Will Baby Boomers Be Known as Givers or Takers?

Article excerpt

As a baby boomer, Ken Dychtwald knows the value his generation places on staying youthful, energetic, and active as long as possible. At the same time, as a gerontologist and bestselling author on retirement and aging, he sees a looming paradox.

"Boomers want to get old at 90 but get old-age entitlements at 65," he says.

Who can blame them? Age 65 has always been the benchmark for receiving full Social Security benefits. Already that age is gradually rising to 67, with some on Capitol Hill hoping to raise it again to 70. As companies reel under the weight of pensions, and as Congress considers changes to Medicare, the battle cry among current and future retirees is: "Save our entitlements."

Deciding who gets what entitlements - and when - promises to be a delicate and sometimes noisy balancing act for years to come. As Dr. Dychtwald looks ahead to the millions of baby boomers who will start turning 65 in 2011, he expresses concern about the huge amounts of federal money that will need to be set aside for older people. The 76 million baby boomers, he warns, could be blamed for straining entitlement funds.

He also cautions that making too strong a case for more entitlements could inadvertently promote stereotypes of dependence and frailty. That in turn could perpetuate the subtle ageism he still sees creeping into marketing.

"We have created the wrong model of maturity in this country," Dychtwald told an audience at the American Society on Aging conference in San Francisco last week. "Instead of saying 'More, more,' we need to get involved."

At each stage of life, he explains, "people have things to take and things to give." Although the average age of retirement was 62 in the 1990s, he adds, "At 62, you are not exempt from giving."

What Americans need, Dychtwald insists, is a "new map of aging" to reflect the heartening new reality that people are not old at 65. Explaining that people make plans and assumptions about their careers and their later years based on the current timetable of retirement at 65, he argues that old age needs to be redefined as occurring much later.

He exults in the current "triumph of longevity" and the "rising revolution of older adults who are discarding all the stereotypes." Now the collective task is to translate that triumph and that revolution into widespread changes in attitude and behavior. That includes giving as well as getting. …