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Marketing Social Change

As you probably know:

  • The 50+ older segment will more than double over the next 35 years. This is changing the fundamental age distribution of our population. In 1900, only 13 percent of the population was age 50 or over. In 2000, it was over 27 percent. And, by 2020, it will be over 35 percent.
  • We added more years to average life expectancy in the last century than in all previous history combined. People turning 50 today have half their adult lives ahead of them. And, people turning 65 can expect to live, on average, 18 more years.
  • The number of Americans aged 45-64—i.e., those who will reach 65 over the next two decades—increased 34 percent over the last decade.

The oldest boomers turn 58 this year. As a prototype, think Bill Clinton. (Or, don’t think Bill Clinton.) In just four years—one more presidential election cycle—they will hit what until recently has been the "predominant" retirement age and they will be eligible for Social Security’s early retirement benefit. And, I would also note that in that same year, 2008, we expect boomers to become a majority of AARP members. In 2011, the oldest of the boomers will turn 65, and be eligible for full SS benefits and become Medicare beneficiaries.

All this is causing policy makers, pundits and others to contemplate how the coming deluge of aging boomers will affect our society. It’s shaping our social agenda at AARP…and no doubt influencing your own planning, as well.

We are all trying to anticipate the changes, challenges and opportunities presented by the aging of the baby boomers. The birth of the baby boom generation created a tremendous demographic upheaval in our society. Surely someone glanced around in 1950 and said, "Look at all these babies!"

The nation responded to this demographic change by investing in school construction, teacher education, housing, highways and public health. We created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and Americans discovered a new place to live, called suburbia. We invested in research and developed vaccines and cures for childhood diseases. As a result, diseases such as polio, that afflicted thousands of children every year, have all but been eradicated. Vaccinations for chicken pox, measles, and mumps are today the rule and not the exception – although there are still far too many exceptions, especially among the poor and disadvantaged.

So, we should not be surprised that the aging of the boomers will cause similar disruption. It is already bringing new focus to health care, retirement security, long-term care, elder abuse, grand-parenting and research into diseases associated with aging such as Alzheimer’s.

We’ve also come to recognize a segment of Americans whom we call the "sandwich generation." These are people, typically between the ages of 45 and 55, who are simultaneously caring for their children and their parents. And, we now see emerging a "club-sandwich" generation of people who are also caring for grandchildren and/or grandparents.

Richard Hobbs, of the American Institute of Architects, has observed, "The impact of the aging population on markets, employers, and culture cannot be overstated. Just as the baby boom flooded maternity wards, ignited school construction, and made ‘youth’ the cultural icon of the 1950s, ‘60s, and 70s, the ‘senior boom’ of this century will shape the 2010s, ‘20s, and ‘30s."

The changes will be substantial, as the largest generation in American history begins to leave one stage of life—work, for another—retirement. But just as boomers shaped other periods of their lives, they are going to alter what we mean by "retirement." This is already happening.

These changes will exert enormous pressures on our nation’s social structure, and some will not wait until 2011 to boil over.  

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