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Baby Boomers: A New Way to Grow Old

Experts explain why baby boomers aren't likely to rest on their laurels when they retire.

Volunteer Opportunities

Eisner says people can find volunteer opportunities in their area by going to www.getinvolved.gov.

"It lists thousands of organizations with hundreds of thousands of opportunities," Eisner says. "It's a clearinghouse of clearinghouses for volunteering."

Also, the Harvard Mentoring Project, sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health, recently launched an ad campaign that directs people to www.mentoring.org, which features mentoring opportunities.

The changes in personality that take place as a person matures may actually promote the impulse to volunteer.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who divided life into various developmental stages, said later middle age brings an increase in "generativity" - the desire to pass on knowledge and experience to the younger generation.

Older Boomers and Spirituality

In addition, baby boomers have displayed a strong tendency toward a more active, personalized "lived religion," according to Wade Clark Roof of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Clark has examined boomer religious tendencies in two books, A Generation of Seekers and Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion.

Boomers have used religion as a sort of "quest culture" for seeking transformation, both personal and social, Roof has found, and this could accentuate their desire in the years ahead to seek meaningful change through volunteerism and other activities.

Laura L. Carstensen, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford, has found that as people get older they develop a "positivity bias" that causes them to screen out negative thoughts and focus on what's really important to them.

"And for most people, what's important is what's emotionally meaningful," Carstensen tells WebMD. "There's a paradox about aging: As we get closer to the end of our lives, we recognize how precious life is."

Aging Boomers and Mental Health

In general the mental health of older adults is much better than in middle aged and younger adults, Carstensen says.

"They have lower rates of depression and anxiety," she says. "They also show these positive attentional shifts."

Surveys have found that baby boomers scorn the terms "senior" and "retirement" because they sound like they apply to old people. Yet members of this generation will get older and they will retire.

"But they're going to do it on their own terms," says Matt Thornhill, president and founder of the Boomer Project, which collects marketing data on boomers. "They want to remain vital. They want to remain physically vital, so they'll exercise and take care of themselves. They want to remain vital financially, so they'll continue to accumulate money. They want to remain mentally vital and spiritually vital. And they want to remain socially vital, so they're not going to sell their house, buy a condo, and move to Florida. They want to stay involved with family and friends.

"The boomers will not put themselves out to pasture. They are going to do everything they can to remain vital. Viva the vital!"

Published Jan. 9, 2006.

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