Can Boomers Lead an Elder Revolution?

Theordore Roszak, author of The Making of a Counter Culture, says the elderly will rise to power.

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The implications of an aging world are widely viewed with alarm. When 10,000 people a day begin reaching retirement age in a few years, how will society support them? And when these people are turning 65, thousands more will be turning 80 or 85. Who will take care of them? And how will we afford the bills? This enormous price tag is the elephant in the room during debates about healthcare reform.

[See What Gives Your Life Meaning and Purpose?] These are fair points. But what if, instead, an aging world turned out to be a good thing? Is this even possible? Well, nearly 80 million baby boomers are here to say that they've had a great run so far and they expect, no, they demand, that it will continue. AARP and other powerful advocates for seniors' interests are working toward positive outcomes as well. Are we moving toward a seniors-dominated world? And if that's so, what might this world look like?

Forty years ago, Theodore Roszak wrote The Making of a Counter Culture, which captured the late-1960s disaffection by young people across the country. They had been raised in material comfort following World War II, but they rejected the world created by those comforts. They opposed the Vietnam War and the industrial-military complex they blamed for the war. Of course, the protesters of the 1960s and 1970s did eventually join the rat race they had earlier condemned. They were the leading edge of the baby boomer generation, and they became more materialistic and prosperous by far than the corporate "sell outs" they had criticized in their youth.

Roszak, a college teacher and author of 15 books who is now in his late 70s, has issued another rallying cry to this generation with The Making of an Elder Culture, published earlier this year. In it, he argues that the baby boomers are hardly finished making their mark on the world. "Boomers, who will usher us into senior dominance, are the best educated, most socially conscientious, most politically savvy older generation the world has ever seen," he says. "I believe that generation will want to do good things with the power that history has unexpectedly thrust upon it in its senior years. What boomers left undone in their youth, they will return to take up in their maturity."

Roszak is still crusading. Conservative government leaders and consumption-driven corporations are still his bad guys. But while he makes a lot of valid points, the polemics of The Making of an Elder Culture can get in the way of the powerful forces at work here. Seniors have rising power, in numbers and especially in the voting booth. This is a global trend; the U.S. actually is younger than other industrial democracies. Advances in agriculture have enabled sustainable increases in world population. Advances in medicine have permitted this growing population to reach ages never seen before.

In the elder culture that Roszak envisions, longevity and health become driving social and economic forces. Aging boomers will return to their youthful idealism. They will work to improve the environment and climate problems. They will volunteer like crazy. In their longer lives, they will embrace newly rediscovered values. "The final stage of life is uniquely suited to the creation of new social forms and cultural possibilities," he says. "Age offers us the opportunity to detach from the competitive, high-consumption priorities that dominated us on the job and in the marketplace."

Consuming less is both an effect and an enabling cause of an emerging elder culture. Creating much smaller consumption footprints will relieve environmental pressures and also force businesses to change their priorities. Smaller working-age populations can still meet society's material needs if those needs are pared back. Healthcare consumption will be much more important, but it will be less resource-intensive. "The money we lay out for healthcare should be seen, not as a regrettable cost, but as an investment in economic progress," Roszak says. "The raw material of our economy will be ailing and aging bodies, the product will be better health, longer lives. . . . We will wake up to the fact that health and longevity are, at last, the highest state of industrial development."

While Roszak paints a very rosy future, he recognizes that it won't come about smoothly or without some serious conflicts. He places a lot of faith, perhaps too much, in the ultimate power of senior majorities to get their way in a democratic society. "Not many societies have treated their seniors as more than troublesome dependents who are expected to stand aside and let life pass them by," he observes. "We have no precedent for an insurgent elder population."

Two battlegrounds predicted by Roszak deserve mention. Both conflicts have been underway for some time but increasingly are coming out into the open. Who will pay for the longevity revolution? he asks. That question is central to the healthcare-reform debates over changes to Medicare and Medicaid. "Whatever the outcome, entitlements will be the battlefield on which the first great campaigns of the elder culture are waged," Roszak says.

[See Most Against Another $250 Payment to Seniors]

The second battlefield involves the upwards of 25 million Americans—mostly women, mostly unpaid—who now care for aging relatives. The model of home-based, family care was created in the 1800s and 1900s when there were no government safety nets and when large families were better equipped to take care of themselves. Today, more and more family members are surviving into their 80s and 90s, and are living with chronic conditions that once would have meant a quick death sentence. They are overwhelming family caregivers in both their numbers and the complexity and intensity of their medical needs. And this is happening even as family structures are crumbling.

"We are keeping people alive well beyond any limit for which the family was designed to provide wholly self-reliant care," Roszak says. This situation won't be tolerated indefinitely: "The revolt of the caregivers, when it comes, may be the turning point in the history of the elder culture, as distinctive and defining as the anti-war rallies of the 1960s and 1970s."

If baby boomers and older seniors need a role model for how to build an elder culture, Roszak holds up one drawn from their youth—Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Gray Panthers nearly 40 years ago after she was forced into retirement at the age of 65 (she died in 1995 at the age of 89). It's clear that Roszak hopes and expects that many Maggie Kuhns will emerge from the ranks of today's baby boomers.

It's time for the aged to lead the way, he quotes Kuhn as saying: "The old, having the benefit of life experience, the time to get things done, and the least to lose by sticking their necks out, [are] in a perfect position to serve as the advocates for the larger public good."

[See Is Retirement Really a Fading Goal?]