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How Boomers Rearranged the 3 Boxes of Life

They may not be the Greatest Generation, but they've certainly shaken things up

By W. Andrew Achenbaum | August 30, 2012
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W. Andrew Achenbaum has written five books, including Older Americans, Vital Communities and co-edited a dozen more.

It won’t be a surprise to Next Avenue visitors that the baby boom generation has caused significant changes in America's sociological, financial and economic picture. In fact, boomers — particularly those born between 1946 and 1955 — have even altered the conventional framework for American life stages. You could say they rearranged the three boxes of life, choosing paths that did not always conform to the wishes and guidelines of their parents or grandparents. (In another Next Avenue article, nine experts explode the myths about boomers.)
 
In this essay, I’m presenting a brief version of a white paper commissioned and issued by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, a research arm of MetLife that studies the generations in America. The paper is titled How Boomers Turned Conventional Wisdom on Its Head: A Historian’s View on How the Future May Judge a Transitional Generation. You can read the full text online.
 
Boomers and Their Parents

The World War II generation, though laudable for its courage and convictions during times of great adversity, generally accepted the paths laid out for them by their predecessors. Men went into the service; women, for the most part, waited back home. After the war, men found work wherever they could, while women raised their children in much the way their parents had raised them.
 
Boomers, however, were not content with living their parents’ lives. Exercising independence, they chose different career paths, and women entered universities in much greater numbers. Underscoring the change were the various revolutions of the '60s — over the draft, women’s rights, sexual openness, civil rights and voter’s rights. Boomers set out to ensure that new freedoms applied to African-Americans, women, new immigrants and gays, not just middle-class white men.
 
Now, decades later, the same group continues to set trends as they move into their 50s and 60s.
 
Boomers Rearranged the Three Boxes of Life
 
Despite the turmoil of their youth, boomers expected their lives to unfold just as their parents' did, through three well-known boxes of life: Most would graduate from high school; enter the labor force and keep working unless childrearing, sickness, disability or layoffs forced a change; then either opt for early retirement or work until they became ill, pensioned or chose to quit.
 
But the Longevity Revolution — which added, on average, 30 years to Americans' life expectancy over the course of the 20th century — made it possible for boomers to rearrange these three boxes of life.
 
Advances in life expectancy were attributed to medical breakthroughs, especially in treating heart disease and strokes, as well as behavioral changes, like smoking cessation and dietary modifications. While obesity and poor nutrition choices remain a widespread problem, boomers incorporated preventive care into their lifestyles as they embraced exercise and holistic medicine. 
 
These extra years afforded them greater opportunities (often enveloped in unforeseen contingencies) to depart from expected patterns.
 
Box 1: Education
 
The boomers exploded educational opportunity, especially at the college level.

Colleges and universities responded to the boomers’ presence, building multipurpose student centers and adding majors and electives to attract and retain undergraduates. Now a college diploma, all agreed, was the ticket to upward mobility.
 
Two educational developments opened pathways for nontraditional students:
 
Community colleges, an inconsequential branch of higher education prior to 1946, mushroomed. They offered poor or ill-prepared students a path to colleges and universities — or a way to earn a baccalaureate degree later in life. Many boomers viewed community college as a stepping-stone to their job-related objectives.
 
At the same time, broader opportunities for adult education arose. Eager to improve and reinvent themselves, roughly 45 percent of Americans ages 45 to 64 came to participate in adult education. Corporations offered in-house training for older workers. Continuing-education programs, including ones at community colleges, designed certificates and non-credit options for boomers seeking enrichment.
 
Box 2: Work
 
The world of work also underwent major transformations.
 
Women born between 1946 and 1955 departed from the employment histories of their mothers and grandmothers, who typically had worked just briefly before marriage or after widowhood.

In contrast, boomer women acquired the education, training and experience to compete with men for jobs. Many juggled child-care responsibilities and career advancement, usually working for lower pay. Large numbers of them also assumed executive-level positions for the first time.
 
Box 3: Retirement
 
Older boomers have begun to turn the definition of retirement upside down. The recession of 2008 and concerns over health coverage have helped shatter the “myth” of retirement as an elder’s earned right to leisure lifestyles.
 
Instead, retirement has evolved into a smorgasbord of options.
 
Some who can afford it are opting for early retirement. Others choose a phased retirement, gradually reducing their hours at their full-time jobs. Many are switching to part-time work, either in a new arena or in the same field they worked full-time, but for a different employer. Still others have “un-retired” and re-entered the work force in encore careers, often to provide a public service. Nonprofits and government agencies increasingly count on boomer volunteers to devote time to faith- and community-based projects.
 
Meanwhile, becoming grandparents has proved immensely satisfying for many, and some boomers have bought second homes to spend more time with their extended families.
 
Opening Opportunities to All
 
Misfortunes, to be sure, have often derailed hopes and happy outcomes. Most boomers nonetheless have exercised considerable freedom in making life choices (sometimes regretting their decisions later). 
 
Wealth and income gaps widened over the course of boomers’ lives, which intensified class divisions. Such reversals of fortunes, however, did not undermine the ethos enshrined by boomers, which sought to make the American way of life more attainable to people from diverse backgrounds.
 
It will be fascinating to watch this group as it continues to blaze trails and open up new possibilities for life beyond age 65 — a life that remains relevant, robust and full of surprises.