Changing Hues and the Baby Boom

May 13, 2012 at 2:31 am Leave a comment

Every 30 seconds someone turns 65…

Over the last few months, I’ve been speaking at conferences and workshops about the aging population. We are all aging; a process that begins as soon as we’re born. But, more recently, our focus has turned to an impressive and dare I say, imposing subgroup of the aging population; The Baby Boomers.

In 2011, the first baby boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964 – reached their 65th birthdays. This group will total an estimated 80 million people by 2050 and will have a significant impact on life as we know it.

The folklore around baby boomers was that they would be healthier, wealthier and better educated than their parents were. Images of baby boomers on the golf course and traveling throughout the world were quite popular. In reality, much of this is true. Many baby boomers are in fact, more highly educated and more likely to occupy professional and managerial positions than their predecessors. On average, they are healthier and will live longer. But they also have had more varied work histories, longer transitions out of the labor force, and work for more of their adult years than previous generations. Sixty percent of baby boomers lost value in investments because of the economic crisis, 42% are delaying retirement and 25% of those currently working claim they’ll never retire. Higher rates of separation and divorce among baby boomers, their lower rates of marriage, and fewer children have serious implications for the traditional safety net that families provided for their elders.

Baby boomers are also more racially and ethnically diverse than their predecessors. More than 9 million baby boomers are African American. While some African American baby boomers are building on the gains made through generations of struggle in areas like education, employment and financial empowerment, the reality for others is a bit more concerning. Blacks in the boomer generation, as a whole, are no better off relative to whites than their parents and grandparents. Black baby boomers are still earning about 66% of what their white age peers earn. African Americans, as a whole, have the lowest rates of marriage than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

What does this mean for the health and well-being of older African Americans? The three-fold increase of African Americans age 65 and older by 2050 will be accompanied by increases in chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer, mental health disorders like depression, and cognitive impairment such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Dramatic cuts and defunding of programs serving older adults will have devastating effects on our most vulnerable elders. The economic and time squeeze on our families has created wider holes in our traditional safety net.

So, who will serve our elders? For the first time, four generations are present in an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse workforce. Among children in the U.S., the multiracial population has increased almost 50%, to 4.2 million, since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country. The number of people of all ages who identified themselves as both white and Black soared by 134% since 2000 to 1.8 million people.

Now is the time for an intergenerational and cross-cultural perspective. Instead of the usual discourse around intergenerational transmission of poverty, trauma and disadvantage, let’s engage in conversations around intergenerational strategies that will mobilize people across the lifespan to support one another and address critical social issues in our communities. Let’s talk about how to leverage resources and assets of organizations and community members at all stages of life to support community change efforts. Let’s develop alliances across diverse organizations, systems and communities and engage community residents of all ages in leadership roles. Let’s identify ways to engage our elders in the lives of our youth and youth in the lives of our elders. Older adults can serve as literacy tutors, child advocates, youth and family mentors, parent outreach workers, and oral historians. Young people can help lessen the divide between our elders and technology, provide companionship and respite services to frail elderly and their families, and volunteer at senior centers and nursing homes.

At the same time, new spaces, practices and policies that promote interaction across the age divide should be created. So, instead of more senior centers, why not design community centers that engage and accommodate all members of the community in activities that allow old and young to interact. Instead of more adult day care facilities, why not cafés with tasty and healthy food, good customer service and affordable prices connected with learning and wellness programs and community projects to engage all ages. Of course, in order for any of this to be successful, we much engage in a bit of myth and stereotype busting about young folks and old folks along with opportunities for socialization.

When you know better, you’ll do better. As we head toward a brave old world where grandparents outnumber grandchildren, do your best to stay healthy and encourage policies that provide for a healthy lifestyle for the young and the old. Continue to support education and research to identify ways to provide better care to those who need it. Have a plan for retirement and long-term care; you’ll need it and your family will be grateful. And finally, stay involved and engaged. A change is gonna come…

To your health,

KDL

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