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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon's away. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Happy New Year.

(Soundbite of song, "Sentimental Journey")

LUDDEN: But first, let's turn the clock back. It's New Year's Eve 1945. Les Brown and Doris Day's "Sentimental Journey" is popular on the radio; American troops have settled in at home after World War II. And at the stroke of midnight and the dawn of 1946, Al Nachreiner is born in Buffalo, York; and Kathleen Casey, in Philadelphia; and Jim Sickler, in St. Louis - and so many more.

It was the beginning of a new generation's unprecedented explosion. The baby boomers had arrived.

(Soundbite of Jimi Hendrix song, "All Along the Watchtower")

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: ...of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

LUDDEN: A cultural revolution transformed America when they came of age in the 1960s. It's hard to believe but today, the first of these boomers turns 65.

Mr. STEVE CONE (Executive Vice President, AARP): There are roughly 76 million people defined as baby boomers in this country - anyone who was born from 1946 to 1964.

LUDDEN: Steve Cone is executive vice president of AARP.

Mr. CONE: There are 7,000 boomers a day who will be turning 65 in 2011 - which is a significant birthday, for sure.

LUDDEN: Sixty-five used to be the age Americans stopped working, kicked back, and embarked on serious leisure to make up for all those decades of the daily grind. But just like every other stage of life they've gone through, the boomers are expected to transform how we think about retirement.

Ms. STEPHANIE ZIRKIN: My name is Stephanie Zirkin. My birthday is May 14, 1946.

Mr. STAN ZIRKIN: I'm Stan Zirkin. My birthday is March 14, 1945.

LUDDEN: So you're officially a boomer, you're almost a boomer.

Mr. ZIRKIN: Close enough.

LUDDEN: The Zirkins live in a cozy rowhouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Stephanie and Stan are short, with salt and pepper hair - mostly salt - and lots of energy, which they need.

STEPHEN: Uh, where's the book?

Ms. ZIRKIN: It's on one of the Macs, sweetie.

LUDDEN: Since their daughter split from her husband, Stephanie has stepped in as a main caregiver for her 6-year-old grandson, Stephen.

Ms. ZIRKIN: (Reading) This word is "which."

STEPHEN: (Reading) Which animal eats plants?

Ms. ZIRKIN: Uh-huh.

STEPHEN: Which animal...

Ms. ZIRKIN: Animals.

STEPHEN: Ostrich.

Ms. ZIRKIN: Other...

STEPHEN: Other animals?

LUDDEN: When his mom's working, Stephanie picks up Stephen at the bus stop after school. She supervises homework, sometimes feeds him dinner. She adores children and is happy to help. Still...

Ms. ZIRKIN: To be perfectly frank, by the time Stephen came along, I was kind of tired out. But I always wanted to have a grandchild that I could take care of on a daily basis. I just hadn't pictured it happening that far along.

LUDDEN: Boomers may have bolted for the door at 18 and been off their parents' payroll after college, but their offspring are taking longer to reach traditional milestones of adulthood. Marriage and children come later. Certainly with the bad economy, some are taking longer to establish careers. Growing numbers of 20-somethings have been moving back in with their boomer parents after college - a loving form of financial subsidy.

When the Zirkins' daughter, Rachel, separated from her husband, Stan found another way to help out.

Mr. ZIRKIN: The one thing that I could do was make sure that she knew she had a nice place to live. So I dipped into my savings and bought her a condominium, which is, you know, a hundred yards from here. And you know, I thought I was - I was feeling, you know, very secure when I ended my mortgage a few years ago, but now I have another one.

LUDDEN: The condo is just around the corner.

(Soundbite of door opening)

LUDDEN: Hi there. How are you?

RACHEL DUDA(ph): Hi; nice to meet you.

LUDDEN: The Zirkins' 41-year-old daughter, Rachel Duda(ph), is grateful for the condo and her mom's babysitting.

Ms. RACHEL DUDA: It's a godsend. Having her here, especially with my son and, you know, with going through divorce and everything else like that, it's been wonderful having family around. And Stephen is just thriving because of it, I think. It's like he's being raised by a village - which is a good thing. I mean, sometimes it really does take that.

LUDDEN: Back at the Zirkins', Stephanie gets dinner going. Stan has spent the day at his office in Washington, D.C., commuting home via Metro to the kiss-and-ride, then driving the few miles from there. It's a routine he's not about to give up.

Mr. ZIRKIN: And I work for the National Labor Relations Board, and I'm the branch chief of the contempt litigation branch. Love the work- and I've spent my entire career doing good for people who might otherwise be powerless, and that's a feeling that I can't imagine being duplicated anyplace else.

Ms. ZIRKIN: Friends of mine asked me if he was going to take early retirement from government, which he was eligible for 10 years ago. And I said, not 'til they pry the fare card from his cold, dead fingers. He loves his job.

LUDDEN: And that, too, is typical. Steve Cone says AARP surveyed those hitting 65 this year.

Mr. CONE: Our poll says that 40 percent of those turning 65 have no intention of retiring. The 40 percent is a much larger group than any generation before the boomers. But you know, the other factor we see in the poll is that a lot of people feel they have to keep working.

You know, it hasn't been such a great financial environment, or economic environment - as we all well know - over the past few years. And so when you turn 65, you start thinking about, well, how many productive years, you know, are ahead, and where am I financially?

LUDDEN: You asked an interesting question. You said: What would be the best 65th birthday gift that someone would like? And what did they say?

Mr. CONE: I think the first answer was financial security, followed closely by: I'd like to have good health, now and in the future.

LUDDEN: It's not just the recent recession that's put boomers' financial security at risk.

Alicia Munell directs the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. I asked he: What's the likelihood that baby boomers are now entering their golden years?

Ms. ALICIA MUNELL (Director, Center For Retirement Research, Boston College): Much less likely than that for retirees in earlier years. We're having a contraction in all aspects of the retirement income system, so boomers are going to face a much tougher time than their parents faced.

LUDDEN: What can you tell us about how prepared, you know, the average baby boomer is as they hit 65? What have they saved, on average?

Ms. MUNELL: Fifty-one percent of working households today will not be able to maintain their standard of living once they retire. In terms of the early boomers, that number is somewhat lower; it's at 41 percent.

LUDDEN: Munell says because of the rising retirement age and our tax structure, Social Security is replacing less and less of a beneficiary's earnings. Traditional pensions are disappearing. In their place: riskier 401(k)s, many of which took a big hit in the recent financial crisis.

Then there's the exploding cost of health care; the shrinking value of homes; the fact, she says, that Americans simply do not save enough. And, oh yes, everyone's living a lot longer.

Ms. MUNELL: What we're trying to do is have people save over a 40-year work life for 20 years in retirement. And the arithmetic just really doesn't work out, if you think about it. People just don't get enough income during that period to support themselves, raise their family, and meet all their needs, plus put aside a pile big enough to live for 20 years in retirement. So that's not workable. I think we really need to change the age at which people stop working, and then people have a fighting chance to have some security in retirement.

LUDDEN: It's entirely possible today that someone can actually spend more years in retirement than they did in the workforce. Stephanie and Stan Zirkin each have a parent in their 90s.

Ms. ZIRKIN: My father is 97. He still lives in the house that we moved into in 1957. He lives alone. He's still got all his marbles - maybe even acquired another few. He's tough.

LUDDEN: The Zirkins say their parents are still financially independent. And unlike many, they feel they have saved well for retirement. Stephanie believes their sense of thrift may speak more to their Depression-era parents than the rest of her generation. Still, looking after aging parents on one end, and struggling children on the other, is probably no one's retirement dream. And yet Steve Cone says the AARP survey shows an extraordinary, and characteristic, resilience.

Mr. CONE: Boomers feel very optimistic about A, their future and B, what they've accomplished. So there was very little response saying - you know - I really haven't done everything I've wanted to do. I think the number was in the 80 percent range in terms of people saying, you know, I'm happy where I am in life. And I think that's a fantastic poll indicator that this generation has always been optimistic, has always felt that they could do more, and regardless of their work environment, don't really want to quote-unquote retire from life.

Mr. ZIRKIN: A lot of my contemporaries have retired already. I was curious to see what they would do in retirement, and there is not a traditional retiree among them.

LUDDEN: Again, Stan Zirkin.

Mr. ZIRKIN: One of the guys decided he really majored in the wrong subject in college, so he's back in college. He's taking anthropology, I think, and that's his new love. And he says he intends to stay until he gets another degree, just for the heck of it. Another one, he used his retirement - some of his retirement money to purchase rundown houses, and he's renovating them himself. So the people that I've been in contact with, when they retire, they're not going to Florida and sitting by the pool and watching TV and getting fat. They are not retiring. They are simply going to a different stage of their life.

LUDDEN: Stephanie says this is fine by her - no need to have Stan lounging around the house all day. And really, she's busy enough. So what is she looking forward to in the coming decades?

MS. ZIRKIN: Ooh. Great-grandchildren.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of child squealing)

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: You can see highlights from the AARP survey of boomers turning 65 this year at our website, npr.org.

Our piece was produced by Ned Warden, and edited by Jeff Bennett.

You're listening to NPR News.

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