.9 years longer, than they did in 1990. Mortality from heart disease, stroke, and cancer has continued to decline. According to the 2008 report, in 2005, the age-adjusted death rate for heart disease, the leading cause of death, was 64% lower than the rate in 1950. The age-adjusted death rate for stroke, the third leading cause of death, declined 74% since 1950.

That suggests that many boomers may be aging more slowly than previous generations because of healthy habits, such as less smoking and more exercise. Maybe 60 really is the new 50.

"The influence of aging on society depends on which view you accept," Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells WebMD. "Longer life spans would be a burden if additional years were spent in a frail, dependent condition, but I don't hold that pessimistic view. I think there's a lot of evidence that people are healthier mentally and physically than they used to be."

Will Boomers Keep Working?

If boomers remain vigorous and healthy as they age, they could make tremendous contributions to American society.

For one thing, they could remain in the workforce. With American women having an average of just over two children -- just enough to maintain the population -- the workforce will no longer grow as fast as in previous years. A smaller workforce means that economic growth will slow from the typical 2% a year that has prevailed since World War II.

A 2% annual growth rate is very vigorous, however, so a slight slowdown would still produce a rising standard of living for Americans.

"It would just increase more slowly than the past," says Burtless. "I wrote a book a few years ago called Can America Afford to Grow Old? And the answer is yes. We haven't reached the end of improved living standards just because the population is getting older."

If large numbers of boomers remain in the workforce, they will give a significant boost to economic growth.

"If even 5 million baby boomers work instead of retiring, at an average wage of about $50,000 a year, that would add $250 billion to the economy every year," says Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine and a demographic trends analyst for the Ogilvy and Mather advertising agency.

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