The Road Ahead: A Boomer's Guide to Happiness: The New Middle Age: The Baby Boom Has Always Made Its Own Rules, and Now It's Redefining Growing Old. from Work to Family to Money, Here's How Boomers Are Writing the Next Chapter

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THE NEW AMERICA This report on boomers kicks off a special series on the changing face of America, as we look at the people and ideas that are shaping the nation's future

The 50 thing started hitting Kate Donohue at 49.5. "I don't want to be that old," says the San Francisco psychologist. "It's a half century." But when the big day came in January, Donohue decided to see it as a chance to fix the things in her life she didn't like. She made three resolutions: to worry less, to "make more space" for herself by not being so busy and to be more adventurous--more like the woman she was in her 20s and 30s when she routinely set off on solo trekking and biking trips. In August, she will head off to Africa to learn more about West African dance, a longtime passion. Procrastination is not an option. Her 83-year-old father is in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease; her mother, 79, is active but suffers from a heart condition and glaucoma. "Seeing my parents get so tiny is the way it hits me," Donohue says. "How many more years do I have?"

For so long, the generation born between 1946 and 1964 (an estimated 78 million Americans) has been in collective denial as the years added up. Boomers couldn't be getting older--although, amazingly, everyone else seemed to. But while they're still inclined to moments of self-delusion ("No one would ever guess that I'm 50"), they can no longer escape intimations of their own mortality. The oldest boomers will turn 55 next year, an age when many people begin thinking seriously about retirement. Even the youngest members of this overchronicled cohort are on the cusp of Grecian Formula time.

Their own parents are aging and dying, making many of them the elders in their families. "There's the feeling that you're the next in line, and there's nothing between you and the abyss," says Linda Waite, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. When they look in the mirror, they see gray hair and wrinkles. Their bodies are beginning to creak and they're worried that all those years of avoiding the gym and stuffing their faces with Big Macs may add up.

At work, they're feeling the threat of a new generation fluent in technology and willing to work 24/7. Corporate America seems to value experience less, and has come to view older workers in the same way investors view Old Economy stocks: sure, they perform at a steady pace, but these younger, untested companies/employees have so much potential.

But don't expect boomers to go quietly into boring and predictable senescence. They're likely to transform the last decades of life just as they have already demolished other conventional milestones. There are 50-year-olds lugging toddlers and 40-year-olds retiring early after cashing out piles of dot-com stock. Settling down is anathema. Boomers switch jobs, and even careers (not to mention spouses) in a never-ending search for fulfillment. "The first generation to grow up with remote controls, we invented channel-surfing and attention-deficit living," says journalist Michael Gross in his new book, "My Generation." "That taught us to be infinitely adaptable, even in the baby-boom cliche of 'diminished expectations'."

It helps that they're better educated and richer than previous generations and, as their parents die, expected to benefit from the largest transfer of inherited wealth in history. In a new nearly half of all boomers said their personal financial situation was "good" or "excellent. …