Academic journal article Generations

The Future of Ageism: Baby Boomers at the Doorstep

Academic journal article Generations

The Future of Ageism: Baby Boomers at the Doorstep

Article excerpt

Will their numbers or characteristics alter the picture?

As I write, we are in the calm before the storm. The oldest baby boomer will retire in 2008, at age 62 with Social security early retirement, only three years away. Those reaching retirement now, however, were born late in the Depression era or early during World War II, when the fertility rate was at a historical low. Consequently, the population flow into retirement currently is also unusually low.

A COMING STORM?

That there will be a storm of some kind when the baby boom retires is a widespread cultural assumption that should be examined. The baby boomers, who make up the huge population bulge born between 1946 and 1964, were given credit when they were in college in the late 19605 and 19705 for the accomplishments of many of the social movements of that day: bringing about civil rights legislation, ending the Viet Nam war, breathing new life into the moribund women's movement, and lobbying for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, many expect (or in some quarters maybe fear) that when the boomers reach retirement they will form a social movement that will save and expand Social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It certainly would be in their interest to do so. Yet, here approaching the dawn of their retirement there is an almost depressive sense of ennui. Why?

THAT WAS THEN . . .

Times have changed since the 19705. The civil rights movement yielded up the symbolic victories, the end to officially sanctioned racial discrimination. The hard work of enhancing human capital through education to erode racial differences in income is complicated, tedious, and relendess. The Vietnam war had much in common with the current Iraq war. Both have been described as idealistic expressions of America's exercise of global power, a righteous attempt to police the world. The difference between the two wars is the presence and absence of the draft. Today's warriors have volunteered to fight, and the Vietnam war was also a much longer and bloodier affair.

The gains from the women's movement have been substantial, and they have been mainstreamed. For one thing, young women are in the theater of battle in the current war, and young women are dying alongside young men. The college-aged women of today rarely call themselves feminists, but they take for granted the results of the movement. The second shift of housework for wives in dual-career families is not yet equally shared by husbands. Change is slow. We have made some progress at reigning in our escalating assault on the environment, so there is no longer the sense of neomalthusian insistence that existed thirty-five years ago. Furthermore, zero population growth has been reached. Births and deaths are in balance; our national population is only growing from immigration. But as a consequence, we are also growing considerably older as a nation. On the environmental scene, at least compared to the early 19705, this is a time of relatively low urgency.

Urgency still arises, however. A sense of urgency did follow the 9/11 tragedy, and it gave us the Department of Homeland security, an ill-justified military venture in Iraq, and a huge national debt. Both the new department and the war are expensive projects that have contributed to the prevailing pessimism about our ability to deal now with an impending Social security crisis.

The old-age movements that gave us the Social security legislation of 1935 and 1965 have largely accomplished their goal of erasing the poverty differential between the old and the general adult population. Talk of the "age wave" that will crash on the shoals of American business in this century has also eroded the longstanding image of the elderly population as being poor, frail, and deserving. Rather, now it is thought of as a demographic, a market segment-and a growing and potentially lucrative one at that. Where is the sense of advocacy that motivated Maggie Kuhn and the Gray Panthers in the late 19705? …

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