Baby Boomers…or Bust!
Periodically, I like to study the Geriatrics Review Syllabus (GRS), published by the American Geriatrics Society. I find it useful to refresh my memory in certain areas and to learn new material in others. The information is always up to date and well worth the time that one devotes to the project. This time, however, in light of the recent drastic changes in the economy, I found myself questioning the validity of a statement contained in Chapter 1 as it relates to “baby boomers” (of which I am one):
“Compared with their parents at the same age, baby boomers typically have higher income, are preparing for retirement at largely the same pace, and have accumulated more private wealth. On the whole, boomers are on track to have higher incomes in retirement than their patients and appear much less likely to live in poverty after they retire.”1
Sadly, the significant downturn in the economy has likely changed the future plans and hopes of a generation of baby boomers, possibly indicating the need for a study examining how the baby boomers will fare in response to the difficult changes in our economy.
With the Dow index dropping below 7000 at the time of this writing, and some predicting that it will reach 5000 for the first time in almost 15 years, many baby boomers have had to face a new reality and reconsider plans for retirement. Unlike past generations that had work-sponsored pensions that provided a fixed income, we find our retirement money invested in a variety of plans that fluctuate with the stock market. True, there has been greater potential for a financial windfall, but few of us predicted that within a few years our net worth would be less than half of what it was. Many of us in our 50’s and 60’s were still counting on doubling our money prior to retirement so that we could live on the interest we would earn, and then pass on a sizable inheritance to our children. This was the reality of what we were told and believed as we agreed to let set pensions dissipate without questioning whether this was a good thing.
While many older persons say that they will continue to work and delay retirement, it is important to note that not everyone enjoys good health and is able to work into old age. Forced retirement is another reality that the baby boomers may face as the workplace strives to improve efficiency and productivity, and younger workers compete with older ones for fewer jobs. We have not seen such high unemployment rates in decades, and the numbers being reported are only part of the story, as those who have given up looking for employment or who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits are not even included in the numbers. Intergenerational competition for jobs will likely create new stress and conflicts.
It has been projected that even if the economy turns around, it will likely take more than 15 years to return to what it was just last year, not at the higher level many of us were counting on; many baby boomers do not have that much time left for the catch-up. Clearly, this prediction might be wrong, but it does present a challenge to the baby-boomer generation. Many of my colleagues now talk of having to work much longer than they had hoped for previously, and even then, facing a lifestyle in retirement that is much less than what they have become accustomed to and had hoped for only a short while ago.
The children of the baby boomers will also likely inherit much less than they had previously planned for and will also need to face the fact that Medicare and Social Security may not be there in the same form that it is now when they reach the age of “entitlement.” Older generations working longer will also reduce the younger generation’s chances of finding employment, and could delay or make impossible career advancement. This uncertainty has begun to take a toll on the emotional health of the baby-boomer generation, as well as society in general; the future is uncertain and seemingly out of our control.
In the Palmore Facts on Aging Quiz, developed a few decades ago, there is a question that asks one to respond “true” or “false”: “The health and socio-economic status of older people (compared to younger people) in the year 2000 will probably be worse or about the same as that of today’s older people.” Palmore wanted you to respond “false” to this question, as it was projected that future generations of older persons would enjoy better health and economic status. While improved health is still something the baby boomers can expect over prior generations of older persons, the jury is still out on our economic stability and future. I hope that we will not need to change the answer to “true” if the question was to fast-forward to the year 2030.
Author Affiliations: Dr. Gambert is Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.