STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Wednesday we talk about the workplace, and today the silver tsunami - that's what the government calls the wave of baby boomers that's about to hit the Social Security system.
On January 1st of next year, the first of almost 80 million people become eligible for Social Security benefits. The government is concerned that it will be overwhelmed.
But in a new book called "Generation Ageless," co-author Walker Smith says the situation might not be so dire. And Mr. Smith, why not?
Dr. WALKER SMITH (Author): Well, baby boomers are going to approach retirement in a very different way than we have seen prior generations. They're more likely to work past the traditional retirement age of 65, and quite frankly, they're in a little bit better financial position than were they parents as they are approaching these ages. So I think while there is a lot of concern that is legitimate, we tend to exaggerate the impact of baby boomers as they're getting older.
INSKEEP: Are you saying people won't retire as soon, meaning that they won't be claiming Social Security benefits quite so soon?
Dr. SMITH: Well, when we look at baby boomers and study them, what we see is that baby boomers believe that they are going to work longer than prior generations. In fact, baby boomers are going to be healthier and more active and therefore more engaged as they go through their older years. You know, boomers are going to be the first generation to fully enjoy all of the medical advances that are transforming the lives of older people today.
So as opposed to living longer as a retired person, I think we're going to see baby boomers live longer as people in the workforce. It's going to be a longer middle age instead of a longer old age - and that, I think, is the kind of transformation in an approach to retirement that isn't accounted for in the kinds of economic models that are being used today to assess the impact of baby boomers on the Social Security system.
INSKEEP: When some analysts or even lawmakers talk about raising the Social Security retirement age a few more years, are you saying that eventually that's going to be a very big deal for many people because they'll be working anyway?
Dr. SMITH: I think that's true.
INSKEEP: When accountants in the government and outside look at the Social Security trust fund and see a massive shortfall in the coming years, are they not taking these trends into account?
Dr. SMITH: They're not really taking into account the approach that baby boomers are going to bring to retirement. They're very much modeling the traditional retirement age and the traditional expectation that when people reach a certain age, work disappears from their lives.
Baby boomers are going to work longer, and even when they reach the age of retirement, they are less likely than we have seen in the past to want to disconnect themselves completely from the workforce.
Most boomers don't expect to be working full-time; they really expect to be working part-time.
INSKEEP: And that does - I think there is some income threshold; you can earn up to so much.
Dr. SMITH: That's correct. That's correct. And boomers are probably going to earn more than that, even working part-time. You know, there's a lot of speculation about what the nature of part-time work will be. You know, will it be 20 hours a week, or will it be full-time for six months and no work at all for a year, and then full-time for three months? And it's probably more likely to be some kind of a cycling in and out of the workforce like that.
INSKEEP: What does it mean for younger workers if older workers are going to spend an extra five years around the workplace?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. SMITH: Well, I think this is one of the places where there might be some conflict, but probably not as much conflict as we would expect. You know, after the baby boom ended in the mid-1960s, we went through a period of a baby bust in this country, where boomers weren't having kids and their parents weren't having kids in quite the same numbers. And this baby bust, so-called Generation X, does not have sufficient numbers to make up for all of the baby boomers who are going to be retiring or reaching traditional retirement age, I guess I should say, in the next few years.
So there's going to be a continued demand for baby boomers in the workforce that can't be met by the generation immediately behind them. So I don't know if there's going to be as much conflict as we expect, just because we're going to need for baby boomers to stay in the workplace.
INSKEEP: Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich, a research firm. Thanks very much.
Dr. SMITH: Thank you.