- The baby-boomer generation has enjoyed more advantages in education and employment than any other generation before them.
- Getting older but feeling youthful is a common expectation of this generation.
- Baby boomers acknowledge their privileged position in society and are aware of their status as “the lucky ones”.
Fortune has smiled on the “baby-boomer generation”, which ranges from the birth years 1946 to 1964. Born after the second world war, they avoided the ravages of that conflagration and arrived in time to enjoy the fruits of the prosperity that followed it. On average, members of this generation had access to unparalleled education and employment opportunities. They benefited from the economic booms of the early 1970s and late 1980s as well as long-term, stable employment and the opportunity to steer social transformation in the form of student and feminist movements.
Now approaching retirement, this generation is doing it again. Baby boomers’ experience of the past 50 years matters because of the sheer numbers of the cohort. By 2015 more than 20 European countries had reached the point where the number of people aged over 65 outnumbered children under the age of 15, according to a study by Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division. With their relative prosperity and good health, the baby boomers are reshaping our perceptions of ageing.
Taking a second look at “old age”
“I don’t know what 63 should feel like. I don’t think quite as fast anymore, but I am still very active and I’m not considering retirement. In a way, that is probably how one feels in your early 50s,” says René Vögtli, 63, a master of the Japanese healing technique Reiki, based in Lucerne, Switzerland. “The concept of stopping is alien to me.”
“Everyone wants to get old, but nobody wants to be seen as old,” explains Frank Leyhausen, CEO of German communications consultancy MedCom International, which specialises in reaching the over-50s demographic.
Healthier, better educated and more prosperous than their parents, the baby boomers are taking control of their own ageing. This is for a good reason, according to Mr Leyhausen. “Baby boomers have the highest income levels, the most real estate. A lot of people say this is the richest senior generation we have ever had, and will ever have."
He adds that there is still a strong healthcare and pension system in Germany: “The financial aspects of ageing are not as much of a threat as health issues and loneliness for baby boomers. But this will change for the younger generation”.
Leaving the comfort zone
Far from sticking to a routine, the baby-boom cohort is on the lookout for new experiences and ways to stay open-minded and youthful. George Assaf, aged 63, from Vienna, Austria, chose to walk part of the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrim route from the border of France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He walked more than 850 km in 44 days.
“For me, retirement isn’t just when you go and vegetate,” says the former director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation. The walk was motivated by the need to transition from a stressful career into retirement and to reflect on what to do in the future, says Mr Assaf.
In Germany, the desire for new experiences is evident in the rise of overseas volunteering among the over-50s. Partly, this is because the current crop of seniors is more worldly than before, according to Bettina Wiedmann, executive director of Experiment e.V., a Bonn-based non-profit that organises such programmes.
In 2013 Experiment e.V. launched Weltweit Aktiv, a €2,000 scholarship for anyone over the age of 50 to help fund a volunteering programme. Those in the right age group jump at the chance to volunteer, whether it is teaching in Nepal or working on women’s programmes in South Africa. “Baby boomers are more open to new experiences,” Ms Wiedmann observes. “They want to leave their comfort zone and gain new perspectives.”
Ageing well, not anti-ageing
Aside from travel, the baby boomers of today strive to maintain a youthful lifestyle as well as a youthful perspective, according to Sophie Schmitt, CEO of Seniosphère Conseil, a Paris-based consultancy. The movement favouring an active lifestyle in later years has replaced the youth-worshipping culture of the 1980s, which focused mostly on women’s appearance.
"Baby boomers are ready to take more risks because they want to enjoy life. They don’t want to be like the former generation and stop doing everything because they are ageing," says Ms Schmitt. "They have the money, and they expect to enjoy life much more than previous generations because they were able to access fast-moving consumer goods when they were growing up. It was a revolution for them."
Finally, there is social pressure for baby boomers to continue to be active members of society—a pressure they put on themselves too, according to Mr Leyhausen. In 2012, 65% of people surveyed in an EU Active Ageing study said they wanted to combine part-time work and a partial pension after reaching the official retirement age.
Obtaining recognition for their input—whether through starting second careers, launching a business or contributing their knowledge in community settings—is the overriding motivation, argues Mr Leyhausen. Work allows nominal retirees to avoid “empty-desk syndrome” and escape the feeling of being overlooked or no longer useful.
In enjoying—and expecting—a healthy, active and challenging retirement, baby boomers have redefined ageing, notes Ms Schmitt. “But baby boomers can definitely afford it. The question is whether the next generation will be able to do so too,” she adds. For now, old age is a new time for opportunity. The next generations—the millennials and the baby-bust cohort—may not be so lucky.