Will Boomers collapse the economy or start the next social revolution?

This is the first generation in history looking at a life span of 77.7 years for men and 82.5 years for women. Boomers, renowned for the civil rights movements, are now being called to create a new model for growing older in today’s world.

By 2047, it is estimated that worldwide people over 60 will outnumber those under 15 for the first time in human history. Longevity is changing every aspect of our lives—from relationships within our families to social security, insurance, education and work opportunities. The 2007 UN Report on World Population Aging sees the ‘graying’ of the world’s population as “a major challenge to the intergenerational and intra-generational equity and solidarity that are the foundations of society.”

John L. Hennessy, president of Stanford University, foresees that in the USA, “By 2057, the combined effects of Medicare and Social Security will be equal to the entire tax revenue of the country, assuming that tax revenue grows as fast as GDP.”

According to Professor Robert Saplofsky of Stanford, aging is a rare event in the natural world — and we, as human beings, are both ambivalent and ambiguous about it. He suggests that current options for addressing longevity are either to accommodate things we can’t change or to “rage against the dying of the light.” There are no precedents for dealing with an aging population at the scale we are facing.

So, will Boomers collapse the world economy or start the next social revolution?

In The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, researcher Dan Buettner identified five ‘blue zone’ areas around the world where longevity and high levels of happiness co-exist. In these five locations, aging was not automatically equated with disability. Long life was seen as a gift of time and an opportunity to keep contributing wisdom and energy to the community. Common principles for the centenarians included knowing your life’s purpose and creating a healthy social network, especially with younger family members.

Boomers intentionally creating relationships with Millennials could be the key to our future.

According to the PEW report Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, the people who passed into adulthood at the turn of the 21st century don’t see their elders as an inconvenience. They respect and appreciate them. They prefer being connected and having a community of support. They interact as partners, listen to their family and friends as their ‘trusted experts’, confidently ask questions and then make choices. A majority of them say Boomers are superior when it comes to moral values and work ethic. They know that, as their elders age, they may not contribute in the same ways to their lives, but they do want them to contribute nonetheless.

The challenge is that Boomers, on the other hand, were brought up to be self-sufficient and independent. They don’t necessarily expect younger generations to listen to them or to want to collaborate with them.

There is an opportunity for Boomers to have a different relationship with their children than the relationship they had with their parents. Boomers may want to consider shifting their understanding of and relationship to aging and intentionally sharing their wisdom—their perspective, their experience and the best of who they are—in a way that brings out the best in younger generations. Boomers can learn a new way of eldering families and communities such as proposed through the ‘Older to Elder’ organization.

Using our extra years wisely isn’t just about us. Boomers are the role models younger generations have for growing older. In partnership with the Millennials, Boomers could help create a world that is just as responsive to the needs of the very old as the very young. The gift of longevity may actually be an opportunity for us to start the next social revolution, to turn the tide toward a more environmentally sustainable, socially just and life-enhancing future.

© 2011 Shae Hadden. All rights reserved.
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