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After decades of denial, pandemic is making Minnesota baby boomers feel their age

By Kevyn Burger Special to the Star Tribune

Baby boomers, the generation that refuses to age, might have met their match in the coronavirus.

Marilyn and Juan Galloway exchanged a look that many married-with-children couples might recognize.

Their 22-year-old daughter had just dropped an unintentional bombshell, one that left them equal parts amused and wounded.

“She said, ‘If you guys get COVID, you’ve lived your lives,’ ” said Marilyn, of White Bear Lake. “She was dead serious, like, ‘You’re elderly and at the end of the road.’ We were stunned. We’re 55 and 63. We run, golf and bike. We’re more active than our kids. At the age that my grandmother wore a housecoat, I spiked my hair and dyed it purple.”

For baby boomers, it seems that COVID-19 has done what self-denial and evidence to the contrary has been unable to do: make them feel old.

For the generation whose youthful battle cry was “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and who prided themselves on remaining relevant as the years accumulated, being lumped in with the cohort regarded as frail and vulnerable has come as a shock.

“The pandemic has been a reckoning for baby boomers,” said Scott Zimmer, a speaker and trainer for Bridgeworks, a Wayzata consulting company that advises businesses on generational dynamics.

Based on sheer size, the 76 million American boomers, now between ages 56 and 74, have been courted by marketers since their postwar arrival. They have reframed every life stage they’ve passed through and were in the process of rewriting the script for their retirement years when the coronavirus arrived and stripped away their pretensions.

“They retain a youthful spirit and don’t want to slow down like previous generations. They take on encore careers and find new activities to be passionate about,” Zimmer said. “Now they’re forced to acknowledge that they’re not invincible. Even if they’re in great shape, they can’t deny that their age puts them in greater danger if they catch the virus.”

Dings and Dents

Writer Bill Souder’s upcoming biography of novelist John Steinbeck is titled “Mad at the World.”

That could also describe the 70-year-old author’s feeling about the way his age group is characterized.

“ ‘Seniors.’ ‘Elderly.’ I don’t like those terms. ‘Your sunset years.’ The labels they attach feel like they are trying to erase you. The message is that when you get older than a certain age, you’re in this other category. You are diminished, a fossil,” he said. “I don’t belong in that club.”

Souder has preferred to define himself by his activities rather than his age.

“I ride my bike, I still wade a trout stream. Last year I got a new hunting dog to trudge through the forest and fields with me. I do the same things I did when I was 40, but a little slower,” he said. “I’m like a golf ball. I’ve got dings and dents, a little asthma, a little heart disease.”

Since the arrival of the virus, Souder’s pre-existing conditions, previously regarded as minor and manageable, have prompted him to act with caution. He’s isolating in his home in Washington County in the company of his wife, their adult son who’s quarantining at home following a furlough and Sasha the wire-haired pointing griffon.

“At a certain age you are at an elevated risk and you have to live your life differently,” he admitted. “The science is clear. I can’t spin it.”

Ageism at the Root

For many boomers, the pandemic is revealing, even cementing, some long-held negative stereotypes associated with aging.

“They are experiencing ageism with the assumption that a number — their age — is the defining marker,” said Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, a national association of nonprofit providers of aging services. “They may have experienced ageism in the workplace, but not in their day-to-day lives. They’re seeing how the contributions of older adults are undervalued and underappreciated.”

Age is just a number, but how that number is perceived is subjective. As people get older, the definition of “old” changes. In a Pew Research Center study, only 21% of those between the ages of 65 and 74 said they felt old, and just 35% of those 75 and older self-identified that way.

Advances in medical science in the past half-century have created a longevity revolution that is giving Americans not only longer life spans, but more years of good health. Still, anyone north of 55 is often lumped into the same age category.

Lori Bitter believes that happens out of “ignorance or laziness.”

The president of the Business of Aging, a California consultancy that advises companies marketing to mature consumers, Bitter thinks the older demographic needs to be sliced thinner.

“There’s not enough understanding that 65 and 85 are vastly different, just as people who are 50 and those who are 65 are nowhere in the same territory. Some of the language used for this vast, diverse group is ridiculous,” she said.

“Companies and others trying to speak to the different ends of the cohort need to distinguish between them,” she said.

It’s a fine point that the pandemic does not take into account.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “the greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older,” the CDC also generalizes with the statement that “As you get older, your risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases.”

That means that in the foreseeable future, taking the threat of the virus into consideration may cause baby boomers to live more constricted lives.

“We really don’t want to get it, so we are being conservative,” said Souder. “We don’t touch our kids. We sit in the backyard. All bets are off on when that will change. But I’m not bedridden, I don’t have one foot in the grave. I’m here and a high-mileage version of myself.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.

This article is originally featured in StarTribune.

The Intergenerational Imperative: Why We’ve Never Needed Each Other More

Written for and published in ICAA Journal  by Lori K. Bitter, MS

Intergenerational. It’s the hot new buzzword in aging though it’s been around for years. It’s also steaming hot at a time when ageism is rampant and headlines report workplace warfare between Boomers and Millennials. To be sure, the unrest is real. Boomers lost jobs during the Great Recession and have struggled to earn again at the same rate. Millennials stayed in their parents’ homes, not earning enough to launch into an independent adult life. Throw family caregiving for loved ones into the mix and a clear pattern of interdependency begins to be clear.

SEISMIC SHIFTS
How did we get here? The current picture starts with increases in longevity. Since 1900 we’ve added 30 additional years of life. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the number of Americans living into their 90s will quadruple between 2010 and 2050,4 while the United Nations projects a 351% increase in the global population of adults 85+ over that same period. Unfortunately, the expectations of roles and life stages are rooted in the 1960s. Contrary to common thought, those 30 additional years aren’t simply tacked onto the end of life. Rather, they are distributed throughout the adult life stages, creating seismic shifts that our culture has yet to catch up with.

“By ‘understanding the real root of what is happening across the generational spectrum,’ we can create approaches that recognize interdependencies plus value and benefit all generations”

Young adulthood, midlife and old age are all being transformed by the addition of these years. Yet the changes continue to be written off as generational stereotypes. Understanding the real root of what is happening across the generational spectrum allows us to recognize it and work with it for the benefit of all generations

We are culturally stuck in the life stage paradigm of the last century. We followed a fairly consistent and predictable life script: 1. Go to School
2. Find a Job 3. Get Married  4. Have Children  5. Work Hard 6. Retire.

A few lucky people had some years of leisure before they died. This model has gone the way of the rotary phone, but the universal mindset has not made the change. Or, as author and gerontologist Barbara Waxman says in The Middlescence Manifesto, “We have a cultural lag. People have a lot of needless dissonance between perception and the reality of how our lives are unfolding.”

Markers of change
Life is messier. The predictable script is gone. Yet there is a discomfort with the idea of not living up to the old ideal. Consider some of these markers of change:

  • Young adults
    Taking longer to enter and finish education
    Waiting longer to marry
    Waiting longer to have children
  • “Middlescents”
    Changing career direction
    Retraining/educating
    Starting businesses
    Taking sabbaticals
  • Older adults
    Working to age 70 and beyond
    Remarrying
    Continuing education

Adulthood at every stage has seen shifts. Rather than using ageist stereotypes to put one generation down to elevate another, or feeling uncomfortable for not fitting an old-school life map, we can embrace this opportunity to create an intergenerational approach that recognizes our inherent interdependencies and values every generation for their contributions.

CHANGING PARADIGMS
Let’s examine some areas in which the shifting maps of adulthood contribute to significant intergenerational issues.

Housing
Housing is one of the industries most impacted by these life stage changes. In the US, more than 50% of Boomers have less than USD$100k saved for retirement, though many view their homes as a significant retirement asset. Most will need to sell the large family home and convert that equity to retirement income. But the demand for these homes may be very small. (This will force many Boomers to look to financial tools such as reverse mortgages.)

Millennials are not purchasing their own homes at the same rates of previous generations. They report the size of their student loans as the major issue in not being able to save for a down payment or qualify for a mortgage. With student-loan debt topping USD$1.4 trillion (and growing), research by Citizens Bank found that 60% of college graduates ages 35 and younger expect to be paying these loans into their 40s. Concern also transcends generational divides. Research conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that 2.8 million borrowers are 60 years or older, parents and grandparents of Millennial students.

The rental market
The dream of home ownership isn’t just an issue for younger generations. In 2016, home ownership in the US reached an historic low. While Millennials are part of the issue, surging Boomer interest in renting can’t be discounted.

A 2015 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that families and married couples ages 45–64 accounted for roughly twice the share of renter growth as households under age 35. In urban areas with highly competitive rental markets, it is younger renters who are losing to older renters with greater ability to pay, creating increased need for affordable rental housing.

To manage the cost of living in their homes or high rents, Boomers increasingly choose to live with a roommate. Just like Millennials, Boomers also live with roommates for social reasons. Companies, like Silvernest.com, are emerging to help older adults find roommates and provide a range of services to ensure the success of the match. Some of these matches end up being from multiple generations.

Multigenerational living
Alternatively, there is a growing trend of Boomers remaining in the larger family home and housing multiple generations under the same roof. In 2014, a record 60.6 million people, or 19% of the US population, lived with multiple generations under one roof, according to Pew Research Center. For the first time, young adults have replaced elders as the second adult generation in the household.

Three-generation households—grandparents, parents and grandchildren—include more than 27 million people, while about a million people live in households with more than three generations. Another 3.2 million Americans live in grandparent/grandchild homes. Developers have begun to recognize the needs of these households and have created models to accommodate multiple generations. Companies have evolved to create accessory dwellings—nicknamed “granny garages”—to place on properties with existing homes to house family members. And nonprofits, like Fairhill Partners in Cleveland, Ohio, have developed apartments for grandparents raising grandchildren.

The rise in multigenerational living is one reason why fewer Americans live alone now than they did in 1990.

Caregiving
Increased longevity means more generations are now involved in providing care to older loved ones. In the US, the average age of family caregivers is trending younger at 49 years old. Caregiving has also become much more of a family affair. Generation X and the Millennial Generation are stepping into caregiving roles—47% of caregivers are 18–49 years of age. Part of this shift is due to their availability to provide care due to unemployment or underemployment.

The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP report that 20% of caregivers are over age 65. There are also 1.4 million (and this estimate is low) children ages 8–18 who take care of a parent, grandparent or other elder, according to the American Association of Caregiving Youth. These hidden caregivers miss school, have little normal social life, and no support network as they navigate caring for the adults in their lives.

A looming crisis?
Cultural shifts have also led to changes in family structures and stability. Divorced and remarried at “unprecedented levels” in their younger years, Boomers have largely been responsible for the doubling of divorce rates in the 50-and-older age group since 1990. Their families are also typically smaller (fewer than two children). So what will caregiver support look like in the future?

In 2010, the ratio of available caregivers to people requiring care was 7:1. This number will continue to fall, to 4:1, as America’s Boomers push over the 80-year-old threshold in 2030. Between 2030 and 2040, the 80+ population will increase 44% while the number of caregivers increases by only 10%. The ratio completely bottoms out to less than 3:1 in 2040, when the Boomers are in old, old age. (In fact, caregiver support ratios will tumble in many countries worldwide.) Additionally, the higher percentage of unmarried Boomers and Boomers without children will require new kinds of support systems not dependent on family caregivers.

Technology is emerging to address some aspects of care. There is still a growing gap, however, in the number of jobs that will be created as a result of aging, and the number of people available to fill those roles.

Aging workforce
Who will work in aging? At some point in the 1980s, vocational education began to disappear from high schools, and the expectation grew that the majority of graduates would go to college. The tide is turning. But it’s not turning fast enough to create the healthcare and technology workforce required for the aging Boomers.

Emerging models aim to address the need for this workforce, with a focus on bridging the generational divide. Connect The Ages is a social enterprise on a mission to connect 5 million students to careers in aging by 2025. The time is certainly right to bridge the potential of Millennials and Generation Z to the aging population.

“Most students aren’t aware jobs in aging even exist, let alone future-proof, interdisciplinary jobs with room for advancement,” says 28-year-old Connect The Ages Founder and AARP Innovation Fellow Amanda Cavaleri. “We want to help educators introduce careers in aging to students by first bridging generational divides. Through our grassroots campaigns, students experience the often unknown positive side of aging and have opportunities to explore this impactful, purposeful work.”

Connect The Ages has released interviews with dozens of Millennials in aging, including architects, entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, lawyers, policymakers and technologists. Complementing the interviews is a national grassroots outreach and intergenerational storytelling and mentorship campaign. Many of the Millennials who work in aging report finding the field entirely by chance. This is not a sustainable way to meet the industry’s needs. Connect the Ages wants to create an active strategy to engage more young people in the field.

THE IMPERATIVE
We are just scratching the surface of understanding the interconnectedness of the generations and the need to work together toward solving the issues ahead of us. The imperative for our organizations, and our industry, is to discover, support and create initiatives that work toward a better-connected intergenerational future that will advance the aging field with young people and benefit everyone. We’ve never needed each other more.

References

1. National Institute on Aging and World Health Organization. (2011). Global Health and Aging. Living Longer, pp. 6–8. NIH Publication no. 11-7737. Retrieved on June 25, 2017, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/research/publication/global-health-and-aging/living-longer.

2. Waxman, B. (2016). The Middlesence Manifesto: Igniting the Passion of Midlife. Kentfield, CA: The Middlescence Factor.

3. Data 360. Life Expectancy Studies, 2016. Available at http://www.data360.org.

4. He, W., & Muenchrath, M. N., US Census Bureau. (2011). American Community Survey Reports, ACS-17, 90+ in the United States: 2006–2008, p. 2. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved on June 25, 2017, from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2011/acs/acs-17.pdf.

5. Collinson, C. (2016). Perspectives on Retirement: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. 17th Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers. P. 70. Los Angeles, CA: Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Retrieved on June 26, 2017, from https://www.transamericacenter.org/docs/default-source/retirement-survey-of-workers/tcrs2016_sr_perspectives_on_retirement_baby_boomers_genx_millennials.pdf.

6. Federal Reserve Board. (2017, June 7). Consumer Credit – G.19. Accessed June 27, 2017, from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g19/current/default.htm.

7. Citizens Financial Group, Inc. (2016, April 4). Press release: Millennial College Graduates with Student Loans Now Spending Nearly One-Fifth of Their Annual Salaries on Student Loan Repayments [Millennial Graduates in Debt study]. Retrieved on June 26, 2017, from http://investor.citizensbank.com/about-us/newsroom/latest-news/2016/2016-04-07-140336028.aspx.

8. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, The Center for Microeconomic Data. (n.d.). Data Bank. 2016 Student Loan Data Update. Number of Student Loan Borrowers by Age Group. Accessed June 28, 2017, from https://www.newyorkfed.org/microeconomics/databank.html.

9. Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University. (2015). The State of the Nation’s Housing 2015. Retrieved on June 26, 2017, from http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/research/publications/state-nations-housing-2015.

10.Cohn, D., & Passel, J. S. (2016). FactTank News in the Numbers. A record 60.6 million Americans live in multigenerational households. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved on June 27, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/11/a-record-60-6-million-americans-live-in-multigenerational-households.

11. National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute. (2015). Caregiving in the US 2015. Retrieved on June 27, 2017, from http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/caregiving-in-the-united-states-2015-report-revised.pdf.

12. American Association of Caregiving Youth. (2015). More Facts about Caregiving Youth. Accessed on June 28, 2017, from https://www.aacy.org/index.php/more-facts-about-caregiving-youth.

13. Stepler, R. (2017). FactTank News in the Numbers. Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America’s 50+ population. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved on June 28, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/09/led-by-baby-boomers-divorce-rates-climb-for-americas-50-population.

14. Redfoot, D., Feinberg, L., & Houser, A. (2013). The Aging of the Baby Boom and the Narrowing Care Gap: A Look at Future Declines in the Availability of Family Caregivers. INSIGHT on the Issues, 85. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute. Retrieved on June 27, 2017, from http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/public_policy_institute/ltc/2013/baby-boom-and-the-growing-care-gap-insight-AARP-ppi-ltc.pdf.

15. Centre for Policy on Ageing. (2014). CPA Rapid Review. The care and support of older people–an international perspective. Retrieved on June 28, 2017, from http://www.cpa.org.uk/information/reviews/CPA-Rapid-Review-The-care-and-support-of-older-people-an-international-perspective.pdf.

Reaching the Mature Audience

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I have always loved the concept of AARP’s “Movies for Grown-ups.” Mature adults are different. Developmentally, as we age, we connect more with great stories and complex, layered characters; in many ways we process our own lives through the stories of others. Praise for the movie, The Intern, with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway resonates with older adults navigating the intergenerational workplace. Learn More →

Join me in Chicago at ASA’s Aging in America 2015 & What’s Next Boomer Summit

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I will be in Chicago from March 23rd through the 27th for a week-long conference with aging professionals from all over the world. I am delighted to be presenting a program on Grandparents and Intergenerational Trends for ASA’s Aging in America Conference. Christine Crosby, Founder of GRAND Magazine will be joining me on this program:

The Grandparent Economy: How Families Are Evolving in Unprecedented Times
Tuesday, March 24th 1-2 PM
For more information: http://www.asaging.org/aia Learn More →

Q & A with Lori Bitter now live at seniorhousingnet.com


Baby boomers are changing the definition of aging in America. Lori Bitter, a consultant who specializes in engaging with mature consumers at The Business of Aging, delves into the changes in American households and their broader social effect in her new book, “The Grandparent Economy.” She answered some questions for SeniorHousingNet.com on grandparenting, the golden years and deciding where to live. Learn More →

AARP Bulletin talks to Lori Bitter on “Selling Older Consumers Short”

Reporter David Wallis of the AARP Bulletin talks with Lori Bitter about how older consumers get overlooked and how to correctly market to them. From the Bulletin: ‘Some innovative companies, including Apple, understand that. Boomers account for 41 percent of people who buy Apple computers, notes Nielsen, and commercials for the iPad reflect this. Its campaign stars the device and a diverse supporting cast using it. “There was a baby and there was a 70-year-old man,” says Lori Bitter, pointing out an admirable strategy that “doesn’t disown anyone.” The message “is timeless and ageless.”‘

Read the entire article here:www.aarp.org/money/budgeting-saving/info-2014/advertising-to-baby-boomers.3.html

American Marketing Association (AMA) Takes on the Senior Moment

AMA’s Christine Birkner interviewed us about Zillner’s new report on Seniors, All The Wiser, and how we define and market to older consumers. From Lori Bitter: “It’s best to target boomers based on their lifestyles and purchase behaviors—and their core values such as healthy eating or aging well, Bitter says. For example, General Mills’ Cheerios ads focus on heart health, which certainly resonates with boomers, but also could connect with anyone interested in living well, she says. “It’s a way of being ageless. They’re not saying it’s an old person’s cereal or a young person’s cereal. It’s more about the value of healthy eating.”

Read the full article here: https://www.ama.org/publications/MarketingNews/Pages/senior-moment.aspx

Is grandparenting the ultimate “do-over”?

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Lori talked to Huffington Post, on behalf of GRAND Magazine, on the evolution from parenting to grandparenting. Can bad parents make good grandparents? Is there a healing power in these multigenerational relationships. Read more here.

Lori Bitter talks to AARP members at AARP’s Ideas@50+: Multigenerational lifestyles & grandparents with realtor.com

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AARP’s Ideas@50+ event in San Diego featured AARP TEK’s new RealPad roll-out, the introduction of Joanne Jenkins as AARP’s new CEO and stars ranging from Kevin Spacey to Julia Louis Dreyfus to Martha Stewart. Move.com – the parent of realtor.com and seniorhousingnet.com hosted AARP members in a special “back porch” environment complete with lemonade and fresh baked cookies. Members heard from experts in senior care, caregiving, and aging in place technology. Paul Irving, Milken Institute, and author of The Upside of Aging, spoke on “Making Cities More Senior Friendly.” Lori did a presentation on “The New Multigenerational Lifestyle,” based on her new book The Grandparent Economy.

Lori speaks at Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, June 25th 2014

On June 24th, Lori Bitter will moderate a bootcamp session on “Driving Leads and Sales in the Longevity Economy” featuring panelists from Zillner The Senior Agency and Digital Niche. Learn More →