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US braces for baby boom retirement wave

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 25, 2007
The first of the vast US baby boom generation goes into retirement in January, setting off a demographic tidal wave with wide-ranging economic, political and social implications.

Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, born on January 1, 1946, is acknowledged as the nation's first baby boomer and the first to apply for social security benefits, for which she will be eligible in 2008.

The New Jersey grandmother is the first of an estimated 80 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, a generation that led a social revolution in the 1960s and changed the fabric of most facets of society.

The cost for government-funded social security and medical care for the boomers leaves a funding gap of between 40 and 76 trillion dollars for next 75 years, according to various estimates.

"America is facing a demographic juggernaut," says Brent Green, a marketing consultant and author, in his "Boomers" blog.

"An unprecedented number will soon be entering the retirement stage of life. One-third of the population will be over 50 by 2010. One in five will be over 65 by 2010."

Leonard Steinhorn, an American University professor and author of "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy," says the generation often wrongly maligned as latte-sipping Yuppies has transformed most of American society.

He wrote that boomers have led or sustained most of "the great citizen movements that have advanced American values and freedoms -- the environmental movement, the consumer movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the diversity movement, the human rights movement, the openness in government movement."

He told AFP he expects this transformation to continue as boomers age. "It's not going to be a generation that's going to go off to the golf courses and do nothing."

He said boomers will push politics to a more progressive bent even though that has not yet happened because the more conservative over-60 generation still carries much weight in the electorate.

"Once younger voters begin to replace them, the socially conservative vote will dwindle," he said.

The generation is a ripe target for marketing of everything from travel to real estate to computer games for keeping minds fit.

"In the whole way we think about aging and the way companies develop products, we have traditionally been a country of the young," said David Baxter, senior vice president at Age Wave, a California-based research and consulting company focused on the over-50 population.

"If you look at the hottest products, companies think the youth market is the most important."

Baxter said marketers are still using "the myth that older consumers are stuck in their brands and not very interesting consumers. But it's the mature consumer who has all the money."

Americans aged 50 and over have a collective one trillion dollars in disposable income and control 67 percent of the US wealth, according to the over-50 social networking website Eons.

Members of the baby boom generation are big users of technology and the Internet. A Pew Internet Life Project report showed two-thirds of those between 50 and 58 had Internet access as of 2004, similar to the number of 28- to 39-year-olds.

Many are gravitating to social networking sites, especially those geared to their generation with names like TeeBeeDee and BoomerCafe.

About half of Americans will buy new homes after retirement, and many will continue to work in some capacity or become involved in social activism.

Michael Falcon, head of the retirement group at Merrill Lynch, says the nation must prepare for a "new model" for retirement.

"Multiple generations report cycling in and out of work and pursuing a new career in later life as the retirement ideal," he said in a 2006 report. "Companies need to be aware of this new concept of retirement."

A Merrill Lynch survey found 71 percent of adults surveyed plan to work in some capacity after their formal "retirement."

Carol Orsborn, a public relations executive who writes a "Boomer Blog," said the generation appears to be pursuing its dreams rather than dropping out to a quiet retirement.

"If we were hippies in the 1960s and 1970s and yuppies in the 1980s and 1990s, what are we now?" she wrote.

"At an age where expectations that our generation pull back, instead of 're-tiring' we are 're-upping' for another tour of duty in life. We are changing careers, finally getting around to taking risks with our dreams, advancing into new psychological and spiritual terrain, not only new to us as individuals, but for society as a whole. We are, in fact, Re-uppies."

On the economic side, some fear the "silver tsunami" will drain the country of its wealth, but Baxter says the United States has some advantages.

"It's true that everything in our society is built on the idea of continued growth, it's kind of a giant Ponzi scheme with every generation prior to this one having given birth to a larger generation," he said.

The problems are even more acute in some European countries and Japan which face a similar demographic time bomb. But Baxter said "the US is cushioned to some extent by a more liberal immigration policy" and because "there is more flexibility in our workforce. It's illegal to have mandatory reitirement and that's not the case in most countries."

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