Optimism about the baby boomers

Fresh from liberating the world from the Axis powers, America’s Greatest Generation came home from World War II and brought forth a baby boom. Seventy-six million children emerged from this remarkable postwar celebration, almost four children per family. American society has not been the same since.

The baby boom increased the U.S. population 44 percent in just eighteen years! American society had to re-create itself to accommodate the new arrivals. Each social institution the baby boomers touched, from elementary schools to university to the family and the work world, they fundamentally reshaped, not only by the press of their sheer numbers but also by their unique, high-maintenance approach to the world. At each turn in their lives, baby boomers have torn up the script and started afresh.

Today, the advance guard of this generation’s legions is within four years of reaching a bristling societal Maginot Line: age 65. According to many pundits and forecasters, the aging baby boom threatens the U.S. economic future.

Consider the comments of Kotlikoff and Burns in The Coming Generational Storm:

You see a government in desperate trouble. It’s raising taxes sky high, drastically cutting retirement and health benefits, slashing defense, education, and other critical spending, and borrowing far beyond its capacity to repay. It’s also printing tons of money to "meet" its bills. You see major tax evasion, high and rising rates of inflation, a growing underground economy, a rapidly depreciating currency, and more people exiting than entering the country. You see political instability, unemployment, labor strikes, high and rising crime rates, record-high interest rates. You see financial markets in ruin. You see America plunging headlong toward third world status.

Consider Charles Mann’s assessment in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, The Coming Death Shortage:

Longevity induced slowdown could make young nations more attractive as investment targets, especially for the cash strapped pension-and-insurance plans in aging countries. The youthful and ambitious may well follow the money to where the action is. If Mexicans and Guatemalans have fewer rich old people blocking their paths, the river of migration may begin to flow in the other direction. In a reverse brain drain, the Chinese Coast Guard might discover half-starved American postgraduates stuffed into the holds of smugglers’ ships. Highways out of Tijuana or Nogales might bear road signs telling drivers to watch out for norteamericano families running across the blacktop, the children’s Hello Kitty backpacks silhouetted against a yellow warning background.

According to the doomsayers, the baby boom generation promises to be a gigantic albatross around society’s neck. They expect the next several decades to be a time of social involution in the United States, as boomers cease working, retire to Florida, and cash in their entitlements to social support, shamelessly voting to raise taxes on their children and grandchildren to support their leisure, thereby robbing the country of its future.

As they so often are, the pundits are going to be wrong — about the timing, the impact, and the required remedies. We call these particular pundits "catastropharians" — economists, politicians, and journalists who carry on a proud, masochistic tradition of viewing the American future as one of unavoidable conflict and decay. The catastropharians proffer a doomsday social policy scenario about the coming senior boom and a "take your castor oil" agenda of "painful but necessary" changes in our social programs to avert fiscal Armageddon.

While no one knows for certain what will happen in the next twenty years, the multiple, bleak assumptions underlying this grim scenario have not been carefully examined. Catastropharians simply assume that baby boomers will follow their parents’ and grandparents’ life paths, as well as mimic their political values. They assume that longer lifespans will translate into lengthier periods of unproductive and parasitic activity on the part of older Americans. Then they superimpose this behavior on the structure of our current entitlement programs, which they assume will not adapt meaningfully to the pressures, and tote up the damage. The future will thus unfold, with past as prologue, and demography as destiny.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

The catastropharian thesis is riddled with flaws. The vision of the baby boomers as a gigantic societal albatross is a myth in the making. Not only are the catastropharians wrong about the next twenty years. Their social prescriptions are also the wrong medicine for American society. They offer a static, zero-sum vision for what is, in fact, a dynamic, growing and creative economy and society. The crisis they envision is eminently avoidable, not by the politically untenable solutions they offer, but rather by listening to the generation itself and helping its members do what they say they intend to do.

American society does face a crisis, but not the one envisioned by catastropharians: a crisis of meaning for a new generation of older Americans for whom retirement makes neither economic nor human sense. The "golden years" vision of retirement as an extended, dry-land version of a luxury cruise is a failed social experiment (and one of relatively recent vintage). Many boomers who observed their parents’ and grandparents’ lengthy drift at the end of life have made a fundamentally different life plan.

Most baby boomers will probably not retire in the conventional sense. According to multiple AARP surveys, most baby boomers do not plan to cease working at 65, as their parents did. Some 80 percent of baby boomers plan to work past age 65, with a plurality of boomers doing so because they enjoy working rather than because they need the money. (Now you understand the reason why "retired" no longer appears in AARP’s name.)

For some boomers, continuing to work will be a sad necessity, because millions currently lack the private pension coverage or savings to support themselves if they are not working. For millions more boomers, however, retirement simply will not be a satisfying life path. Indeed, 84 percent of workers older than age 45 plan on continuing to work "even if they are set for life." Boomers will remain taxpayers and part of the active economy far longer than most economists assume. It is likely that millions of boomers will be income-producing assets, not liabilities, on society’s balance sheet well into their 70s and beyond.

Moreover, we cannot replace the boomers if they do wish to retire. The United States faces a looming and potentially crippling shortage of skilled workers that affects our vital infrastructure — schools, the health care system, government at all levels, and even manufacturing. The baby bust, which bottomed in 1975, has created a huge hole in the mid-career skilled U.S. workforce. Forecasts suggest a looming and costly shortage of skilled workers in the next decade, a shortage that deepens further in the decade that follows. Knowledge-based enterprises will have a particularly difficult time replacing their older workers.

While boomers will not be able to fill all these gaps, personnel policies that push older workers out of the skilled positions in our economy will be forcefully reexamined in the next few years. In some segments of our work force, the cost of replacing experienced older workers could exceed the increased expenses related to retaining them. Rather than encouraging boomers to retire, we need to revise our tax and pension policies, as well as the Social Security and Medicare programs, to encourage boomers to remain engaged, productive (and taxpaying) citizens.

Healthier Aging: An Emerging Reality

The link between aging and illness also requires reexamination. Age 65 will define neither the end of work nor the beginning of serious illness. Indeed, thanks to steady improvements in the health status of so-called elderly people, age 65 will come to be viewed in the near future as a late middle-age biologically, rather than old. Because age 65 is a gateway to the Medicare program, however, pundits have carelessly assumed some correlation between eligibility for public benefits and the onset of illness.

The health status of people older than 65 has improved steadily over the past two decades, not merely in the United States but in most Western countries. Kenneth Manton, at Duke University, estimated the pace of reduction in morbidity at 1.5 percent per year for the past twenty years (a trend that has accelerated over the period). These health improvements among older Americans mean that far fewer will be institutionalized and that many will be able to work longer and enjoy a more balanced and active independent life than their parents or grandparents did.

Longer working lives and more active lifestyles will, in turn, translate into improved health, both physical and mental, for millions of older Americans. Even as they reach the age of 60, boomers typically think of themselves as seven years younger than their chronological age. Hardly a single member of this generation identifies himself or herself as "elderly." That label is reserved for those who have reached age 78. Of course, this does not mean that the generation will live or work forever, but those experts predicting some cataclysmic social event when baby boomers turn 65 are destined to be disappointed.

Starting Over

To assess the likely trajectory of the baby boom generation over the next twenty years and what it means for reshaping social policy toward older Americans, this book explores the baby boomers’ current state: their lives, health, and wealth and how they differ from the generations of older Americans that preceded them. It considers the baby boomers’ present plans, their diverse values and life circumstances, as well as their political outlook and attachment to the political process.

It also assesses the future contributions of older workers, considers what is being done to encourage longer and more diverse work roles, and explores the health status of baby boomers and the threats that chronic illness poses to their independence and earning capacity. To provide additional context, the book frames the legacy social programs put in place four generations ago to respond to the crisis of the Great Depression and discusses how those programs have come to dominate our present federal government.

Next, the book outlines a rational social policy response to the evolving needs of baby boomers. This discussion necessarily encompasses strategies for the needed redesign of public programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as well as tax and employment policies for older Americans, to take account of baby boomers’ distinctive circumstances and needs. Finally, it returns to the issue of the diverse circumstances of baby boomers, and what can be done to assure a just and humane response to those who are likely to struggle with the next twenty years.

A Jujitsu Approach to Social Policy

In some forms of martial arts, such as aikido or jujitsu, the secret of defeating a larger opponent is to capitalize on his momentum to move him in a direction you want him to go. Much discussion of "entitlement reform" deals generically with older Americans without focusing on the specific values and needs of this generation. There is already momentum in the revealed preferences of the baby boom generation toward activity and independence, healthier aging, the creation of new enterprises, a more "virtual" work life, and a better balance between work and leisure. Figuring out how to encourage and capitalize on this momentum is the secret of a win-win social policy toward the coming senior boom.

Optimism about our society’s future is currently out of fashion in U.S. cultural and intellectual circles. World-weary pessimism and cynicism about our collective incapacity to "face reality" and "make the tough choices" is the dominant tone of social commentators, policy analysts, and their patrons in the political world. Gregg Easterbrook discusses the anomalous contrast between this pessimism and our nation’s extraordinary economic and social record in his book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.3

Not surprisingly, pessimism and cynicism have not produced many solutions, merely a lot of patronizing caricatures and unworkable ideas, as well as a sense that Americans are chronically overmatched by the big social challenges. Because the generation is so vast, fully one quarter of American society, it has functioned as a gigantic Rorschach blot onto which a generation of elders- politicians, editorial writers, novelists –  have projected their neuroses and anxieties.  Because they fundamentally misunderstand the plans and values of baby boomers and project onto them not only their anxieties, but  the political agendas of their parents and grandparents, the prophets of doom have lost connection with the very people who must support vitally needed societal changes.

There is an urgent need to change the conversation about the baby boom and its future. The expensive script written for baby boomers’ next twenty years, like all the other generational life scripts written for them, is destined for the trash heap. Baby boomers, even the less-fortunate ones, are fundamentally optimistic about their own futures. Most boomers haven’t spent fifteen minutes thinking about how Social Security or Medicare will actually affect them, for the obvious reason that they do not consider themselves "old." How they approach these topics will likely be shaped by their personal experiences over the next twenty years, not by some ironclad historical logic or the opinions or values of their elders.

This is an optimistic book about a generation of optimists, an unintentional but strategic irony. If we were start from scratch, given what we know about the needs and values of this difficult generation, we would not build the structure of public programs and work roles that we have inherited from our terrifying brush with societal collapse during the Great Depression. We would also not be catastropharians.

This book asks the question, If you were designing a social policy that fit baby boomers’ attitudes, values, and dreams, what would it look like? What the United States and its citizens urgently need is a pro-work, health-promoting social policy that aims to keep baby boomers (and those who come after them) healthy, engaged, and contributing. This book offers a vision of what that policy might look like.

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