BoomerAging: It’ll change everything

You’ve heard the saying: “You’re only as old as you feel.” Sure, it’s a nice sentiment, but what happens when it becomes a reality? What does it mean when the concept of aging (and what it means to be “old”) is altered forever?

It’s not wishful thinking: It’s already happening, and once again the Baby Boomers are the driving force behind some serious social change. They’re dealing with aging in a way that is redefining the concept and defying expectations. That’s the premise behind The New Old: How the Boomers Are Changing Everything… Again (ECW Press 2008) by David Cravit.

The book explores the many facets of this new attitude towards aging and how it’s going to shape things to come. In the chapter on “Boomer politics”, Cravit poses a provocative question: what affect is the Boomer population going to have on the health care system? The answers may surprise you.

BoomerAging and the “New Old”

While the concept of being “young at heart” wasn’t invented by Baby Boomers, they are perhaps the first ones who have science and circumstance on their side. A number of factors make it possible for Boomers to enjoy a different lifestyle than previous generations, and health and wellness plays a huge role. Not only have medical advancements made it possible to detect and treat ailments earlier and more effectively, but people are also employing more preventative medicine as well. They’re also on the threshold of further medical breakthroughs which they’ll be able to enjoy because they are in better physical shape.

Put it all together and what does it mean? People are living longer with more years of good health — and that’s the foundation for an entirely new attitude towards aging, or “BoomerAging”.

“If you were sixty-five in 1960, you’re thinking you’ve only got ten or so years left,” Cravit explained in an interview with “You weren’t going to embrace new trends or experiment, or make long term plans like starting a new business or going back to school.”

But that’s the “old old”. Today’s sixty-five year olds, the oldest of the Boomer generation, can expect to make it to 90 or beyond. “They’re saying ‘I have a lot of years left’ — and that expectation is supported by science,” Cravit notes. “Boomers are realizing ‘we don’t have to be old.’ They can define and behave their way out of the problem of aging.”

In short, they’re not the same “old people” of previous generations. They’ve got extra time to engage, experiment, work longer, go back to school, see the world, set new goals and achieve them. While not every Boomer subscribes to this new version of “oldness”, the “leading edge” of this revolution is going to set the tone for Generation X and the Millennials (and beyond).

Aging and health care: What are we missing?

In terms of numbers, there’s no escaping the fact that the so-called “greying of the population” is going to put some stress on the system. After all, there’s a large group of people encountering age-related health concerns and chronic complaints like diabetes, heart disease, and bone, joint and muscle ailments.

But the impact comes from behaviour as much as it does from statistics. You may have heard a thing or two about Boomers as consumers. They’re interested in new products and services, willing to experiment and, contrary to popular belief, they’re not set in their ways — they’re as willing to try new brands and products as their younger counterparts. They’ve also got the “I want it all” attitude and high expectations they’ve always had. Their approach to health care stems from their consumer habits: they want to use their money to make their lives better, and they aren’t going to settle.

But here’s the problem: Never mind the fact that the health care system isn’t sustainable in the long run, but it can’t even deliver on its current promises. Wait times for crucial tests and surgeries can be months or years, and spending is skyrocketing… Yet the idea of “private health care” or a “two-tiered system” is still met with opposition from the government. It’s a battle of ideologies where a system that aims to provide an equal level of health care for all also makes it illegal to pay for a better level of care than everyone else.

“Our current health care system is stuck in an obsolete model where people only went to the doctor when they were sick, the doctor gave them a pill and that was that,” Cravit explains. “Now, this old model is bumping up against a tidal wave of people who aren’t going to be told by a politician that they have to ‘take a bullet’ for the system.”

After all, Boomers are better informed about the issues and more proactive about their health. Besides, they’re already used to paying for things like eye exams, physiotherapy, cosmetic surgery, home care and medications.

“As budgets tighten, services get de-listed and it’s not illegal to pay for what the government can’t offer,” Cravit notes.

If the government can’t provide them with prompt service, why shouldn’t they be able to take their business elsewhere? After all, it’s possible to the go the U.S., or further abroad, to get important tests and surgery.

“Boomers will by-pass the ideology. They’ll become ‘shoppers of longevity’,” Cravit predicts. “They want it all – health care that’s covered by their tax dollars and the ability to spend their after-tax dollars on better care. They’ll work within the system, outside of the system and they’ll go around the system if they have to. If it’s fundamental to their health, they’ll find a way.”

But before you pass this off as another facet of the “selfish Boomer” stereotype, Boomers aren’t just interested in better health care for themselves. As part of the sandwich generation, they’ve got their parents to consider as well. They’re often the decision makers when it comes to housing and care.

“They don’t want Mom and Dad to suffer,” Cravit adds. “And they’ll try out new technologies and options on their parents as well. A lot of these expenses are borne by the kids [the Boomers].”

So where will these new attitudes and behaviours ultimately lead?

“The Boomers could bring down the system as we know it,” he predicts.

Sounds pretty drastic, but it’s not going to happen overnight. During the Boomers’ lifetime our health care system is going to be faced with these challenges, and it will need to find a way to adapt or change as it goes through its rebuilding process.

So what’s a Boomer to do?

The final chapters of The New Old point business owners and organizational leaders in the right direction when it comes to including Boomers in their long term plans. But what’s the take home message for Boomers themselves?

Information is key. It’s important to stay on top of things,” Cravit advises. “And most of all, keep on being that ‘selfish’, aggressive and independent-minded Boomer.”

Or in the words of comedian George Burns: “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”

David Cravit is Executive Vice President of ZoomerMedia Ltd. For more information on The New Old: How Boomers Are Changing everything… Again or to purchase a copy, click here and here.

Photo © Oleg Prikhodko