The New Elders

Eric Utne and career coach Richard Leider on mentoring, wisdom, and why boomers can still save the world

| Utne Reader September / October 2007

The numbers, to crib an enduring remnant of '60s slang, are mind-blowing.

Between 1946 and 1964, 78 million Americans were born. Products of the post-war baby boom, they compose 20 percent of the populace and, based on sheer numbers, stand to become the most politically influential group of senior citizens in the nation's history.

As families, policymakers, and health care providers brace for the coming gerontocracy, author Marc Freedman imagines two future worlds in his book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life (Public Affairs, 2007).

In the darker version, the year is 2030, one in four people is over 60, and these seniors are proving to be a collective pain in the pocketbook. 'Walkers outnumber strollers, nursing homes proliferate while schools close,' Freedman writes. 'The millennial generation, now mostly in their thirties and forties, have taken 'extreme working' to new heights, pulling extra shifts to support not only truly needy children and the elderly, but also a vast cohort of 'greedy geezers' spending one-third of their lives on subsidized vacation.'

This bit of Freedman's prose is pitched at an angle that's increasingly popular among cultural commentators. Despite recent figures that suggest aging trends could play out calmly -- in part because boomers likely will work longer and won't retire en masse -- doomsday scenarios make for tantalizing headlines, especially when the villains are burned-out hippies or soulless sellouts or both.

Freedman ultimately believes in a brighter future, one that represents a school of thought quietly emerging among aging influentials. 'Faced with the practical necessity of extended working lives, boomers have made it a virtue, getting busy on their next chapters,' he writes in a second scenario. 'A generation that set out to change the world surely did, by changing the way the world thought about the purpose of work and the definition of success.'