Baby boomers won't grow old the old-fashioned way, experts say.
It looks like the baby boomers, who used to urge each other to "do your own thing," will do precisely that when it comes to retirement.
Some will imitate their parents and drop out of the work force as early as possible to begin a life of leisure, continuing a trend that began more than a century ago.
More than 80% of boomers, however, plan to work beyond the age of 65, according to the Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey. Most will do so to supplement their Social Security checks, since at least one-quarter of boomer households have failed to save enough for retirement, according to the Congressional Budget Office. "They appear likely to depend entirely on government benefits in retirement," the CBO report states.
Lending a Helping Hand
Some boomers will retire and then devote themselves to volunteer work, preferably in positions they find meaningful and relevant, such as teaching children to read.
If the boomers remain healthy and engaged in productive work, they could have a profound impact on American society, which is why several agencies are trying to draw boomers into volunteering.
At the recent White House Conference on Aging, the National Council on Aging submitted resolutions to promote volunteer activities among older people. One resolution called for the creation of a federal commission to "develop a blueprint for tapping older adults as a source of social capital."
Baby Boomer Skills
What makes that reservoir of social capital deep as well as broad is the skill level of baby boomers, according to Peter Francese, founder of American Demographic magazine and demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy and Mather.
"What group of men is the best educated in America? Men between the ages of 50 and 59," Francese tells WebMD.
Marc Freedman, the founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, has long been encouraging aging baby boomers to provide service to American society through volunteering and involvement in late-life careers.
In his book, Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, Freedman lays out a vision of this huge, aging generation engaging in social activism, volunteer activities, and lifelong learning.
"The boomers will not accept the old notions of later life and retirement," he writes. "They will refuse to remove themselves, go away, or put up with being taken 'out of use or circulation.'"
Freedman also helped found Experience Corps, which recruits older people to tutor and serve as mentors to inner-city school children. Experience Corps operates in 14 cities and has more than 1,800 volunteers who spend at least 15 hours a week helping children.
This obviously is a great benefit to the children, an example of what Freedman calls the "potential windfall" to American society that baby boomers can provide.
Volunteerism and Health
But the volunteer experience also has improved the physical and mental health of the Experience Corps volunteers, according to Linda Fried, MD, director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins University.
Fried studied 128 Experience Corps volunteers, ages 60-86, who helped students at six Baltimore public schools improve their reading skills. The volunteers were compared to a group of similar people who were not doing the Experience Corps volunteer work.
Fried found that 44% of the volunteers, predominately black women, reported feeling stronger, compared with 18% of the comparison group. Among volunteers, there was a 13% increase in those who reported their strength as very good to excellent, compared to a 30% decline among the comparison group.
The use of a cane decreased by 50% among volunteers, compared with 20% among those in the comparison group.
Television viewing declined by 4% among the volunteers, but increased by 18% among those in the comparison group.
"A lot of older adults spend four to five hours a day watching TV," Fried tells WebMD. "Some activities stimulate brain activity; television watching doesn't and may have negative effects. People in the [comparison] group were increasing their TV watching."
The benefits of volunteering extended into the social realm as well. Volunteers reported an increase in the number of people they could turn to for help, while those in the comparison group reported a decline.
And 98% of volunteers said they were satisfied with their volunteering experience; 80% of them returned the following year. Children also benefited with higher test scores and better behavior in school.
By 2030, when the last of the boomers reach 65, the number of people in this country over 65 will be about 70 million -- double what it is today. More than 30% of the population will be over 50.
Never before in human history have so many healthy people reached such a late stage of life, and some worry that the costs of Medicare and Social Security will become an economic burden.
In contrast, David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, believes a significant portion of those costs will be offset by the contributions the older generation will make.
"Boomers came of age when Kennedy famously asked what they could do for their country, and that sense of idealism remains in place today," says Eisner, who promotes and develops volunteer opportunities for older Americans. "Our research shows many boomers are motivated to make a meaningful difference. We can't afford to lose the ingenuity and the creativity and the skills of this generation."
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.
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.