From the June 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

June 1, 2008

How Will Baby Boomers Age?

Thirty years from today, the youngest baby boomer turns 74 years old, and the oldest turns 92. We still won't know how many boomers will live to age 100, but barring an unforeseen catastrophe, well north of 2 million eventually will. A remarkable number of the 2038 vintage boomers will have health status superior to that of their grandparents at age 65. What follows is a look backward from the world of 30 years hence.

Rather than moving en masse into "same age" retirement communities as many forecasters and developers predicted, many millions of baby boomers sold both their suburban houses and cars, and moved back into center cities, embracing an active urban lifestyle.

A significant number of boomers, even those with bomb-proof resource positions, were still working 30 years hence, perhaps as many as one-third of the generation. While many worked because they lacked sufficient retirement savings, a larger number of boomers worked because there were constitutionally incapable of retiring. Baby boom entrepreneurs continued creating new enterprises well into the third decade of the 21st century, both business and community-based, funded by trillions of dollars in capital boomers controlled. Boomers continued laying a foundation of intellectual property and infrastructure which created tens of millions of new jobs for the much larger millennial generation that began in 1979. These new jobs, in turn, generated greater fiscal capacity to help fund Medicare and Social Security benefits for baby boomers.

On the health front, early onset of symptoms of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension spurred by the 1990-2010 obesity epidemic catalyzed an awareness on the part of boomers, federal policymakers, employers and boomers' children of the risks of a shortened life span. While a depressing number of obese boomers failed to make it to Medicare age, adult obesity first drifted down, then plummeted in the decade of 2015-2025, spurred by new advances in understanding of human metabolism and profound dietary and lifestyle changes. The trend was aided materially by a sharp increase in sales taxes on soft drinks and snack foods, and an exemption for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Employers, health plans and families aggressively embraced new Web-based tools for evaluating and improving personal health, and people connected to each other and their caregivers through expanding and vital online communities. As wireless broadband connectivity became ubiquitous, the cell phone/mobile computing platform sprouted powerful sensors that monitored people's health in their homes and cars through a kind of "OnStar for people," protecting them and continuously connecting them to the care system. People that encountered life threats were whisked to medical centers in minutes by remotely piloted emergency air ambulances, stabilized en route by mobile, remotely managed intensive-care platforms.

The health infrastructure became woven seamlessly into everyday life and was available "on demand." The concept of a "patient"-- a passive ward of the health system -- was replaced by that of a "connected citizen," an active agent in one's own health. People who wished to opt out were free to do so, but they paid more of their own health insurance bills.

A strategically timed economic downturn that lasted from 2008 through 2010 reminded baby boomers that real estate and financial assets did not reliably and continuously appreciate in value. This downturn spurred a lot of soul searching, and an eventual rationalization of boomers' personal debt, which had spiraled out of control during the previous 15 years. This downturn, one of the first that many boomers had experienced in their adult lifetimes, not only raised to new saliency the importance of positive personal cash flow, but also spurred a sharp rise in savings rates and improvements of personal balance sheets.

Twenty-one million baby boomers were single by 2015, and that decade was one hell of a party. Boomers took advantage of improvements in personal health and newly flexible work arrangements to enjoy their lives and their millennial grandchildren in a way their parents and grandparents had largely failed to do by working themselves to exhaustion and then collapsing into full-time idleness. By better integrating work, leisure, family and community commitments, a generation of boomer workaholics spent their 30 years in a better-balanced life than they experienced in their middle decades.

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Jeff Goldsmith, Ph.D., is president of Health Futures Inc. and associate professor of public health sciences at the University of Virginia. His book, The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in May 2008.

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