Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Advice to Boomers

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy birthday, Baby Boomer: Now that you're turning 60, you may finally grow up.

You note the edge in my voice. As a "war baby" -- one of those born between 1940 and 1945 -- I've had to put up with your hogging all the attention just because you're an unprecedented demographic bulge. (Spare me that worn-out pig-in-a-python image.) You've gotten the credit for reshaping history, from hard rock and free love to the civil rights and women's movements.

But as you huff to blow out all those candles, listen to your older sibs. We are a fault-line generation: too young to be molded by the Depression and World War II; too old to need two classrooms for the third grade. But we paved the way for you through the wilderness of social change; you, with your vast numbers, followed, permanently altering the cultural landscape. We are pioneers; you are colonizers.

This pattern is about to repeat itself. Your 60th birthday is a symbolic crossing from the familiar world of adulthood to a new continent of longevity. We've made a rough map. But you will settle here and build the infrastructure needed to support and engage a graying population.

Alas, you don't get it -- yet. As gerontologist Robert N. Butler told the recent White House Conference on Aging: "Society is not prepared for you, and you're not prepared for longevity."

Wake up, Little Susie! (Boomer George W. Bush once told Oprah Winfrey this was his favorite song.) Seriously, history is calling on your generation again. My birthday wish -- for you and for the good of the country -- is that you hang on to the characteristics for which you are famous.

Be loud and obnoxious. That's what it will take to create a hospitable environment for older men and women. You once stormed the barricades of racism and sexism and redistributed -- to a limited extent -- the country's precious natural resource of opportunity. Now you must muster your numerical power to overcome the barriers of ageism and derogatory stereotypes of older people -- at home, in the hospital, on television, in the workplace.

More than 80 percent of boomers expect to work after 65, according to the Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey. But the current labor market can't accommodate you. Age discrimination, especially in hiring, is a factor. Current laws on retirement and employee benefits discourage part-time work. Even if you want to donate your services, many nonprofit volunteer agencies don't know how to use your talents.

The country will have to create space in the workplace for older workers, just as it did for women and minorities. Perhaps you can form a Fifth Column while you're still employed (especially if you are the CEO) and change policies and prejudices against older workers from within. Or start your own company or nonprofit.

Be selfish. You are typically bashed for being the Me Generation. And you do seem to regard self-actualization as a birthright. You know how to reinvent yourself in a new job, a new place. AARP surveys have found that more than half of all boomers have already changed careers.

This ability to renew and reinvent will be an asset. Settling into two or more healthy decades requires that you create a next chapter for yourself in work and relationships, in leisure and learning, in psychological growth and spiritual awakening.

What's more, the selfish energy of youth and adulthood to get ahead tends to morph into a kinder, gentler selfishness. I hope you will become just as self-absorbed on behalf of others. (Think Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and his global health foundation.) You will want to craft a legacy, put down roots in another generation -- that of your grandchildren and their children. You can become a steward of the culture, what Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant calls the "Keeper of the Meaning."

But the country faces an immediate threat of generational warfare as political leaders continue to focus on the burdens of an aging population rather than its assets. The rhetoric over resources will get nasty: school lunches or Meals on Wheels? You have to break up this phony fight and become public champions of the young. That way, you can help renegotiate the social contract not just to support and engage the swelling ranks of aging boomers but to give the same caring and opportunity to all generations.

Loosen up . Remember Marlo Thomas and the song "Free to Be . . . You and Me?" You've gotten a little rigid in the zoom zone of making it big and having it all. On the new frontier of longevity, there are few rules or expectations. So much is unknown. Ironically, chronological age is no longer very relevant. Health, finances, purpose and friendship are far more significant.

Your birthday gift is time. It's not all cake and ice cream and a last chance to dream a little dream. You will suffer and struggle. You know the endpoint. But you'll be making history again. You'll be a rebel with a new cause. Many happy returns.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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