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Baby boomers unite: why retire when you can refire?

The historical context within which baby boomers grew up and their concomitant generational characteristics markedly influenced boomers' views towards retirement.

Baby boomers tend to stay in the game. The game of mindful living that is. And they are very vocal about it, with many joining in the boomer chant: ‘We are baby boomers, hear us roar!’

Consequently, the boomer generation (typically born between 1946 and 1964) is worlds apart in their thinking about retirement than the generation before them. This life phase used to be seen as the sunset years and a period of gradually slowing down and sliding away from life. But baby boomers have turned this kind of thinking on its head due to a new mindset. They are viewing these years as a vibrant new phase: not as an ending but representing the gift of an extra season of life and the promise of a new and immensely enhanced life journey.

Says Lynda Smith, South African-based Refirement™ coach (www.refirementnetwork.com): ‘Baby boomers don’t retire, they refire!’

The famous crime writer, Agatha Christie, already knew this in the previous century. She is quoted in her 1977-biography as having said: ‘I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations; and suddenly find - at the age of fifty, say - that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study, or read about… It is as if a fresh sap of ideas and thoughts was rising in you.’

But who are these baby boomers? And how do they approach their retirement?

Who put the boom in the baby boomers?

So, you think you’re a baby boomer? Wikipedia states that different groups, organizations, individuals, and scholars have varying opinions on what constitutes a baby boomer, both technically and culturally. And various authors have delimited the baby boom period differently.

Wikipedia also mentions that many people have attempted to determine the broad cultural similarities and historical impact of the generation, and thus the term has gained widespread popular usage. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest citation of ‘baby boomer’ as a phrase is from 1970 in an article in The Washington Post.

Most researchers also seem to agree with the view that baby boomers are people born post World War II between the years 1946 and 1964 and that the term ’baby boom’ originates from the explosion in the birth rate in especially America and Britain during the period immediately following the end of the War thanks to soldiers returning home. This boom occurred almost exactly nine months after the War ended and Landon Jones, author and former editor of People magazine rather dramatically described it as: ‘the cry of the baby was heard across the land’.

Boomer count

While the term, baby boomer, was coined in the US, there are an estimated 28 countries, including South Africa, that have some form of a baby boomer generation.

Statistics (www.babyboomermedia.com) show that, in the United States alone, at the beginning of the baby boom in 1946, more babies were born than ever before: 3.4 million, 20 percent more than in 1945. In 1947, another 3.8 million babies were born; 3.9 million were born in 1952; and more than 4 million were born every year from 1954 until 1964, when the boom finally tapered off. By then, there were 76.4 million baby boomers in the United States, constituting almost 40 percent of the nation’s population.

According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2014-World Population Data Sheet (www.prb.org/publications/datasheets/2014/2014-world-population-data-sheet.aspx) the world’s population is expected to rise from 7.2 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050 and whereas in 1970 the average life expectancy was 58, in 2013 it increased to 71 years.

And baby boomers make up a significant percentage of the population of most countries. For example, in the United States, data from the US Census Bureau (www.census.gov/population) shows that, of the projected 2012 US population of 314 million, baby boomers represented close to one-quarter (76.4 million). In South Africa boomers comprise 13.2 percent or 7.1 million of the estimated 2014-population of 54 million (www.statssa.gov.za/Publications).

Prominent baby boomers can be found in all walks of life.

Baby boomers contribute hugely to all spheres of life and have stood up to be counted in every aspect of our society: from politics, the economy, fashion and music, to education, social security and crime rates. Prominent boomers range from world leaders to business tycoons, technology mavericks, actors, talk show hosts, mobsters and royalty.

Think Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Stephen Spielberg, John ‘Junior’ Gotti, Bill Gates, Madonna, Oprah, Vladimir Putin, Vincent ‘Vinny Gorgeous’ Basciano, Princess Diana and Richard Branson. Quite an array of both illustrious and notorious individuals and it should, with a bit of luck, not be too difficult to identify which is which.

A new mindset

The post-World War II baby boomers grew up at a time of tremendous political, social, economic and cultural changes.

And these baby boomers have transformed the way the world looks at just about every aspect of life, including work, human and civil rights, environmental issues, divorce (nearly one-half of their children are growing up in single-parent households), spirituality, entertainment, morality, exercise and eating habits and technology.

But they also encountered considerable traumatic events such as: civil rights abuses, an increase in international terrorism, shootings of major world leaders, Watergate scandal, Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, Vietnam and the Soweto riots.

Both these positive and negative experiences have made boomers resilient and innovative, also in the way they approach retirement. Smith says: ‘The world has changed dramatically in the last 20 – 30 years since the time our parents started retiring, and is totally different from the world that existed in the late 1950s and early 1950s when the concept of retirement was first widely implemented. As people are living longer healthier lives the thought of 3 decades of leisure during retirement is not that appealing …’

This requires a new mindset to retirement and boomers with their exposure to a broader world view, access to quantum leaps made in the field of technology, healthy lifestyles and, often, considerable spending power are leading the way.

Characteristics of baby boomers are different to those of generations which came before and after.

In general boomers are renowned to have different characteristics than the generation before them (the so-called ‘silent generation’ characterised by the maxim: waste not, want not) and the generations following the boomers (generation-X, young adults distinguished by their rather uncommitted and passive wait-and-see attitude and the millennial teenagers purported to have a pragmatic and ‘can do’ approach towards life). And these characteristics impact on the way boomers approach their retirement.

A typical baby boomer is described by writer Harry Wallop (The Telegraph, 31 July 2014) as: ‘These are the men and women who tuned in, got high, dropped out, dodged the draft, swung in the Sixties and became hippies in the Seventies. Some, like Bill Clinton, made it to the White House. Never has a generation had it so good … Idealistic and uncynical, this was the generation that fought the cold war and smashed down the Berlin War. But just as many sold out the moment they were able to buy a house and a car. They were the first generation able to go abroad not to fight a war - but to sit on a beach. Many have already retired on generous, copper-bottomed final salary pensions.’

Today, the oldest baby boomers are already in their late 60s and could live another 25+ productive years provided they are healthy and have access to a reasonable income. With so many people in the boomer cohort and people living longer in general, how can they go about gearing up for retirement?

Firing on all cylinders

Just as boomers sought to change the world, so they have sought to change attitudes towards retirement.

For them, the retirement years need not be daunting; this can be an exhilarating period, providing proper reflection and planning took place to cater for these years. Smith says: ‘Have a vision. Take the time to decide what your ideal retirement would look like, and strive to make that your reality.’

It is understandable that as people near retirement, they are more concerned than ever as to whether their retirement income will be sufficient to pay their bills throughout a retirement phase that could nowadays last for decades. But it should not only be a time of thinking about finances, there are a number of other elements which require concerted attention. It’s all about making choices.

Making informed choices is crucial.

To achieve the kind of Refirement™ you would like to experience, reflect on and then implement, actions relating to at least the following areas:

· Attitude towards ageing and retirement: You can choose as to how you respond (either positively or negatively) to getting older and how you deal with your retirement. The extent to which you are currently satisfied with your life and your perception of how satisfied you might be in the future will play a role here.

Embrace change and actively seek opportunities to enrich your life. Explore to which extent your work identity embodies your overall identity as a person. It can be sobering to be the CEO of a large company the one minute and plain old John-running-a-small business the next day. Choose wisely what you want to do with your time, energy and money to ensure that you bring purpose and meaning to this life phase and that you retain your sense of self-worth.

· Career: Boomers entered the workplace in an economic boom and tend to prioritise their work. Countless boomers have been labelled as ‘workaholics’ and they also tend to be more adventurous career-wise than previous generations. Many juggle portfolio careers (the so-called ‘slashers’ who run several jobs simultaneously) or choose to pursue different careers in successive phases of their lives. Patricia McCracken, a seasoned South African-based slasher (writer/editor/photographer) and winner of 40 SA journalism awards, is one of these career chameleons. She views her career as a process of incremental evolution and says: ‘I firmly believe one phase grows out of another, though not necessarily immediately. I am currently in my fourth professional incarnation!’

Put time and effort into rethinking your career. Also explore both paid and unpaid work and put something back into your community through participating in outreach programmes. Revamp your outdated CV.

· Relationships: Boomers tend to experience a shift in the focus of their relationships away from a structured work environment and towards family and friends. Building and protecting important relationships are key elements of this phase. Identify the really important people in your life and rekindle and strengthen these bonds. Take a view as to your dependents and the level of support they will be requiring from you. Beware of the boomerang kids (children who try to return to live at home after they have graduated or have left home previously). Reconnect spiritually. Network fervently.

· Financial security: Plan for your financial needs well before you reach retirement age. Boomers tend to have considerable spending power but the picture is not all rosy. With record numbers of ageing baby boomers nearing retirement the sheer size of this generation can put major pressure on the state to support boomers in their old age if they have not made sufficient provision for themselves.

· Health and fitness: Having a balanced health and lifestyle programme is crucial for boomers. Review your diet, general health indicators and fitness status and take action where required. ‘Baby boomers are set to fill gyms, and functional exercise is the new black’, states the 2015 American College of Sports Medicine Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends (http://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness). This organisation, the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world, puts body-weight training at the top of the exercise list, identifying two of their top 10 trends as having a focus on older adults as follows:

Fitness Programs for Older Adults. As the baby boom generation ages into retirement, some of these people have more discretionary money than their younger counterparts. Therefore, many health and fitness professionals are taking the time to create age-appropriate fitness programs to keep older adults healthy and active.

Functional Fitness. This is a trend toward using strength training to improve balance and ease of daily living. Functional fitness and special fitness programs for older adults are closely related.’

· Personal growth and development: Invest in lifelong learning and ensure you remain appropriately skilled. Enrol for one of the many free online courses in various subject areas. Check out: (www.coursera.org) and (www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses). There are several websites dedicated to baby boomers, providing information on all aspects of life, books, holidays, music channels, TV programmes – you name it, the boomers have access to it.

And make no mistake; the business world is wide awake when it comes to commercial responses to the needs and requirements of a generation aged between roughly 50 to 68 years. Boomers are viewed as a prime target segment by the business sector, which specialises in ‘turning grey into gold’. Take advantage of all the good opportunities and special deals on offer and don’t forget to market your own services to this age group.

· Technology: Over the last two decades we have seen the rise of the silver surfers. These technologically savvy boomers know how to use technology to their advantage, for both private and work-related purposes. Many boomers also have children who live and work in other countries than themselves and technology platforms (such as Skype, Google Hangouts and Facebook) offer quick and effective ways to connect. Keep up with advances in technology.

· Fun and leisure: Any balanced lifestyle includes fun and leisure activities. Choose activities with a focus on creative expression, physical exercise, intellectual pursuits, social interaction or do something purely for the fun of it. Get enough rest. Also, be brave, take a grown-up gap year.

Leaving a legacy

The choices that baby boomers make regarding their Refirement™ phase will directly influence the legacy they leave behind.

Boomers have a desire to make a difference to the world and this is reflected in their choices of support for initiatives as a reflection of how they would like to be remembered after death. These include philanthropic interests, providing for family, ongoing business concerns, legacies to education institutions, an inspiring work ethos, a culture of caring, love and spiritual enlightenment, and a legacy of striving for excellence in whatever they do.

So, as leaving a legacy impacts far wider than deciding who should inherit the family silver and it is interesting to note that, leaving a lifetime’s accumulated wealth to the children, is not necessarily a top priority for boomers.

Children of baby boomers would be well advised to take note of a survey commissioned by the US Trust which commissioned an independent, national survey of 642 high net worth adults (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business). Its June 2012 results showed that only 55 percent of boomers think it is important to leave a financial inheritance to their children and 31 percent said they would rather leave money to charity than to their children. The main reasons for this decision are the beliefs that each generation should earn its own wealth and that it is more important to invest in children’s success while they are growing up.

Smith’s advice on leaving a legacy is: ‘Every generation will need to look back and track the kind of legacy that they have left behind. Some will remain selfish and use their collective investments to squander on pleasure and others will want to continue adding value with their skills to help make the world a better place. Longevity will give many of us the option of added years. Spend them wisely and leave footprints not only for your family legacy but also for your community.’

Boomers can of course also choose to grow old disgracefully and give people something to gossip about long after they are gone.

The spirited poet, Jenny Joseph, speaks for many a mischievous ageing baby boomer through her delightful poem, titled Warning (www.poemhunter.com/poem/warning):

‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves, And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter. I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired, And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells, And run my stick along the public railings, And make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain, And pick flowers in other people’s gardens, And learn to spit.’

Illustration credit: http://spring12-eng-01.wikispaces.com

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