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Monday, July 03, 2006

Baby Boomers turn 60!

Baby boomers hit 60, cling to expectations and plan to stick around

By Jan Uebelherr

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE - With just a few months before she turns 60, Tonya Harvey is talking about her generation.

"Tune in, turn on, drop out. Free love. Everything was free. No responsibility. We all still have that kind of feeling, that free spirit," she says.

"We're talking about the Beatles and `Love Child' and round, purple glasses. And we wear the badge proudly. I'm an old hippie."

And how does a hippie grow old?

That's easy. "Hey, we never do. We just progress," she says without missing a beat.

Here they come again.

They are grayer than they once were, and perhaps a bit heavier, too.

They're all in the same boat, staring squarely at a number that once meant one thing: You are old. But these are baby boomers hitting 60, and like everything else they have encountered, they are likely to make it their own.

They've got the power. Those born between 1946 and 1964 number 78 million strong in the United States.

That means they are landing on 60 with startling regularity. Every seven seconds, a baby boomer turns 60 - a phenomenon that will continue for the next 18 years.

It will happen to President Bush on July 6, and former President Bill Clinton on Aug. 19. Dolly Parton and Donald Trump joined the crowd this year, too.

In many ways, they can't avoid having a retirement different from their parents.

For one thing, those turning 60 this year can expect to live to about 80 (longer for women, slightly less for men) based on the latest Social Security Administration life expectancy tables.

How will the boomers leave their mark on 60? It makes sense to look at how they're wired.

Boomers at 60 can expect to live at least another two decades, but that's not all they expect.

Expectations, in fact, are a cornerstone of what it means to be a boomer.

"That's what has defined this generation - their grand expectations. They have had this expectation that they were going to live the good life," says Steve Gillon, author of "Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever, and How It Changed America" (Free Press, 2004).

"They always had the expectation that life was going to be better than it really was. They are carrying those expectations into retirement. Most don't plan to retire," Gillon says. As a result, he says, "Traditional roles of retirement aren't going to apply."

For one thing, they imagine themselves to be 10 years younger than they really are, Gillon says. And with their characteristic optimistic attitude, it is hard to convince them that, when it comes to retirement, it is later than they think.

It's a troubling scenario to Margo Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who studies demographics.

Margo Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, notes that the boomers find themselves in a peculiar position as they move toward their 60th birthday. They were born and raised in peace and prosperity. By and large, they watched their parents enjoy a prosperous retirement.

It makes sense that they would expect something similar for themselves.

But the things that made their parents' retirement long and secure - peace, prosperity, pension and Social Security - are absent or iffy, Anderson says.

The retirement picture for boomers more closely resembles that of their grandparents in the 1930s, before Social Security and the "boom in pensions," she says.

"In some ways, it's not nearly as happy a future," Anderson says.

Whether or not they need to work, Gillon says they are likely to work beyond the traditional retirement age. The types of jobs many boomers have - less manual labor, more service-oriented - make it easier to stay on, he adds. Beyond that, boomers just plain want to stick around, to be involved.

"They're less likely than previous generations to go quietly into the night," Gillon says. "Boomers will find ways to try to stay active and involved beyond the age of 65."

Take Harvey, who turns 60 on Nov. 8. She works as a receptionist at the Milwaukee Women's Center. A former client of the center who dealt with addictions to alcohol and cocaine, she has no savings.

"I intend to stay at the Milwaukee Women's Center until I can't work any more," she says.

Despite this, she is upbeat about what lies ahead. "I think I've been an old soul for a long time. It seems like I've always been a caregiver," she says, referring to a son who died eight years ago, at age 22, after struggling with paranoid schizophrenia.

"So turning 60 is just another number. I feel like at 60, I'm grateful to get this far, and my spirit is just as spry as 20."

Kathy Copps, who turned 60 on Dec. 27 (one of those "cusp" boomers technically born outside the 1946 start of the baby boom but herded along with them in school and the rest of life), is somewhat surprised at facing this number.

"A large part of me feels that I'm not old enough to be at this stage," says Copps, who looks forward to traveling, doing volunteer work and spending lots of time with her four children and six grandchildren.

"I used to think that 60 was really old. It's not so old after all. That's the good news. I feel terrific. I'm in pretty good shape," says Copps, who taught aerobics for years (until it got hard on her knees) and now exercises at a Curves fitness center. And she's getting better on the in-line skates she got for Christmas.

"It's amazing, once you get here, your feet are pretty well-grounded. Financially, we're not loaded but we're stable," she says.

Jim Lathrop is optimistic, too, but is keenly aware of the differences between how his parents headed into their 60s and the way he will.

"The era I grew up in, peopled tended to retire and die fairly soon," he points out.

He just retired this month as general manager at a small company, carrying out his goal to do so before his 60th birthday in September. He looks forward to doing volunteer work for his church, Habitat for Humanity and perhaps hospice work. "I think my first year will be spent doing a lot of long-delayed projects around the house. Cleaning the attic," he says. "Then I think I'll be able to plow back in."

In the meantime, he ponders some weighty money matters.

"My dad had a pension from a Fortune 500 company that he carried with him until he died at 88," Lathrop says. "He had a guaranteed income that provided him a comfortable lifestyle.

"My retirement is all on me," he says. "And so that's a little scary."

For a generation that defines itself as much by its youthfulness as its optimism, age itself is a little scary.

"I think the hardest psychological adjustment will be accommodating the aging process, which is something it's never done very well," Gillon says.

For Copps, a paraprofessional who works with special-needs kids in Milwaukee, the idea of retirement takes some getting used to. She is bothered by the widespread assumption that, now that she is 60, she will retire - even though she and her husband are in fact discussing it.

"It does bug me. I don't feel like I should be retiring. I've got a lot more to give. Again, I don't feel old enough to retire. To me that's something old people do," she says.

So what's old?

"Old to me is 80. I think 80 - then you're entering old age. I had a mother who I miss every day and she died at age 85, and she wasn't old until the last two months of her life when cancer took her over."

When it comes to her immediate future, she is upbeat - and counting on help from medical advances in the future.

"We live in such an exciting time. My husband had Lasik surgery - he doesn't wear glasses anymore. If something comes up, God willing, if I need a new something, I can get what I need," she says, referring to knee replacements and the like.

For Lathrop, there is a sobering aspect about the number 60. He cannot truthfully say that he has a great share of his life ahead of him. Those days are gone, he says.

"You keep thinking you've got the rest of your life to live, but the reality comes that hitting the 60 mark is a pretty big demarcation," he says. "I look forward to a full and interesting retirement, but the reality is that I probably had my best years behind me, healthwise."

He has concerns about health care in general, and end-of-life scenarios in particular. "At what point do you say I've lived a good life and they don't have to spend $80,000 to give me two more months?" he says.

To Gillon, this is a key issue. He believes it's a big reason that the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case resonated so with the American public.

"The boomers turning 60 are beginning to think about these issues. Quality of life. They're going to be living longer, and as a result boomers will experience more health issues and more prolonged health issues," he says. "It's the downside of a long lifespan; not just aging, but illness, and prolonged, painful illness. That's the greatest fear boomers have. Not just that they're going to look older and slow down, but that they'll experience some crippling years."

Then there's the pervasive fear about Social Security.

"Is that going to be around?" Copps wonders.

Harvey is more to the point. She has no pension or savings and is limited in how much she can work because of a back injury from a car accident.

"The only thing I do have to look forward to is Social Security, and that's all in turmoil. Each administration coming in, the first thing they want to do is mess with that money. They make you feel you're wrong for wanting it," she says.

But the way she looks at it, "You sold me this horse. Now that I'm about ready to ride this horse, you say, `You're wrong.' I feel that's a worry. Who's going to take care of me after this energy goes? What's going to happen to me then?"

But even in this, she finds a way to remain optimistic.

"If you carry all that constantly, you can't go forward. You stagnate. What is, is," she says.

For his part, Gillon believes it is "politically inconceivable" for a guaranteed Social Security income to be done away with. But he adds, "It will be reformed. When the program was first set up, it was set up so that most people would be dead by the time they were eligible. Now, people are living 20 years beyond when Social Security sets in."

Like every generation reaching a certain age, boomers will have the urge to look back, evaluate, wonder what they will leave behind.

"I think this generation is looking to make its mark," Gillon says.

Boomers will look squarely at the changes they helped bring about during their youth in the `60s, he says.

"Many of the same people involved in that process are questioning that legacy. Some look back on the legacy and feel good. They feel that they made a positive contribution. Others look back and feel boomers eroded authority and moral discipline."

Harvey, who works at the Milwaukee Women's Center, is one of the people who look back proudly at the changes her generation helped bring about.

"I remember the first of a lot of things that people these days take for granted," Harvey says. "Just little things ... even down to protesting silently. We did it all. And some of us are still doing it. Generations now don't seem to know what it took to get to this point today."

"I marched with King through Chicago," she says, referring to the civil rights marches of Martin Luther King Jr. "I was there. Oh yeah. I marched with him all through Chicago from Grant Park all through the armory."

No regrets from Harvey.

"I look back with pride," she says, "because every step that we took has made a difference."

Copps considers this age a time of "taking stock" and is concerned about the world left to her grandchildren. "Pollution, global warming. I don't know what these things are going to do or be like for my grandchildren," she says, adding that she doesn't look back with regret on any of the changes that boomers helped bring about.

Lathrop, who plans to do volunteer work during his retirement, thinks his boomer cohorts will look upon retirement as a way "to return a little more" through volunteer work.

"And maybe that's a little different than the way my folks looked on things (after retirement), that they put their time in and now they're going to enjoy it."

When he considers legacy, though, he looks with dismay at the gap between rich and poor, something he believes will continue to grow. Lathrop views it as a disheartening legacy of tax cuts for the rich that began in the Reagan years.

"That's a legacy I hate to pass on to my kids," he says. "The greatest generation left us a pretty good life, and we've taken advantage of that. And I'm not sure we're passing on as well to our kids."

He's unhappy, too, with an atmosphere of less tolerance and even aggression.

Across the nation, Gillon sees the stark divisions between liberal and conservative America as a boomer debate over their legacy.

"The Iraq war has become a touchstone for that," he says.

Boomers will use their later years to continue this debate - something, he says, they have done throughout their lives.

"This is a generation that came of age fighting against itself," he says, on everything from the Kent State riots and the Vietnam War to feminism.

These hot-button issues often were thought of as a clash between the young and old generations, but in fact the boomer generation was "deeply divided" over these issues, he says.

"It's not surprising they would revisit it," he says.

"They're still fighting," Gillon says of the aging boomers. "And they will fight until they're gone."



Bill Clinton is doing it, and so is George W. Bush. The list of famous Americans turning 60 this year includes them, and a few others, too:

_Actress Candice Bergen

_First lady Laura Bush

_Singer Cher

_TV journalist Connie Chung

_Singer Al Green

_Actor Tommy Lee Jones

_Actress Diane Keaton

_Comedian/actor Cheech Marin

_Singer Dolly Parton

_Director Steven Spielberg


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