Blacks Face Challenges as Boomers Turn 60 The Baby Boomer generation is 78 million strong, and some are now turning 60. But as African-American boomers head into retirement, they face their own set of challenges. Ed Gordon speaks with Melinda Chateauvert, an African-American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, and Aiyshen Padilla, director of African-American Membership Development at AARP, about what lies ahead for this generation.

Blacks Face Challenges as Boomers Turn 60

Blacks Face Challenges as Boomers Turn 60

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The Baby Boomer generation is 78 million strong, and some are now turning 60. But as African-American boomers head into retirement, they face their own set of challenges. Ed Gordon speaks with Melinda Chateauvert, an African-American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, and Aiyshen Padilla, director of African-American Membership Development at AARP, about what lies ahead for this generation.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The post-war generations known as the baby boomers has reached middle age. Next up for the oldest of this generation, retirement. There is suddenly a lot to think about, health care, pensions, care for elderly parents, whether there's enough to retire on? Of the 78 million or so baby boomers, about 9 million are African Americans and often every day issues faced by this group are complicated by race and class.

Melinda Chateauvert is an African American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Aiyshen Padilla is Director of African American Membership Development at AARP. Ms. Chateauvert explains what's so special about the generation of people born between 1946 and 1964.

Ms. MELINDA CHATEAUVERT (African American Studies Professor, University of Maryland, College Park): Well, it's the generation that certainly came of age during the major gains of the Civil Rights Movement. So there's a lot of things have happened from the time that that generation started to be tracked to 1965, and certainly from then until now. Tremendous changes in the past 50 years.

GORDON: What we are seeing now too, Ms. Padilla, is the idea that we are moving into a generation that, long-really-held the idea of what America was. And we're seeing them move, really, from middle age to what we call elderly, as we see the first wave of that generation move to 60 years of age. What does this do when so many people move to that age at one time?

Ms. AIYSHEN PADILLA (Director of African American Membership Development, AARP): It definitely impacts society as a whole. I mean, we hear a lot from the work force standpoint, in terms of--as such significant numbers of people that will want to kind of, quote unquote, "retire" at a given time. So it definitely is impacting the work force. And I would say that's the greatest impact that we are going to see.

GORDON: Ms. Chateauvert, let me ask you, as relates to African Americans within these parameters, what's special about their grouping--perhaps challenges that they have that others do not?

Ms. CHATEAUVERT: I think the thing that continues to be an issue for the African American community, is the wealth gap between white and black, and that's going to make a tremendous difference as more and more of those baby boomers begin to retire. They have, for a general part, have less assets, fewer assets than whites, and that is going to make a tremendous difference in a lot of different ways.

GORDON: How do you make up that gap? I mean, we continue to talk about the gap between blacks and whites; and as you start to move into yet another decade of your life, it is oft times harder to close that gap. And now you're finding yourself needing to take care of, perhaps, children as well as parents.

Ms. CHATEAUVERT: Well, I think in African American families taking care of children goes on much longer, and to a much greater extent, than it does among white families. And it's not just the children, it's also the elders, and the grandmothers, and the grandfathers. There is more dispersal of a single African American family income to greater number of relatives, and sometimes even neighborhood folks and churches, etcetera, than there is in the white community.

So that accounts for some of the difference in the wealth gap, but it also accounts for a quite large network of possible resources that might be drawn upon after retirement.

GORDON: Ms. Padilla, what else are we seeing in relation to what this group has to deal with--getting older and trying to take care of yourself, as well as your family?

Ms. PADILLA: The greatest one is the caregiving issue, particularly if you look at the African American population. What we're defining today as baby boomers, 43 percent of them are more likely to have both parents deceased. But to my colleague's point around caregiving, they are going to be caring for aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters.

GORDON: We're also not seeing the ability to really--when you talk about pensions funds folding and the idea that just Americans across the board, particularly this generation, have not found a way to really save like generations beforehand. Are we going to start see, Ms. Padilla, the idea that you have a full generation that does not have the kind of solvency, the foundation, that generations hereto for had?

Ms. PADILLA: I think so. Particularly if you look in the African American population. The boomers, as we're calling them, are the first black middle class. So I think absolutely, in terms of looking at the generation that they are and the generations below, there are issues around solvency in terms of people not necessarily planning, but it's the educational aspect.

Because you have money does not necessarily mean that you know how to save; it does not mean that you know what to do with it. So it is an education that needs to happen with this generation to also influence those that come next.

GORDON: Ms. Chateauvert, we're starting to see many of these baby boomers whose parents are grandparents started in the South, migrated North, and now we are starting to see this generation go back. Does this say anything to going back to one's roots, what's more comfortable, or does this speak more to just the change in nature of jobs and monies that have moved North to South?

Ms. CHATEAUVERT: Well, one thing that is drawing people back is, as you've mentioned, that it is home, traditionally home--if not for the people who are moving back, but certainly family home. And many of those places in the rural south and even in small town south, are of course, much less expensive to live in. So if a person is dependent on a reduced pension or on social security, they maybe able to live a little bit more comfortably, than if they're living in a northern urban area. That said however, the necessity of reestablishing the kinds of ties and support networks that will be necessary as this generation ages, might be more difficult. The availability of health care in rural areas is already a crisis. You add larger populations of elderly to that population, and particularly in the African American community, where problems of obesity, and diabetes, and heart disease tend to be greater than in the white community. I'm worried that there may be some kind of health crisis possible in that move.

GORDON: What was the lesson learned from that generation and what do you think was the lesson missed? Because often we hear that this generation did not pass the stories on to the younger generations, and that's why they fail to understand what came before?

Ms. PADILLA: I think one of the lessons that's missed is the lesson of legacy. And it is, it is the rumor out there, that the stories have not been shared. And that is kind of one of the issues that Gen-X'ers have to face, is that where they are today was accomplished by their parents. But those stories, those lessons, the hard work, the good, bad or indifferent, have to be told so that this legacy that we have can be continued.

Ms. CHATEAUVERT: But I think the object of the story, the lesson of the story, is what's not being told--even when they are recounted. Many of my students, and I teach a course on the civil rights movement, have no idea that there was a war on poverty. They have no idea that there was a prisoner's rights movement. They have no idea of—really have yet--been trying to make them appreciate the legacy in the sense of what political organizing can really do.

GORDON: There are some who feel that it's too late in the game for them to try to correct, perhaps, some of their problems--whether it be not enough savings, the idea that they're going to have to work a lot longer than they ever imagined, etcetera. What are some of the things that you have found useful as you've talked about this, studied this, to tell people where they may be able to see some light and the end of the tunnel?

Ms. PADILLA: I mean, I think the first step, particularly from the--from the organization that I work with, AARP, is to understand where they are. There is light at the end of the tunnel. To start and talk to investment folks, around what they can do in terms of making up the time that they've lost. But a lot of things, if people are working for organizations and they offer 401K's, a lot of people in our community don't even do that. So it is taking a look at the options that exist and coming up with a very aggressive plan. But--finding that financial advisor.

GORDON: Miss Chateauvert, the idea that many of these people now are facing, the idea that midstream, they've got to find a way to correct their lives. We're seeing companies, like General Motors and the like, fall on hard times--layoff many of these people whose parents had received the golden watch from GM and been able to provide a college education for many of them--what do you tell these people, who perhaps don't have the luxury even that their parents did at one time?

Professor CHATEAUVERT: Well, this is not going to be good news for GM, but I think some of the things that you have to think about is what kinds of things money is being spent on. I also think though, that we have a lot of work that could be done in terms of insuring that our government lives up to its promise of a decent life for all Americans. Again, I go back to the organizing, the voting, and the pressure on our government to make sure that those responsibilities are not forgotten.

GORDON: If we look back at this generation, particularly African-Americans within this generation, what do you think the legacy is going to be, that collectively, they have left?

Prof. CHATEAUVERT: I think they have shown, first of all, that it is possible to do a lot, so long as that opportunity is provided; so long as equal opportunity is there in the workplace; so long as there is a commitment to enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that people are paid on an equal basis with whites; to make sure that they are granted the same opportunities to purchase homes; that they do not have to pay extra rent because they are not white. Those are the kinds of things that they have actually benefited from in ways that previous generations did not.

It wasn't until 1968, that the majority of African-Americans even became eligible for social security, because the majority of African-Americans, were agricultural workers and domestics. That is a huge change in occupations that has now enabled a lot of people to justifiably go after jobs that they are able to do--good jobs that they are able to do--and to expect good wages and decent treatment; and to be able to spend their money in the same ways that other people do.

Ms. PADILLA: I think the legacy is one of possibility and one of achievement. I think that it is an American story. It is a story that--or a legacy--that is allowing other generations to achieve what they have today. There is still a long road ahead of us, but they've given us a very strong foundation.

GORDON: Well, that's a good way to look at it, for those of us who are graying by the moment. There's still a long road ahead of us. Ladies, thank you so much. Greatly appreciate it.

Prof. CHATEAUVERT: My pleasure.

Ms. PADILLA: Thank you.

GORDON: Melinda Chateauvert is an African-American studies professor at the University of Maryland College Park. Aiyshen Padilla is the director of African-American Membership Development at AARP.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, a look at the fight over immigration, and parallels to the civil rights movement. Our special roundtable is up next.

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