As thousands of baby boomers enter their 70s every day in this country, it’s clear that this generation is changing our idea of what constitutes being “old.” The “Greatest Generation” survived the Depression and saved the American Way of Life in World War II, but boomers are now reinventing the concept of older age- a historic achievement in itself. For the past century in the United States, the post-employment stage of life was viewed as a kind of epilogue to the main body of work. There were exceptions, of course, but people older than 65 were generally considered no longer active, productive, and contributing members of society. The passage of Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s were of tremendous benefit, but made older Americans appear like dependents, and further marginalized them from the rest of the “useful” population. Boomers are changing that perception, a cultural pivot point that will perhaps serve as their greatest legacy.
A big part of the rethinking of what constitutes “oldness” is the decreasing significance of biologically defined age. There is a greater understanding that one doesn’t go to bed one night “young” and wake up the following morning “old” just because it happens to be your 50th, 60th, or 70th birthday, making such milestones increasingly less important. The virtually disappearance of mandatory retirement (usually at age 65) has also made one’s age not the defining marker it used to be. The great variation in older people’s physical and cognitive condition- a 70 year old can be fit as a fiddle or a total wreck- is additional reason to no longer view biological age as a particularly reliable measure of who a person actually is.
Baby boomers’ recasting of what used to be considered “old age” or one’s “senior years” carries enormous cultural freight. By continuing to work and live active lives for as long as physically and mentally possible, boomers are blurring the lines between middle age and older age, in the process making the final phase of life not just a postscript to one’s productive years. For the next couple of decades, anyway, the word “boomers” may even come to serve as the defining term of people who are in their mid-50s or older, an interesting possibility. No one was ever really comfortable with the terminology associated with older people (“seniors,” “matures,” “elderly,” and newly politically correct labels such as “seasoned citizens,” “wellderly,” or “superadults”), making such a scenario to me an attractive one.