Welcome to the silver age

The new generation of “sixtysomethings” won’t sit around the house wondering what to do. They will revolutionize retirement with their commitment to serving society.

Jurriaan Kamp and Tijn Touber | May 2006 issue
A recent cover of the American music magazine Rolling Stone displayed an intriguing phrase: “England’s Newest Hitmakers.” Four men in their 60s are smiling broadly: the Rolling Stones. The band has been recording and touring for nearly 40 years and recently released what many say is its best CD in 20 years. That same issue spotlights sexagenarians Neil Young and Paul McCartney (“Best album in years”). Yet Rolling Stone isn’t exactly a magazine for the Geritol generation given that six out of 10 readers are between the ages of 18 and 34.
Hidden behind this rock ‘n‘ roll cover story is a very critical social issue: an aging population in Western nations. Economists, politicians and media mainly focus on it as a “problem.” More and more people are getting older; who is supposed to pay for their retirement? This is indeed a problem, but perhaps this problem also offers a wonderful opportunity.
We’re on the eve of a unique event: The largest and most idealistic generation in memory is on the verge of turning 65—the traditional retirement age. These baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1964—are healthier and more energetic than any previous generation and, by all accounts, they aren’t planning on sitting around the house in their golden years. Over three-quarters of the boomers say they want to remain active in society and are looking forward to a new, productive phase of life in which ideals and a desire to serve society are important. Fears about aging populations sapping the resources of society may turn out to be completely unfounded as older people initiate the process of regenerating society.
Let’s refresh our memories: It was the baby boomers who made the 1960s a separate chapter in modern history. They were the ones who preached about love and peace, who demonstrated against nuclear weapons and wars, who pioneered alternative medicine and natural foods and who explored ways to create a more humane capitalism. They brought the Vietnam War to a close. They raised their voice for the Earth (the Greens), for feminism (Gloria Steinem) and against racism (Jesse Jackson). Most of all, they sparked widespread hope for a better future and that hope has not yet been extinguished.
It all seems like a long time ago, but take note: In five years, the first baby boomers will be celebrating their 65th birthdays. Their children have long since left home, their mortgages are (largely) paid, and most of them have the time, the health, the means and the energy to rededicate themselves to the ideals which they first articulated 40 years ago. More than half say they want to make time to serve the community. A majority of those want to be involved with teaching; other popular roles are nursing, health care work and caring for children.
If baby boomers put the ideals of yesteryear back atop their agendas, it will lead to nothing less than a social revolution. After all, they comprise the biggest generation in world history, twice the size of the previous one and one and a half times bigger than the generation that followed. Added to this is the fact that baby boomers generally have the financial means to put their ideas into practise. In the United States, people over age 50 have nearly half the country’s personal wealth. They are also the best-educated generation in history in nearly all countries. That combination of financial power and access to knowledge means that the coming years of the 21st century could mark a historic turnaround when the youthful dreams of the 1960s may become a reality.
Many baby boomers aren’t waiting for mandatory retirement. With the travails of their own parents’ retirements still fresh in their minds, they are planning to do things differently. In many cases, their parents experienced mandatory retirement as a premature and cruel banishment from society’s daily life. While they may have welcomed more free time, they regretted the accompanying loss of involvement and meaning. The key to happy and healthy retirement years, according to a 2003 survey conducted for AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), is that people feel appreciated and have the chance to make a contribution to society.
This seems to contradict the golden dream of retirement that has grown up over the years. Financial planners and condo developers sell a vision of old age as a time of permanent vacation, preferably on the French Riviera or by the pool in a Florida resort. Advertisements and billboards show images of deliriously happy, tanned older people playing golf on manicured courses. That seems like a wonderful dream if you’re sitting in traffic on your way to a busy job, but it is increasingly an illusion. For many people, the carefree life beside a golf course turns out to be a sad existence, devoid of sustaining commitments and lacking meaning.
After all, how much golf can you really play?
Japan, where 20 percent of the population is already 65 or older, is already grappling with these problems. Women frequently use the phrase sodai gomi (“large-sized waste”) for their retired spouses. Wives feel so burdened by their pension-age husbands who sit at home getting bored and telling them what to do that they develop all kinds of psychological complaints. Dr. Nobuo Kurokawa even coined a term for it: “Retired Husband Syndrome.” He has two important recommendations for his patients: get therapy and spend as little time with your husband as possible.
The modern notion of retirement as an escape, set apart from the rest of our lives, is barely a century old. Earlier societies saw things very differently. Before the Industrial Revolution—even as far back as Mesopotamia and Babylonia—there was no thought of separating out the elderly and sidetracking them away from society. When Alexander the Great conquered Asia just prior to 300 B.C. his most-feared legion was comprised of 3,000 older men—the “Silver Shield”—whose life experience made them formidable warriors.
Even in ancient Rome, senior citizens were expressly chosen to fill the most important positions in society. The word “senate” comes from the Latin word “senex,” which means “old man” and is the root of the word “senior.” In most native societies, status and prestige increase as the years pass. It’s difficult for us to imagine, but until the late 19th century, it was cool to look old. Men did their best to appear older by wearing wigs powdered white. Clothing accentuated an older build: narrower, rounded shoulders, wide hips and jackets with slits in the back suggesting a stoop. For our ancestors, grey hair wasn’t a problem. On the contrary, older people weren’t written off, but continued to play an active and valuable role, even when they were no longer economically productive.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck set the retirement we still use back in 1889 when Germany began paying state pensions to people over age 65. In his time that made sense. After a life of unremitting labour, people were often frail and sick, unfit for the back-breaking jobs that dominated that era and nearly ready for the casket. Indeed, Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state was mainly inspired by the fact that the greybeards of the time were slowing productivity in the factories. Since far fewer people lived beyond the age of 70, it was not a great financial burden for the German state.
The notion that society should take care of its older population is, of course, sensible and compassionate. It’s quite another story, however, when society forces individuals to retire, as is the case in many countries. Mandatory retirement ages have met with resistance from the moment they were introduced, both in Europe and the United States. Most employees felt it was humiliating to be written off.
So, with the help of insurance companies, resort developers and the travel industry, the whole image of old age was reshaped during the 1950s. Older people would no longer be told they had no right to work after their 65th birthday, but that they had the right not to work. They had the right to “golden years,” to a well-deserved vacation, until death came knocking.
That strategy succeeded. In 1950, half of all men worked beyond age 65. In 2000, the figure was less than 18 percent. In Europe and the United States, senior housing developments grew like wildfire. The message was always the same: You don’t have to worry about a thing; we’ll entertain you.
But early signs show that boomers will upturn traditional notions of what it means to be old, just as they did with what it means to be young in the 1960s and ’70s. The new sixtysomethings appear ready to spend their golden years in a more productive way. They are, in most cases, the most financially secure older generation in history. Freed from the necessity to make a daily living, many are preparing to tackle the challenges that face the planet.
The influence of this silver generation could be huge. In 30 years, one-quarter of the American population will be over age 65—the first time in U.S. history that more people are over age 65 than under age 18. And in the European Union the number of workers between age 50 and 64 will increase by 25 percent over the next two decades while the number of workers aged 20 and 29 will decrease by 20 percent. Those demographics make it inevitable that the standard age of retirement will come up for discussion. The European Union recently called on its member states to adopt a law banning age discrimination, outlawed in the United States since 1967. Japan recently raised the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65. And Australia and the United States have completely scrapped the requirement to retire. This is an inevitable development. If German Chancellor Bismarck were alive today, he would set the retirement age much higher.
Many changes are already in the works as the potential of the silver generation is realized. Some companies are starting to see the advantages of retaining older employees. This is commonly called “from boomer to boomerang.” Older staff members offer life experience and wisdom, and employees over age 40 have been shown to be more motivated, reliable and even productive—as long as no heavy labour is involved. They also call in sick less often.
One of the companies that has recognized the importance of older workers is Volkswagen. The car manufacturer initiated a 50 Plus programme geared toward keeping older employees on the payroll. Corporate Executive Director Bodo Marshall explains why his company got rid of its early-retirement policy: “Older workers are indispensable to keeping the company competitive and profitable.” Volkswagen’s programme includes adjusting the working space of older employees to accommodate their changing needs, implementing an active health-care programme and providing continued training for all employees (in the corporate world, most older workers are given substantially less training than their younger colleagues).
But the promise of the coming silver generation is about more than carrying on with the same work they’ve been doing for decades. The real hope lies with those who will make use of the talents they’ve developed, seizing the opportunity to act upon their ideals. They have the time and the energy to put their talents to work for good causes, from foster grandparent programmes to environmental cleanups to human-rights projects. They can dedicate themselves to closing the gap between rich and poor by advising and guiding entrepreneurs in poor countries. Or they can pitch in to help with the challenge increasingly facing Western countries of integrating various cultures.
There is no lack of important, meaningful work in the world. A lot of promising initiatives do stall because of a lack of time and money. But the baby boom generation has both elements in ample supply. That’s a breakthrough that should not be missed—for the sake of our society and for the baby boomers themselves. If the coming sixtysomethings succeed in replacing the retirement motto “free from work” with “free to work,” the world will be given something beautiful. The dull grey image of aging will take on a silvery shine. Welcome to the Silver Age.

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