Will baby boomers be known as givers or takers?
As a baby boomer, Ken Dychtwald knows the value his generation places on staying youthful, energetic, and active as long as possible. At the same time, as a gerontologist and bestselling author on retirement and aging, he sees a looming paradox.
"Boomers want to get old at 90 but get old-age entitlements at 65," he says.
Who can blame them? Age 65 has always been the benchmark for receiving full Social Security benefits. Already that age is gradually rising to 67, with some on Capitol Hill hoping to raise it again to 70. As companies reel under the weight of pensions, and as Congress considers changes to Medicare, the battle cry among current and future retirees is: "Save our entitlements."
Deciding who gets what entitlements - and when - promises to be a delicate and sometimes noisy balancing act for years to come. As Dr. Dychtwald looks ahead to the millions of baby boomers who will start turning 65 in 2011, he expresses concern about the huge amounts of federal money that will need to be set aside for older people. The 76 million baby boomers, he warns, could be blamed for straining entitlement funds.
He also cautions that making too strong a case for more entitlements could inadvertently promote stereotypes of dependence and frailty. That in turn could perpetuate the subtle ageism he still sees creeping into marketing.
"We have created the wrong model of maturity in this country," Dychtwald told an audience at the American Society on Aging conference in San Francisco last week. "Instead of saying 'More, more,' we need to get involved."
At each stage of life, he explains, "people have things to take and things to give." Although the average age of retirement was 62 in the 1990s, he adds, "At 62, you are not exempt from giving."
What Americans need, Dychtwald insists, is a "new map of aging" to reflect the heartening new reality that people are not old at 65. Explaining that people make plans and assumptions about their careers and their later years based on the current timetable of retirement at 65, he argues that old age needs to be redefined as occurring much later.
He exults in the current "triumph of longevity" and the "rising revolution of older adults who are discarding all the stereotypes." Now the collective task is to translate that triumph and that revolution into widespread changes in attitude and behavior. That includes giving as well as getting.
For some, the new map of aging will feature a different kind of entitlement - the right to work beyond a conventional retirement age. As one measure of how the employment landscape is already changing, the four-day conference on aging included 24 sessions on workforce issues.
For others, the new map may include uncharted territory. Dychtwald praises former President Jimmy Carter for "reinventing himself" in retirement through his hands-on work with Habitat for Humanity, pounding nails under the hot sun to build houses for low-income families. Carter, says Dychtwald, "uses the role of elderhood as a planter of seeds, not a harvester of fruit."
But being planters and givers rather than harvesters and takers will require a massive reorientation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, older people have the lowest rate of volunteerism of any group in the country. Some, of course, are unable to share their time or talent. Others who may be willing to help lack transportation to get there. That still leaves vast numbers able to reach out.
Instead of seeing retirement as simply a time for "goofing off," as one conference speaker put it, Dychtwald views it as an opportunity for the "articulation of wisdom" and a period of stimulating new activity. That activity offersintriguing alternatives to some of the 43 hours of television the average retiree reportedly watches weekly.
The importance of purposeful activity also ran as a leitmotif through the conference in nearly a dozen sessions on volunteering. Another 43 workshops focused on education for older adults.
As one way of encouraging individuals to reach out, Dychtwald urges AARP to marshal its vast resources and broaden its advocacy. Instead of simply focusing on lobbying for entitlements, however important they might be, he encourages the powerful group to emphasize public service and civic engagement as well.
The images of the later years that Americans perpetuate matter in a broader context as well. Emphasizing the global influence of the United States, Dychtwald reiterates his concerns about the growing demand for entitlement. He warns that Americans are exporting a narcissistic "me, me" model of aging all over the world.
How we change that model could have far-reaching consequences. For better or worse, the world is watching.