Retiring Boomers Pose Policy Challenge

Starting Jan. 1, every 7.7 seconds a baby boomer will turn 60.

Starting Jan. 1, every 7.7 seconds a baby boomer will turn 60. Alex Maloney/Zefa/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Maloney/Zefa/Corbis

In 1961, the first White House Conference on Aging made a big impact. John F. Kennedy listened and then, as president, pushed for the creation of Medicare and an expansion of Social Security.

The latest White House Conference on Aging opens this weekend in Washington, D.C. Appointed mainly by members of Congress and governors, 1,200 experts and advocates are meeting to recommend policy. There's a conference once every 10 years. To make a difference this time, delegates must address a big demographic change: On Jan. 1, the first baby boomers turn 60.

Boomers at a Glance

The sheer size of the baby boomer generation has meant that society in general has had to adjust to its needs, from a school building boom in the 1950s to the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. A look at who the boomers are:

  

— A boomer is any U.S. resident born between 1946 and 1964, when the country saw a bulge in birthrates.

  

— More than 75 million adults are boomers.

  

— Boomers make up 26 percent of U.S. population.

  

— Starting Jan. 1, every 7.7 seconds, a boomer will turn 60

  

— The number of retirees will soon be growing much faster than the number of new workers.

  

— Average median boomer household income: $60,000.

  

— Average median household income: $44,500.

  

— 26 percent of boomers expect to live comfortably in retirement.

  

— 17 percent say they won't have enough money to cover basic needs.

  

— 21 percent expect Social Security to be their main source of income.

  

— 33 percent expect to have a more comfortable retirement than their parents' or their children's generation.

  

Source: Pew Research Center, "Baby Boomers Approach Age 60"

"We are all looking around and seeing another 78 million of us coming into this phase of our life," says Dorcas Hardy, delegate and committee head. "We have a kind of view, which I personally share myself, that we will not get old. Well that is not reality. So maybe you can look at this conference as a reality check for all of us and how can we have a better, healthier more productive longevity."

The big issues are the usual ones: Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. But as the delegates gather, Congress and the White House have put off reform plans for Social Security. Medicaid — which pays for nursing home care for the poor — faces deep cuts.

Then there's Medicare. People over 65 have just begun enrolling for the new prescription drug benefit. Many say it's too confusing.

Delegate Bob Blancato ran the last White House conference in 1995. He says the new Medicare drug benefit will be debated, along with how to make Medicare work for the boomers.

"With boomers becoming eligible in 2011, for Medicare, what changes have to be made to make it relevant to them?" asks Blancato. "My guess is you'll see more emphasis on prevention, so aging policy for the first time now will include boomers and seniors and that's an important new step in our policy direction."

It's often smaller issues that get the biggest boost from the White House conferences, says Blancato. The last conference led to more help for family caregivers and funding for grandparents raising their grandchildren.

Marc Freedman, a past delegate and founder of Civic Ventures, however, said these meetings no longer matter as much as they initially did.

He recalls the first conference in 1961: "There was soaring rhetoric. And many major policy initiatives followed in the coming years."

"Over the years, the conferences have become less and less a basis for that kind of creativity and innovation, and more a professional networking event," says Freedman.

Freedman's Civic Ventures think tank focuses on helping older Americans find meaning in work and volunteer jobs. He says this conference needs to spend more time on aging as a new phase of life, since many boomers can expect to spend another third of their lives after they retire.

Delegates begin work on Sunday. They'll vote on and finish their recommendations to lawmakers, the White House, governors and to the private sector by Wednesday.

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