There’s an old joke about two babies who were placed side-by-side in a hospital maternity ward. They lay there staring at one another. Decades later, in their 90s, the two recognized each other when they found themselves sharing the same hospital room.
One of them says to the other, “So … how’d it go?”
These days, the Baby Boom Generation seems to be asking this question. In the aftermath of covid, the social isolation and political ferment of the recent past have given pause to the demographic cohort that revolutionized America at each stage of its lifespan. The generation that Bob Dylan called “forever young” is transitioning once again – this time into old age.
In 1900, the average American could expect to live to age 47. By 2019, the average lifespan had expanded to age 79. Boomers have been given the greatest gift in all of history –- 30 extra years of life. But now comes the hard part: what to do with all the time.
Boomers had been expected to work longer and delay retirement. But the global pandemic and Great Resignation of 2021 caused a change in plans. Untold numbers of working boomers called it quits. Social and political changes have changed the trajectory. Alarmed that many of the January 6th rioters were of their generation, some boomers have begun taking stock, pondering their generational and individual legacies. And wrestling with the bigger questions of life last visited by some in youth.
The Generation that Reinvented America
“Seventy may be the new 50,” a friend’s physician said to him the other day as he was undergoing his annual checkup. “But 80 is still 80.” The oldest boomers, at 77, are closing in on 80, while the youngest are turning 60.
They started out so strong, so full of potential. Born between 1946 and 1964, 76 million newborns set off a population explosion in the United States. New hospitals, schools and homes were hastily built to accommodate the surge. With their appetite for Davey Crocket coonskin hats and Hula Hoops, boomers singlehandedly created something new: youth culture. They came of age opposing the war in Vietnam, attended Woodstock, created the women’s and gay liberation movements, and invented the term “recreational drugs.”
Eventually, they settled down, took out mortgages, and spawned the almost equally huge (92 million) Millennial Generation, now in its prime earning and family-formation years. In their wake they altered an entire culture and their society’s future.
Boomers were first to embrace Eastern mysticism, meditation, organic foods, yoga — the human potential movement. “We can change the world,” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And with a toke or two on the old pipe, they believed they could.
Demographics and the Opportunity Mindset
As a boomer myself, reading Ken Dychtwald’s 1989 book on the boomer generation was an epiphany. “Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America” was an eye-opener. It caused me to think about not just where things are right now, but where they are going in the future.
A former yoga instructor turned gerontologist, Dychtwald’s big idea was that if you delved deeply into the trends and issues surrounding this emergent generation, you could anticipate their needs and wants, and cash in on the opportunities embedded in change.
Dychtwald and other social forecasters had an influence on my choice of vocation of public speaker and consultant. By studying demographics and acting entrepreneurially, I discovered that I could help busy leaders and managers shape and profit from change instead of being blindsided by it.
And while my work as a futurist and innovation coach expanded beyond demographic trends to encompass technology, social, economic, regulatory, geopolitical and other trend categories, the formula was much the same: identify and track the “driving forces of change,” project ahead to where the trend was likely headed, consider threats and opportunities, and invent the future via innovation. I’ve shared this formula with audiences all across America and in 54 countries, from machine tool distributors meeting at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, to the Turkish Quality Association meeting in Istanbul, with business school students in Beijing and banks in Rome and Bangkok. What a ride!
On a personal level, tracking the boomer generation over the years forced me to think about designing my own future, about what I would do personally with 30 extra years of life? What were the dos and don’ts of growing older? What could I learn from previous generations? How best to go about creating what the speaker and writer Gordon Burgett once called, “Your Super Second Life”?
Well, suddenly here I am 69 years of age, as surprised as anyone to be this old. And now comes the reckoning, time to check-in on where we boomers are rather than where we thought we’d be or hoped we’d be. It turns out the generation now fading from the scene is trending all right — but not in ways we may have anticipated. According to an ongoing study on longevity at Stanford University, self- isolation among boomers is rampant. Which is a behavior pattern, these researchers tell us, that has “as strong a risk factor for early mortality as cigarette smoking.”
Boomers today are far less socially engaged than their predecessors. They are less likely to participate in community or religious organizations; less likely to be married; less likely to talk with their neighbors. Boomers report fewer meaningful interactions with their spouses and partners and are more likely to report weaker ties to family and friends.
“These findings are especially intriguing since this is the generation that proclaimed that the world should have higher standards,” notes the report. “This generation sparked great changes in our society in order to realize them. But if boomers bow out, a very different scenario may unfold.”
In 2031, the oldest Boomers will turn 85. They will enter the ranks of what demographers call the “old old” and will face the prospects of higher risk dementia, serious physical disabilities and long-term dependency. At the same time, there will be fewer able-bodied people to care for them. The population of the prime caregiving age group is expected to increase by only one percent by 2030, while the population over 80 will increase by 79 percent.
If there is one goal boomers tend to agree on it’s a determination to “age in place.” They’ve made a pact to avoid the staid, warehouse-like institutions that housed their parents’ generation in its final years. New and innovative technologies may make this possible. From robots to sensors to remote monitoring to pill dispensing, artificial intelligence and other empowering technologies will likely revolutionize and extend late-life independence.
But the issues of finding meaning and purpose are ones that technology cannot solve.
As advertisers and societal institutions move on to more urgent issues, we boomers are left with big questions: How can we not just extend life or enable independent living longer, but increase the quality of life in the extra years? How can we tap our vast life experience and knowledge and transfer it into something useful for younger generations? How might we lessen social isolation and restore the legacy of boomers as idealistic problem-solvers and possibility thinkers? How can we reach our full generational potential?
For the most part, we wrestle with these questions alone, if at all. As I view it, putting gold in one’s golden years has little to do with one’s generational cohort, rather with the choices we make each day. Eat an apple or eat that donut? Accept a friend’s invitation to dinner, or socially isolate? Go for a bike ride with your buds, or binge watch the new series on Netflix? Host pity parties, or support candidates who have future generations in mind, rather than their own self-interest?
These little decisions add up, become who we are. And we get to choose. We choose whether we’re going to feel young and curious and interested and interesting today, or whether we’re going to self-isolate and feel sorry for ourselves that the good old days have passed us by and we’re no longer relevant.
Will boomers live up to their potential? It’s time to choose.