Documentary Explores 'The Boomer Century'

A PBS documentary premiering Wednesday night examines how the baby boomer generation has affected American society and institutions, from childhood through middle age. Now, as those boomers hit their 60s, they are bringing more changes with them.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

More on boomers now. Yesterday we heard how women of a certain age and it is mine are posing nude for a beauty products company.

Today, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports on the enduring imprint of boomers on our culture and what lies ahead. It's also the topic of "The Boomer Century," a new PBS documentary airing tonight.

(Soundbite of music)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: If you recognize that tune from your childhood, you're probably part of that generation born between 1946 and 1964 that's now simply called: the baby boomers. They're the first generation to grow up with a television in the house. So theme songs like that one and this:

(Soundbite of "Leave It To Beaver" theme)

BATES: Are instantly recognizable. "The Boomer Century" is PBS's take on the baby boomer generation. Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and gerontologist conceived of and narrates the film. Dychtwald says baby boomers changed most everything about American life. For one thing, as he points out in the documentary, nobody was ready for that many kids. Everything from hospitals to schools were bursting at the seams. Ken Dychtwald says, as the majority of boomers turned 60, there will be other shortages.

Mr. KEN DYCHTWALD (Psychologist and Gerontologist): The truth of it is, is that every step of the way as the boomers migrate across a lifeline, they changed culture, they create markets for businesses, they put strains on social institutions.

BATES: It's that strain that Fernando Torres-Gil is concerned about. Torres-Gil is a professor of public policy at the University Of California, Los Angeles. He says baby boomers affects on everything from music and movies to the corporate workplace have been pretty well chronicled, but, says Torres-Gil, aging remains a big question mark.

Professor FERNANDO TORRES-GIL (Public Policy, University of California, Los Angeles): The aging of the baby boomers leaves a number of unanswered questions that we won't fully understand for at least another 20 to 30 years.

BATES: Assuming we stopped denying that we are aging. Even if, thanks to technology and advances in health care, 50 is now the new 30, and 70 is the new 50, you're - whatever. Eventually, says Torres-Gil, we will get old.

Prof. TORRES-GIL: And then new issues will capture our time and attention. Certainly, have we saved enough? Do we have a pension, a retirement plan? Will we be forced to keep working until we can no longer physically do so?

BATES: Oh-oh, all of a sudden, love isn't all you need. Torres-Gil says it's starting to sink in that money and services are going to be of paramount importance. Boomers are going to have to find new ways to maintain their independence.

Prof. TORRES-GIL: I predict there's two issues that will be the great awakening for baby boomers. First is, long-term care, when we inevitably need help with long-term care; and the second, which may happen first, when we have to give up our driver's license.

BATES: Even if baby boomers live longer, healthier lives, eventually, they might need to forego stairs or want the option of public transportation when they do stop driving. Ken Dychtwald believes the sheer mass of elderly Americans will be the catalyst for new options.

Mr. DYCHTWALD: The boomers are about to reinvent aging just like a changed teenagehood and they certainly have altered the way 30- and 40-year-olds behave.

BATES: Maybe. It certainly already changed the profile of who senior citizens are. Thomas Nelson is the chief operating officer of AARP. Its acronym stands for the American Association of Retired People and it's one of this country's most potent lobbying organizations. But Nelson says the R in AARP isn't terribly germane anymore.

Mr. THOMAS NELSON (Chief Operating Officer, American Association of Retired People): A little over half of our members are still in the workforce either fulltime or part time. And we are actually now the largest boomer organization in the country with a little over a third of our members being boomers.

BATES: Nelson says his baby boomer constituents are concerned with the same kinds of things their parents and grandparents were, but what's changed are some of the lifestyle elements. In addition to working longer than their parents did, by choice or necessity, Nelson says boomers are distinguished by something else.

Mr. NELSON: Boomers have really become very conversant with technology.

BATES: For instance, the grandkids' photos might be loaded onto an iPod or shared with others via e-mail. All three aging experts feel the upside of this massive tsunami of aging Americans might result in changes that will help all of society like ending the ghettoization of the elderly. AARP's Tom Nelson:

Mr. NELSON: Our research tells us that over 85 percent of people as they age wants to stay in a community that has all ages that just want to make sure it's accessible. And that's going to benefit the entire community.

BATES: Mainstreaming the elderly is on the agenda for AARP's fall conference in Boston. And along with the free samples of fiber supplements and antacids, there'll be entertainment from someone who fits right into that demographic.

(Soundbite of music)

Hey, I'm just a messenger. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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