(Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging.)
Our nation’s 76 million boomers have been given an unprecedented gift of health and longevity. But to a great extent, we’re squandering this gift. It’s time to create new expectations and norms for people aged 60 to 100 — and create a playbook on how to master aging.
I’m part of the boomer generation. We’re proud, vigorous men and women who are celebrating our bonus years. We’ll have twice as many healthy years in retirement as our grandparents did. But what society expects of us has hardly changed since the 1950s: the primary, and often only, purpose of the “golden years” to pursue leisure. In my view, this is ageism at its worst.
While everyone’s life course is different, the average boomer at age 65 will have 14 healthy years (women a bit more, men a bit less) before health declines significantly. That means collectively, boomers will have more than 1 billion years of healthy life expectancy past typical retirement age.
We’re still not doing all the things we know are good for ourselves and for our communities.
Boomers Have More to Give
Boomers have earned the right to spend more time with their grandchildren, play golf, travel and do whatever else gives them pleasure. However, our country also needs them to be as healthy and productive as possible. Today, not all boomers are taking the simple steps they could to improve their own lives and those of others.
Fewer than one in five people over 65 are employed or looking for work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average retiree aged 65 to 74 spends eight hours a day in leisure — including four-and-a-half hours watching television. Other surveys show that, on average, people over 65 spend less than five minutes per day in volunteer activities.
I remember well the idealism of our youth. We passionately wanted to make the world better. But back then, we had very little ability to effect change. Then life happened and most of us got sidetracked with work, family and other obligations that kept us busy until retirement age. Now 40 years later, we’re entering the third stage of our lives — and we actually do have the time, skills, knowledge, influence and connections to improve the world.
Needed: A New Approach to Master Aging
We’re among the most educated older adults in history. Yet, we’re still not doing all the things we know are good for ourselves and for our communities. What we need is a new approach to master aging — where we learn how to stay healthy and economically secure, plan for our end of life, stay engaged, give back to our communities,and, yes, continue our road to self-discovery.
Imagine: If every boomer devoted just one hour each day to engaging in healthy behaviors, we could stay independent longer and reduce our nation’s staggering health care costs.
And if every boomer dedicated just one hour each day to making the world a better place, we would have more than 365 billion hours of extra people power for reading to children, supporting frail older adults or their caregivers, improving neighborhoods, preserving the environment or helping people in need across the world.
By dedicating time to their own health and security, boomers will stay active and independent longer. And by helping others, boomers will enrich their lives immeasurably.
Boomers: Let’s not squander our gift of longevity! Let’s learn how to master aging by rekindling the idealism of our youth and becoming the force for good that our country needs.