When Kathleen Casey-Kirschling was born seconds past midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, in Philadelphia, she was at the head of a very long parade. About 3.4 million babies arrived in that first year of what became known as the baby boom generation.
This year Casey-Kirschling and others in the boomer vanguard turn 70. Their life's course took the nation on a great adventure, rewriting attitudes on race, gender and sex, dictating musical taste, and changing just about everything in the world they inherited. To quote the Grateful Dead, one of their cultural icons, "What a long, strange trip it's been."
So, what does it mean to turn 70 in 2016?
For some of the 2.5 million living boomers who will make that milestone this year, it means aging in a world where the change they embraced — and even fought for — in their youth has seemed to accelerate, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
For instance, people born in 1946 grew up in a country where Caucasians were an estimated 90 percent majority, and most families consisted of man (who went to work), woman (who stayed home) and children (3.5). Today, with the accelerated immigration of the last few years coupled with the change in social mores, it is a different world. Whites are on their way to becoming a minority in America by 2044. And only 19 percent of all families are the classic nuclear combination. "All of this can be quite disorienting for 70-year-olds," says Paul Taylor, author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. "Some of them feel like the cultural values they grew up with are shifting all around them."
But for others turning 70, the demographic changes, and the shifts in attitude growing out of the civil rights movement, meant their lives were filled with more opportunity. "When Barack Obama came along, my joke was, if he gets elected, I'll be home watching pigs fly by my window," says Beverly Smith of Boston, who along with her twin sister, Barbara, was a feminist and civil rights activist in the 1970s. "But of course, it did happen, and it was tremendously exciting." Barbara, who with Beverly turns 70 in November, still sees the influence of their activism today. "There's a direct line between the organizing we as black feminists did and the Black Lives Matter movement today."
Still, Beverly Smith notes, tensions arising from racial confrontations in the past year show that "racism is infinitely flexible and malleable."
Men turning 70 this year grew up as part of a generation in which 40 percent of their brethren served in the military, and many of them were drafted to fight in Vietnam. That war and its unsatisfying conclusion tore the country apart, ended the draft and directly led to an all-volunteer military. The Vietnam years still resonate for these men. The wounds have yet to heal, and many of them fear the country will forget the price they paid. "It's so important to remind myself it wasn't a dream, or a nightmare," says Uriel Robles Banuelos, who turns 70 in February. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism for years after Vietnam. "It really happened."
Women born in 1946 saw perhaps even greater changes in their roles in society. Since their birth, the percentage of American women in the workforce has soared — from 31 percent in 1946 to 57 percent today. The percentage of 70-plus women who are still working is expected to rise from 30 percent to 39 percent by 2024.
"They were born into a world where women's roles were much more defined and restrictive," Taylor says of women turning 70. "Forty years ago, 1 household in 10 had a woman as a primary wage earner. Now that is 4 in 10."
And some are still pushing for the recognition they are due. Diane Carlson Evans, who turns 70 next November, served as a nurse in Vietnam and led the crusade for the Vietnam Women's Memorial, which was dedicated in 1993. Of the Vietnam Memorial wall, she says, "That wall would have been much higher and longer if it weren't for nurses." Evans, who lives in Helena, Mont., and works as a consultant to the memorial, adds, "We saved lives. And we were invisible."
For gay people born in 1946, life has been a journey toward acceptance inward and outward.
Bob Page, 70, a North Carolina businessman, had a hard time accepting that he was gay. He stayed in the closet through college and while in the Army. "At times I honestly considered suicide," he says. But over the years his attitude changed. He and his longtime partner, Dale Frederiksen, adopted twin boys from Vietnam. And in March they married. "I wanted my kids to have two legal parents," he says.
Not long ago, gay rights divided the country. Today, a majority of Americans say they are accepting of homosexuals, even gay marriage, whether they are Democrat or Republican. Which is interesting, since boomers born in 1946 remain as divided politically as the rest of the nation. Almost as many people turning 70 this year say they are Republican (36 percent) as say they are Democrat (38 percent).
Compared with people reaching the same age in 1965, the new 70-year-olds can expect 15 more years of life. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago, says that people turning 70 this year have reaped a bounty of medical advances in areas like heart disease and cancer treatment. And, thanks largely to improvements in health care and pharmaceuticals, these bonus years can often be lived in a disease-free body.
On the other hand, living longer will mean that more people turning 70 will deal with Alzheimer's. "Life is a series of trade-offs," Olshansky says. "The longer you live, the more dangerous the trade-offs."
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Financial health is also a mixed bag for the first boomers. The median family income of Americans, adjusted for inflation, rose from $27,000 in 1946 to $62,000 today. But so has debt. "Never before have so many 70-year-olds owed money on their house," says Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.
This comfort with debt represents the boomer generation's essential philosophy: Live for today. But this freewheeling philosophy also means that millions of people have put away too little for the future. More than 4 out of 10 of those reaching 70 this year risk running out of money in retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
Still on the job
So the boomers will change the country once more. They will live longer and work longer than their predecessors, and colleagues will have to get used to energetic gray-haired coworkers. Surveys tell us those turning 70 this year, and over the next several years, are much more inclined to stay on the job than previous generations, out of either necessity or desire.
By 2022 nearly a quarter of people 70 to 74 will be working — double the figure in 1992.
For many, turning 70 with all that energy will also lead to seeking purpose in their lives. "For maybe the first time in human history there is a sense that there is a lot of gas left in the tank," Taylor says. "There is the potential to reimagine and reshape life."
While it's anybody's guess how those changes will unfold, Taylor says there is a growing movement among those reaching 70 to get deeply involved in volunteering. "That would be an enormous last chapter," he says.
Turns out, volunteering is a passion of the first boomer to reach 70, Casey-Kirschling. She has helped flood victims in Illinois and those devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Recently, as she contemplated being the first of her tribe to cross the threshold into the land of Seven-Oh, she was content with what her generation had done — and philosophical about the future. "I'm proud of how the boomers reached for the stars," she says. "We accomplished a lot and created a lot of wealth, but we need to be OK with handing off the baton to younger generations.
"You only have the moment. You can't live in the past, and you don't know what the future is going to bring."
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