Written by John Szozda
July 10, 2009
I just entered my last year of middle age and like most of my fellow Baby Boomers, I look forward to old age with optimism.
Yes, we’re mired in a recession, the stock market hasn’t recovered, our country is fighting two wars and congress still hasn’t solved our health care crisis. Still, according to Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, a social and demographic trends survey released in late June by The Pew Research Center, most Boomers feel younger than we are and have a positive attitude about our future.
Maybe, denial leads to this optimism. I’m 59, the pivotal age most Americans ages 18 to 29 see as the eve of “old.” We Boomers, however, think “old” begins at 70.
Is this another generation gap?
Pew researchers draw that conclusion from a survey of 2,969 adults. Not only do young people think old age begins earlier than Boomers think, the young are more pessimistic about aging. They think they will have more memory loss, more loneliness, more depression, more difficulty in paying bills and less sex than what we report as our reality.
In other words, the young don't know much about old age. That doesn’t surprise me. Give them time.
As the first wave of 76 million Baby Boomers turns 65 in two years, we have good reason for optimism, according to the survey. Most respondents in all age groups believe their lives have met the expectations they had when they were younger. That’s a powerful testament to the American way of life--Most have become what we envisioned.
Now, we should look forward to retirement if we can put stock in the responses from those 65 and older. Seven in ten report spending more time with family, two-thirds have more time for hobbies and most feel they are financially secure.
About six in ten say they get more respect and experience less stress than when they were younger.
Overall, the survey concludes that the things that make young people happy are the things that make old people happy--good health, good friends and financial security.
That last item--financial security—is the wild card. We Boomers will not be better off in retirement than our parents and it’s doubtful the generation that follows us will do as well as us.
Our parents, The Greatest Generation, have benefited from the post-World War II economic boon. They are more likely to have defined pension benefits versus self-funded 401-k plans and a greater increase in home values than Boomers. In fact, 45 percent of those 75 and older say their lives have turned out better than expected. By far, the highest rate reported from all age groups. This is not a surprise as this generation also lived through The Great Depression and World War II. Their expectations may have been lower than ours as we grew up in the prosperous 1950s and indulgent 1960s.
Now, for the bad news.
One in four of respondents 65 and over experience some memory loss. One in five said they have a serious illness, or feel sad or depressed often or are not sexual active. One in six said they have trouble paying bills.
These problems, however, are more evident in those with low incomes rather than high incomes. That’s the wild card—financial security. Boomers will have less income than what we expect or we will stay in the workforce longer.
While roughly one in four persons over 65 still exercises vigorously, I expect that number will increase. Boomers love sports and given the advances in technology and health care just about any body part is replaceable with upgraded technology. I, for instance, have an artificial hip and play tennis three times a week. Another player has two artificial knees.
Making the jump into retirement is one of life's most stressful leaps. Most Boomers are at the top of their profession, earn a decent wage and have health benefits. Giving that up to enter the unknown creates stress. I suspect the stress will not be so much with income, as part-time jobs will be available, but with the availability and cost of health insurance.
This survey's positive note about growing old in America is a welcome respite from the doom and gloom we've seen on the nightly news and a stock market that isn't expected to rebound to pre-recession levels.
This survey was conducted between February 23 and March 23.