Foreword Communications

Aging Across the Generations

 

As an entire generation of baby boomers ages, this unique demographic draws attention to aging in general just as it drew attention to the concept of generation merely due to the sheer size of the generational cohort. Interestingly, the baby boom generation has been relatively easy to define. And it is the comparison of certain patterns and events that allow sociologists to define generations. Generations can only be separated from one another by comparing them to one another; the cohorts that came before and the ones that come after. Generations also desire to demarcate themselves from one another. Because generation x and generation y are certainly far too young to be considered in terms of aging, the study of aging across the generations, in order to produce conclusions that are adequate, must entail baby boomers and those that came before.

 

Each generation produces an identity that is separate from previous generations and those that follow even though many of the characteristics may be similar. Certainly, baby boomers will age just as previous generations aged and just as all other generations have aged. However, it is the way that the generations age, the ages that each generation reaches, and society’s response to the aging that varies across time. Additionally, the aging of the baby boom generation is expected to place a significant strain on global resources as they are one of the largest cohorts to age concurrently. Baby boomers have also had a significant effect on the world’s politics, and they are likely to continue to do so.

 

One of the most interesting effects of the aging baby boomers has been on the world’s politics. The baby boom generation was particularly attuned to politics as young adults. This political activism has affected their voting preferences and political engagement as they have grown older. This, of course, has caught the attention of many a politician as the sheer number of baby boomers must be appeased and attended to. Another interesting aspect of baby boomer aging has been the impact upon their own aging parents. Certainly the numbers of baby boomers that will be available to care for their aging parents will likely be adequate. However, the priorities of this generation have been significantly different in regard to finances, parenting, and social obligations, and are therefore likely to be different in regard to elder care as well. Additionally, the baby boom generation reflects the larger family size of their parents. Therefore, there will be the additional variable of multiple siblings to add to the mix.

 

As the baby boomers themselves age, the makeup of their own families will come into play. The baby boom generation has experienced the highest rates of divorce and remarriage in modern history. As families have separated and reformed, the addition of step parents, step siblings, and half-siblings has been increasingly prevalent. Additionally, the wider acceptance of same-sex families and women having children well into their forties has further broadened the concept of family. This wider interpretation of the family unit will have a significant influence on how baby boomers will experience aging and how the nations of the world plan for their needs.

 

Interestingly, studies of aging have traditionally paid little attention to the concept of the generation. Some experts assert that baby boomers will have a significantly different aging experience than did their parents. Part of the problem is that some experts have intentionally tried to downplay the differences between generations, as well as the concept itself, ultimately seeking to render the concept unimportant in terms of analysis of aging, morality, politics, etc. However, as baby boomers age, the concept of generation becomes all that much stronger. Some researchers believe that this is because the original interest in this cohort as a generational concept is likely to resurface creating a resurgence of research on the topic. And as the concepts of generations and aging are linked, the shared experience of aging has a host of fresh research subjects.

 

However, one cannot assume that, just because they are one of the largest generations, baby boomers are likely to have an aging experience that is significantly different from previous generations or that this group will somehow redefine aging itself. Some experts have asserted that aging is the one experience that bridges the generation gap; that aging is does not, as once thought, differ from one generation to the next. These same experts insist that previous generations have already provided all of the information on aging that policy makers will need to predict the needs of the baby boomers. However, other research indicates that this is largely untrue as attempts to predict other trends of the baby boom generation, such as work trends and political trends, have been mostly unsuccessful. Certainly it is likely that a larger number of baby boomers may choose to work well past the age where their predecessors may have retired. A focus on financial success that was not prevalent in other areas may be a factor in this trend. Conversely, many baby boomers saw their parents work into their sixties, and may be willing to sacrifice material benefits for the enjoyment and freedom of early retirement.

 

Other factors in the aging of generations surround the previously discussed area of caregivers. The parents of baby boomers have access to a wide array of caregivers in their children. Baby boomers have not been as prolific in producing the next generation but do have the benefit of blended families which may widen the responsibility of generation x when providing care for the next generation of the elderly. Baby boomers, by waiting longer until having children, unlike their parents, reduced the number of potential caregivers in addition to producing younger caregivers than their parents. It will be interesting to discover whether generation x, as a younger set of caregivers, will be willing to take on the responsibility of caring for their aging baby boomer parents or the extent to which they will access caregiving services that are not provided by family members. These are factors that will influence and effect the decisions of national governments to plan for and distribute services.

 

There are other considerations that add further complexity to the issue of aging. It is generally agreed that the generation previous to the baby boomers were benefited in their retirement years by a relatively stable economy and a large pool of caregivers in their baby boomer sons and daughters. It is also generally assumed that baby boomers will not have the benefits of a stable economy, a large pool of caregivers in their generation x sons and daughters, and will likely live longer due to better medical care than did their parents. Therefore, most experts assume that there will be a shortage of caregivers for baby boomers in addition to assuming that the trends surrounding these issues will be almost unpredictable. An additional issue, as previously intimated, will surround the willingness of generation x to provide care for their aging baby boomer parents.

 

Generational aging effects are widespread and, unlike some expert opinions, obviously differ. The size of the generation alone, as evidenced in the case of the baby boomers, will have a significant impact. Additionally, the age of the next generation as the parents reach caregiving age and the attitudes of that generation regarding their caregiving responsibilities not only vary by generation, but, as sociologists already know, vary by culture. Certainly, there will be some instances where the aging process will mimic that of previous generations, however, there is no way to reliably predict whether baby boomers will mirror their own elders completely; in fact, it is likely that they won’t. Additionally, time has borne witness to the concept of personal independence. As much as this concept has been prized by the aging parents of baby boomers, it was also prized in the younger years of the boomers themselves. It can therefore be assumed that the concept of independence will be equally as prized by aging baby boomers as it was for their parents, if not more.

 

The only predictions that can be made regarding the aging of baby boomers, as well as any other previous or future generations, are in what year they will reach a certain age. All other factors are as unpredictable as the generation itself. Because statistics can only provide black and white figures regarding firm numbers, predictions regarding the behavior of any generation must be undertaken from a purely hypothetical standpoint. As society changes with each generation, as well as the ideals and goals of the generation, the importance of predicting aging becomes more unpredictable. Certainly generational aging has been as alike as it has been different, but it may be largely guided by differences within generations than by the generations themselves. Already, it has been shown that baby boomers have experienced life differently from previous generations and subsequent ones. With this information in hand, it can be therefore also assumed that their experience in aging, retirement, and elderly caregiving will be just as different.

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