Why Baby Boomers Should Rethink Retirement

A boom in aging seniors will require many changes in Social Security, Medicare, and, yes, retirement.

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Robert Butler regularly works 12-hour days, and he recently hopscotched, in the span of six weeks, from the Netherlands to Dubai to Davos, Switzerland, to drum up support at various conferences for research on preparing for the coming age boom. At 82, the scientist, expert on successful aging, grandfather, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author—who coined the term "ageism" four decades ago to describe discrimination against the elderly—is living proof that humans, like fine wine, can deepen in complexity with time. As 2009 drew to a close, he was "preparing to visit my daughter in Palm Springs be­fore heading to Canyon Ranch for a week of exercise."

The head of the International Longevity Center, a research and policy organization he founded two decades ago to "maxi­mize the benefits" of aging, is committed to identifying and spreading the word about ways to get older people out of their armchairs, eating more healthful foods, and engaged in work and learning along with their golf and bridge. Nonsense! he says in response to doomsday predictions of what's bound to happen as nearly 80 million baby boomers enter their twilight years—among them, that the skyrocketing costs will bankrupt the nation. Yes, action is called for, but catastrophe is hardly inevitable, Butler argues, and in fact, there's reason to look forward to a golden age of aging. Seniors today are living more independently; fewer of them are dying of lengthy and debilitating bouts of cancer thanks to improved screening, better treatments, and a drop in smoking; and they're happier than they were in the past, according to a 2008 University of Chicago study. "We need to alter our thinking about old age," Butler says, and realize that it "can be positive and con­structive."

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This shift can't come too soon. The Census Bureau forecasts that the 65-and-over population will rise from 38.7 million in 2008 to 88.5 million by 2050 and that the 85-and-over slice will swell from 5.4 million to 19 million. The actual size of this "age wave," though, could reach tsunami proportions, if a December study from the healthcare policy journal Milbank Quarterly turns out to be prescient. It predicts an average American life span of 86 years for a man and 93 years for a woman by 2050—more than a decade longer than now—and a grand total of up to 108 million seniors.

Retirement = quaint. Transforming this explosion from a negative to a positive requires a complete overhaul in how Americans approach seniordom, Butler says: They should expect to work and learn longer, begin well in advance to protect themselves against chronic disease—some 50 percent of today's seniors live with disease or disability—and prepare to age at home. "I believe the word retirement in a decade will be a quaint, charming term that people used to use," says Larry Minnix, president of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, a nonprofit trade group. Already, a handful of community colleges have begun offering accelerated courses to help the 50-plus set move from the private sector to a public-service job. Housing complexes and villages catering to seniors have sprung up across the country, enabling them to remain in place or even move back from a nursing home.

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But there's no coordinated national strategy, and health policy experts agree that one is urgently needed. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security require extreme makeovers; federal spending on the three programs is expected to rise in the next decade from 7 percent of gross domestic product to nearly 12 percent. A ballooning obesity epidemic, which threatens to halt those life-span extensions or even undo them, could greatly affect the quality of life of the elderly. Between 2005 and 2007, obesity rates among adults ages 55 to 64 rose in 49 states and were up in all 50 states for those 65 and over, according to a recent report commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.