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This demographic shift is already triggering changes in work, retirement, health, education, community and family life. So when we talk about social change, there are two options: we create positive social change, or the social forces change us. Both options are possible…in fact, probable.

Boomers have concerns about three primary issues: financial security (by this I mean financial well-being; not being rich, but self-sustaining), health and quality of life, (or, more specifically, maintaining long-term independence). These will increasingly dominate our nation’s social agenda, and they are defining AARP’s social change agenda as well.

How can we work through this to benefit both the boomers and successive generations? How do we adapt—as individuals and as a society—to longer life expectancy? How do we meet the immediate needs of today’s older Americans… and help those nearing retirement to prepare adequately for their future… and use what we have learned about aging to guide the life choices of the youngest of our society so they, too, can lead healthy, productive lives and enjoy a high quality of life as they get older?

These are questions we have been contemplating at AARP for some time. We have concluded that America has to change, and change substantially. We need a new vision of 2011 and beyond, framed by a productive, high quality of life and active engagement throughout the human lifespan.

We need to change the partnership among government, private institutions and the public to help our nation cope with the realities of not just aging, but longer life in the 21st century.

Some serious and thoughtful people are looking down the road at 2011 and beyond, and they’re putting up warning signs:

  • Warning: Aging Boomers Will Bankrupt the Nation
  • Warning: Medicare and Social Security are Unsustainable
  • Warning: Gloom and Doom Ahead

These points of view remind me of a story from the Peanuts comic strip. Charlie Brown’s team is beginning another baseball season. Lucy, the existential right fielder, told Charlie Brown that this year things would be different. She was going to be a better player.

Well, the team was ahead by a run, there were two out and a man on, and the potential winning run was at the plate. He hit a high fly ball. Lucy positioned herself to make the catch. But, as the ball came down, it hit her on top of the head and rolled out toward the fence. Everyone scored, and Charlie Brown’s team once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. After the game, Lucy walked up to apologize to Charlie Brown, "Sorry I missed that fly ball, manager—I thought I had it, but suddenly I remembered all the others I’ve missed. The past got in my eyes!"

The "gloom and doomers," like Lucy, are well-intentioned, but they’re letting the past get in their eyes. They are looking at the future through the eyes of past generations of older Americans. They’re basing their predictions about the next generation on previous aging trends. They are assuming that as boomers age, they will behave like those who came before them.

They don’t sufficiently consider:

  • That the greatest driver of future Medicare costs is not demographics, but rapidly rising health care costs throughout the system.
  • That the rate of disability among the elderly is actually falling, not rising. So, the number of people going into nursing homes is lower than predicted.
  • That boomers want to continue working as they get older, and the trend toward earlier retirement has been reversing for the last several years. People are staying in the workforce longer, thus contributing to Social Security, and for those who have them, pensions.
  • That older Americans don’t simply drain the nation’s resources, they contribute to them as workers, consumers, volunteers, mentors and caregivers.

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