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The Future of Ageisim and Baby Boomers

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					                                    new Baby Topic
                                                                          Ageism in the New Millennium




             The Future of Ageism:
          Baby Boomers at the Doorstep
                                   By Charles F. Lon£iino,Jr.




A     s I write, we are in
      tbe calm before tbe
storm. Tbe oldest baby            Will their numbers or char-
                                                                             save and expand Social
                                                                             Security, Medicare, and
                                                                             Medicaid. It certainly
boomer will retire in 2008,                                                  would be in tbeir interest
at age 62 witb Social Secu-        acteristics alter the picture?            to do so. Yet, bere ap-
rity early retirement, only                                                  proacbing tbe dawn of
tbree years away. Tbose                                                      tbeir retirement tbere is an
reacbing retirement now, bowever, were bom          almost depressive sense of ennui. Wby?
late in tbe Depression era or early during World
War n , wben tbe fertility rate was at a bistorical THA T WAS T H E N . . .
low. Consequently, tbe populadon flow into             Times bave cbanged since tbe 1970s. Tbe civil
retirement currently is also unusually low.         rigbts movement yielded up tbe symbolic vic-
                                                    todes, tbe end to officially sancdoned racial dis-
A COMING STORM?                                     crimination. Tbe bard work of enbancing
   Tbat tbere will be a storm of some kind wben     buman capital tbrougb educadon to erode racial
tbe baby boom retires is a widespread cultural      differences in income is complicated, tedious,
assumption tbat sbould be examined. "ITie baby      and relendess. Tbe Vietnam war bad mucb in
boomers, wbo make up tbe buge populadon             common witb tbe current Iraq war. Botb bave
bulge bom between 1946 and 1964, were given         been descdbed as idealisdc expressions ofAmer-
credit wben tbey were in college in tbe late 1960s  ica's exercise of global power, a rigbteous
and 1970s for the accomplishments of many of        attempt to police tbe world. Tbe difference
tbe social movements of tbat day: bringing          between tbe two wars is tbe presence and
about civil rigbts legislation, ending tbe Viet     absence of tbe draft. Today's warriors bave vol-
Nam war, breatbing new life into tbe moribund       unteered to figbt, and tbe Vietnam war was also
women's movement, and lobbying for tbe estab-       a mucb longer and bloodier affair.
lishment of tbe Environmental Protection               Tbe gains from tbe women's movement bave
Agency. Now, many expea (or in some quarters        been substantial, and tbey bave been main-
maybe fear) tbat wben tbe boomers reacb retire-     streamed. For one tbing, young women are in
ment tbey will form a social movement tbat will     tbe tbeater of battle in tbe current war, and young

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     women are dying alongside young men. The                 mid-fifties. There is a nodceable dividing line
     college-aged women of today rarely call them-            between those who came of age before and aft:er
     selves feminists, but they take for granted the          the Watergate invesdgadon.
     results of the movement. The second shift of                The social idealism of the early boomers was
     housework for wives in dual-career families is           replaced by cynicism and turning inward
     not yet equally shared by husbands. Change is            among the later boomers: "Prividsm," it was
     slow. We have made some progress at reigning             called, exemplified by the withdrawn style of
     in our escalating assault on the environment, so         John Lennon and Yoko Ono during this
     there is no longer the sense of neomalthusian            period. The later baby boomers became a fer-
     insistence that existed thirty-five years ago. Fur-      tile recruiting ground for the idealism not of
     thermore, zero population growth has been                the left, but of the right, represented by Presi-
     reached. Births and deaths are in balance; our           dent Reagan in the 1980s.
     nadonal population is only growingfi'omimmi-                 The view from die back of the baby boom
     gration. But as a consequence, we are also grow-         was one of increased competition, relative
     ing considerably older as a nation. On the               scarcity, and a sense of delayed rewards. East-
     environmental scene, at least compared to the            erlin and his colleagues (1993) argued that, faced
     early 1970s, this is a time of relatively low urgency.   with this challenge, two-earner families were
         Urgency still arises, however. A sense of            created to counter microeconomic stagnadon.
     urgency did follow the 9/11 tragedy, and it gave         Women moved more rapidly into the labor
     us the Department of Homeland Security, an               force. Compeddon within the baby boom for
     ill-justified military venture in Iraq, and a huge       educadon, jobs, and housing split their major
     nadonal debt. Both the new department and                paths in two direcdons, with one toward delayed
     the war are expensive projects that have con-            gratification and the other toward living on
     tributed to the prevailing pessimism about our           tomorrow. Credit cards were an invendon of
     ability to deal now with an impending Social             the baby boom. For most of their adult lives,
     Security crisis.                                         they have believed that Social Security would
         The old-age movements that gave us the               probably not be there for them. They tend to
     Social Security legislation of 1935 and 1965 have        have low expectadons. The fact that the real cd-
     largely accomplished their goal of erasing the           sis will not come until 2042 may be a hard sell
     poverty differential between the old and the             to these boomers. Whether the crisis is now or
     general adult population. Talk of the "age wave"         later, they simply do not trust the government
     that will crash on the shoals of American busi-          to fulfill its promises.
     ness in this century has also eroded the long-
     standing image of the elderly population as              T H E NEGATIVE VIEW
     being poor, frail, and deserving. Rather, now it            The boomers have not come to this pes-
     is thought of as a demographic, a market seg-            simisdc conclusion unaided. For more than two
     ment—and a growing and potentially lucrative             decades, a steady drumbeat has hailed the
     one at that. Where is the sense of advocacy that         impending demise of Social Security and
     motivated Maggie Kuhn and the Gray Panthers              Medicare when the baby boom redres. It seems
     in the late 1970s? Robyn Stone (2005) lamented           inevitable. Many terms have been used for this
     recendy that advocacy is largely missing from            vision of the iutuic—apocalyptic demography or,
     even the major gerontology organizadons today.           alternadvely, the demographic imperative (Peter-
     Today the focus is on preserving lifestyles, not         son, 1999). We all know the story by heart: The
     ensuring basic quality of life.                          populadon of the United States has aged dur-
         In our essentialist tendency to characterize         ing the endre twendeth century because the mor-
     the whole eighteen-year-long birth cohort, we            tality rate has declined at all ages, causing life
     have forgotten that the baby boom generation             expectancy to increase. This pattern is dramad-
     was never politically uniform. The idealistic pro-       cally enhanced by the aging of the post-World
     testers were mostly the "leading edge" baby              War II baby boom. The propordon of the U.S.
     boomers, bom between the mid-fordes and the              population surviving into old age is rapidly

80   Fall 2005
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                                                                           Ageism in theNew Millennium


growdng. The older populadon itself is also aging,      the future is a bold soludon that no one who is
so the oldest pordon of it is increasing the fastest.   still living would favor, a soludon that would
Furthermore, the old age "dependency ratio"             be both ageist and genocidal.
will change undl there will be about thirty older
persons for every one-hundred persons ofwork-           T H E POSITIVE VIEW
ing age, an impossible burden if nothing else              There is a point of view, however, that is not
about the metric changes. To younger boomers,           negadve, though admittedly the general popu-
the impending doom seems inescapable. Hence,            ladon does not embrace it as they do the chill-
we are now experiencing the calm before the             ing story above (Longino, 1996,1999). The
storm. But the storm is not expected to be a new        posidve view points to the rising educadon and
and ferocious social movement, but rather a             income levels among people of redrement age
storm of frailty, dependence, and neglect.              and specvilates that these trends will pardaUy
   Is this scary story modvated by ageism.^ Per-        offset the societal burden of our aging popula-
haps. There are other strong insdtudonal mo-            don as the baby boom redres. The increased
dves behind it as well. Apocalypdc demography           presence of dual-career couples in this generadon
has been used to modvate support of any pro-            lends credence to this positive view. With
gram having to do with the health of older peo-         increasing levels of educadon and income, peo-
ple in the future. For example, since the pre-          ple have more choices available after redrement
valence of Alzheimer's disease increases with           and less prospect of dependency. Putting off
age, and the older populadon is both growing            retirement for a while longer may become more
and aging, it is incumbent on us to find a cure for     acceptable in the future for those whose work
Alzheimer's disease before we are overwhelmed           has proven challenging and meaningful. Recent
by care needs for people with that disease.             changes in Social Security reguladons that allow
   Add to this self-serving tendency among care         people to begin receiving Sodal Security income
insdtudons the love of the media for an impend-         after age 65, even while continuing to work, do
ing crisis. Even global warming, with a real            provide a financial incendve to postpone redre-
calamity that is even farther into the future, sdll     ment. Though the median age of redrement in
receives regular attention. Is the media hype           the United States has not yet shown an upturn,
about the baby boom modvated by ageism?                 it nonetheless is possible that many baby
Perhaps. The hype may also be modvated by               boomers may choose to work longer.
the desire to attract viewers and adverdsing.              Another change characterizing older people
   When a crisis is manageable, it is managed.          is their increasing desire to live in their own
When a crisis is overwhelming, as in the case of        households, independent of children and other
the demographic imperadve, it is only depress-          reladves. Independent elders are less likely to
ing. Thus we see the pessimism that is seemingly        use informal caregivers and more likely to pur-
so rampant, and the ennui. Even the leading-            chase products and services to get what they
edge baby boomers, who felt so powerful in the          need. In 1990, about 9 million Americans age 65
early 1970s, are overwhelmed by it now.                 and older lived alone. It is expeaed that by 2010,
   This apocalypdc picture of the fiiture is indeed     that number will approach 13 million. This three-
ageist, because it objectifies people who are           decade trend is associated with the rising income
aging and treats them as though they are all            levels for older women.
alike. They are not people any more; they are              The feminist movement's influence on the
"the burden." From this negadve point of view,          baby boom generation should also increase
these older people are not capable of con-              women's choices and independence during the
tribudng creative soludons to meedng their              boomers' redrement years. Aging baby boom
own needs. They have no agency. They are inert,         women may be better prepared to live inde-
the burden. The sky is falling, and it is falling       pendendy. They will also have resources their
because there are too many older people. That           mothers never had and, just as important, they
sounds ageist to me. There are worse responses,         will have the atdtudes that sancdon doing so.
however. Reducing the life expectancy rate in           Because they tended to delay marriage and expe-

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     rienced high divorce rates, many in this cohort        the growing older populadon as the reason for
     have lived independendy for years. They are            this rise. Medical costs are indeed escalating at
     used to keeping their homes, managing their            a higher rate than general infladon, and the gap
     money, and handling emergencies by them-               has been persistent for decades. This factor alone
     selves. Virtually all baby boom women have             win eventually threaten to bankrupt the med-
     worked outside the home for at least part of           ical system and bring about greater national
     their lives, and many have their own incomes           controls. The growth of the older populadon
     and pensions.                                          alone is not driving medical infladon; it is pan-
        Businesses can also help defiase the negative       demic. However, if the growth of the older pop-
     connotadons of the demographic imperadve.              uladon is perceived as having been behind the
     Private firms that produce and distribute goods        eventual crisis, and if the crisis generates an
     and services to enhance independence longer            unsadsfactory outcome, this outcome will serve
     into old age will find growing markets, and the        to feed ageism, regardless of the realides involved
     compeddon they generate will make these prod-          (Longino, 2000). The aging baby-boom gen-
     ucts available at a decreasing cost over time. This    eradon could become a scapegoat.
     cost reducdon will primarily benefit the smaller
     generadon following the boomers. Because die           CONCLUSION
     baby boom of many Third World countries was               To summarize, the baby boom may seem to
     bom after World War II, overseas markets will          be a threat as it ages, but its greatest leverage
     provide extended opportunides for assistive            may come from its numbers. The large birth
     devices and other products or services after the       cohort has already altered the social structure
     American baby boom generadon is gone. In the           as it advanced through its youth and middle
     U.S., adverdsing to the boomers as they redre          years. Schools and colleges expanded, but they
     will tend to paint posidve images. Among all           were still overcrowded when the boomers
     older Americans, boomer redrees will be seen           arrived. Because of increased competition, all
     as young, healthy, mosdy married, better edu-          but the early boomers had to wait longer for
     cated, and enjoying their redrement—because of         job advancement.Increased demand inflated
     the products and services being advertised. Will       values in the housing market, making the ini-
     these pictures tend to diminish ageism.? Perhaps.      dal apartment residence of boomers last longer,
         Will the baby boomers, many of whom pop-           and the home in the suburbs come later. Now,
     ularized healthy lifestyles, be healthier in old       boomers are informed by their experience. They
     age? Since 1953, per capita tobacco consump-           expect that their numbers will challenge the
     tion has declined in the United States. Con-           social structures surrounding redrement and
     sumpdon of butter, whole milk, and ice cream           old age. They have seen it before and they have
     is also dawn, as is use of saturated animal fats for   survived. On the other hand, their large num-
     cooking. Consumption of vegetable oils and             bers have always idendfied them as an important
     fish, on the other hand, has increased. It is diffi-   age-based market. The business community is
     cult to believe that these trends will have no         not likely to forget them as they age; it would
     influence on the rates of chronic disease in old       be foolhardy to turn their back on a market of
     age, potendally reducing the use of health ser-        that size. Business is likely to follow boomers
     vices and lengthening the average person's             into their later years, providing new products
     period of productive contribudons (Longino             and services that will extend their independence
     and Mittelmark, 1996). Evidence of increasing          as they age. Because of the boomers' numbers,
     good health among people in their 60s and 70s,         their higher levels of educadon and better gen-
     and perhaps their 80s, will tend to reinforce the      eral health, soft news stories will aboiond point-
     picture of a vibrant old age that will be generated    ing to the reladve flood of redred people into
     by media marketing. Such an image would fly            volunteering, adventure experiences, second
     in the face of ageist apocalypdc demography.           careers, relocating abroad for retirement. These
                                                            images, collecdvcly, will support the geronto-
         On the other hand, rising healthcare costs
                                                            logical nodon of "successfiil aging." The posi-
     could serve to feed ageism because many view

82   Fall 2005
                                  new Baby Topic
                                                                          A£teism in the New Millennium



dve side of this eventuality is that overt ageism    ble work and retirement schemes and to a
may diminish in the general populadon. The           greater array of goods and services in the mar-
negadve side is that advocacy for the poor and       ketplace that will extend independent lifestyles
the frail may continue to fall on hard dmes.         for baby boomers as they age. If so, one could
   Einally, even though the evidence suggests        argue that the baby boom may diminish struc-
that baby boomers are turned off by polidcs,         tural ageism.
there is at least the potendal of great polidcal        The baby boom is on our doorstep. Is this
clout in the baby boom. However, it is uncer-        the calm before the storm? We fear that it will be
tain whether strength in numbers affects polit-      like a wrecking ball unleashing its destrucdve
ical behavior. Robert Binstock has reminded us       potendal. However, it may be more like a chal-
for the past thirty years that older people in the   lenge. Challenges can generate creadve answers,
U.S. are more likely to vote their class interests   many of which are unknowable ahead of dme.
than their age interests (Binstock, 2000).           As gerontologists, we should embrace the chal-
Recently, I addressed a small group of redred        lenge and study responses to it ftom the baby
CEOS at a breakfast meedng sponsored by the          boom generadon. co
Advancement Office at my present insdtudon.             Charles F. Longino, Jr., Ph.D., is Washington
Wake Eorest University. After I finished dis-        M. Wingate Professor, Wake Porest University,
cussing the various strategies that may be taken     Winston-Salem, N.C.
to save Social Security, one gendeman raised
his hand and asked, "Why do we need Social           REFERENCES
Security at all?" Of course he didn't need it, not       Binstock, R. H. 2000. "Older People and Voting
at all. I smiled and thought of Binstock. The        Participation: Past and Future." Germtolqgist ^o{i): 18-31.
bottom line is that we simply do not know yet            Easterlin, R., SchaefFer, C. M., and Macunovich, D.
whether the leading-edge boomers will become         J. 1993. "Will the Baby Boomers Be Less Well Off Than
social acrivists on behalf of enddement pro-         Their Parents? Income, Wealth, and Family Circum-
grams when they become beneficiaries. The            stances over the Life Cycle in the United States." Po^-
                                                     lation and Development Review 19: 497-522.
weight of past evidence suggests, however, that
they will not (Binstock, 2000).                          Longino, C. F., Jr. 1996. "Myths of an Aging Amer-
                                                     ica." In C. P. Cozic, eA., An Agin£i Population: Opposing!
   One would logically expect that with the          Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
retirement and continued aging of the baby               Longino, C. F., Jr. 1999. 'The Future Population
boom, our images of aging are likely to change       Aging in the U.S.A. and Pacific Rim Countries: Impli-
for the better. Wrinkles vwll certainly seem more    cations Are Not Always Obvious." HaUym International
"normal." On the other hand, marketing tends         Journal cf Aging 1(1): 33-43-
to flatter the customer. When the customer is            Longino, C. F., Jr. 2000. "Pressure from Our Aging
                                                     Population Will Broaden Our Understanding of Med-
older, such flattery may arise from cultural
                                                     icine." In E. W. Markson, Intersections of Aging: A Reader
ageism. Cultural ageism is an atdtude embedded       in Social Gewntobgy. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing
in a type of consumerism that celebrates the         Company.
body beautiful, and therefore disadvantages the          Longino, C. F., Jr., and Mittelmark, M. B. 1996.
older body. This cultural theme may persist as       "Sociodemographic Aspects of Aging." In J. Sadavoy,
the median age of the nadon rises in the twenty-     L. W. Lazarus, and L. F. Jarvic, eds., Omprehensive Review
first century. If it does, then a pernicious cul-    ofGeriatric Psychiatry, chapter 5, pp. 135-52. Washington,
                                                     D.C: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.
tural ageism will persist.
                                                        Peterson, P. G. 1999. Gray Dawn. New York: Crown.
   Structural ageism, on the other hand, refers
to organizadon or arrangement of insdtudons             Stone, R. 2005. "What We Are Training For? The
                                                     Needs of Student and the Demands of the Aging Pop-
in ways that limit the opportunides and choices      uladon." Paper presented at the 31st Annual Meeting and
of older people. This kind of ageism may be          Educational Leadership Conference of the Association
forced by circumstances to yield to more flexi-      for Gerontology in Higher Educadon, Oklahoma City.




                                                                                                   Fall 2005       83
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