Is Kentucky ready for the ‘silver tsunami’ of boomers? One researcher says no


Americans of the baby boom generation, the so-called “silver tsunami,” born between 1946 and 1964, are now turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day. Baby boomers account for a quarter of Kentucky’s population. And unlike their parents before them, many are nowhere near ready to retire. Tom Martin discussed the implications of this so-called “Third Age” with Graham Rowles, a professor in the Graduate Center for Gerontology in the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health. Rowles also is director of the Kentucky Elder Readiness Initiative, a statewide project that has explored the implications for communities of aging baby boomers.

Click here to hear the audio version of the interview:

Q: What have been the findings of the Kentucky Elder Readiness Initiative?

A: This was a project that began during the administration of Gov. Fletcher in 2005. It involved trying to foster statewide awareness, dialog and insights into the challenges and opportunities that are provided by the aging of this baby boom cohort and to stimulate statewide and local initiatives to do something in preparation for that. We conducted 30 focus groups in all 15 area development districts. We also held 30 community forums, where people could express their views on what the future was with this cohort.

We found that people were really unaware of the pending “silver tsunami.” And because these findings of a lack of preparation, the lack of awareness were troubling, the Department of Aging and Independent Living funded a statewide survey. 9,600 surveys were sent out, and we received about 3,500 back, a very high response rate for a 115-question survey. We found some really interesting things.

One was that people were very much of the opinion that the aging of the baby boom population was going to have a major effect. About two-thirds of them felt that. But two-thirds also disagreed that the state was actively preparing for this. In other words, ‘it’s an important issue, but we’re not doing much about it.’ We found that many baby boomers were much less likely than the older population and those younger to consider that Social Security would be a major source of income in their retirement. And about two-thirds of them anticipated working full- or part-time in their own retirement. Most (76 percent) expected to be living in their personal residence when they were 75. And 29 percent expected that they would be living in their own home when they were 90.

About 23 percent believe that they would be in assisted living and 22 percent in nursing homes. Those of us who are familiar with Kentucky know that there is no way that Kentucky has that provision down the line. It’s just not in the cards. Interestingly, in contrast to different age groups and the older people who preceded them, many of them were educated, and 57 percent planned to get involved in lifelong learning. And a higher proportion than expected considered that senior centers were in their future, although it was very clear that the senior center of the meals and the exercise program was really a thing of the past. These people wanted to go to a senior center where they could exercise in a gym, go to a café to have a latte, and then Skype or email their daughter living a distance away.

Q: Are there differences between previous generations of retirement-age Americans and this boomer generation?

A: If we think historically, the idea was that life consisted of 3 broad phases: a period of education when you were a child; preparing yourself for phase 2, which was involvement in the work force; and then of course, when you were 65, you collected your gold watch and went into retirement, which was considered the era of leisure. Now that has changed. What we’re finding now is that people are involved in education, and working, and leisure at every phase of life. So, teenagers and college students have to be in the work force. They’re working. Older adults are working now. And also, many are seeking educational opportunities. All of those things are really making the process of aging something very different than it was in previous generations.

Q: Are you finding that baby boomers are not going into retirement quietly or willingly?

A: There is a cohort of people, usually those that are fairly well set financially, who can’t wait to retire as soon as they can. But increasingly, given the recent history of the economy and the tanking of some people’s 401(k) savings, an increasing proportion are staying in the work force. Now, it’s not just because of need, although lower-income folks often stay in the work force for the health care benefits. But there is a group of people who, because they’re so healthy and fit, stay in employment in old age, but move in new directions, take a second career. We’re talking about people in their 60s now and in their 70s who are starting new ventures.

Q: What are the implications for society and for younger workers of the presence of an older generation that is reluctant or unwilling to leave the work force?

A: One of the real issues here is the potential for intergenerational tensions, as younger folk perceive that older adults are taking jobs that they might have had. It’s a difficult situation because many of those older adults have to work in order to survive and many older adults retire when they really don’t want to. Some work that was done in Kentucky showed that about 50 percent of Kentuckians who retire do so earlier than they would have wanted to. About half of those retired for health reasons. So we have a whole issue of the relationship between that older population and the younger who obviously are seeking to move into the work force and to be employed.

Part of the problem in our society has been this separation of generations. So, the issue then becomes, how do we improve communication among generations — by educating college students, for example, to understand what it is to be old? If we can educate them to an awareness of that and they can carry that into their workplace and so on, then I think we develop a better link among the generations, including older people in their 50s and 60s, many of whom lose jobs and have difficulty getting new ones, so that we have a more integrated society and we communicate about this massive change that is taking place as our population is aging and as the very definition of old age is changing.

We talked earlier about the notion of a “third age,” a new phase of life that we’ve never had before because historically people retired at 65, collected their gold watch, were able to go fishing for a couple of years and then they died. Perhaps they started their novel, but they never got to chapter 1. Now, what happens is that people retire at 65 and they have another 20 years of life. And so they’re moving in completely new directions. Instead of writing the first chapter of the book, they’re basically negotiating the TV rights to their second novel. So, we have this new phase of life where people are post-retirement, but before they have those physical disabilities that link into the conventional image of old age. Our society is grappling right now with what can be done with that.

Tom Martin’s conversation with Dr. Graham Rowles on Baby Boomers, the “Third Age” and the “Silver Tsunami” continues in next Monday’s edition.

Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.