Social Safety Nets Face Tide of Graying Boomers : Aging: The generation born from 1946-1964 will increasingly compete for dwindling resources.


Baby boomers, the oldest of whom are now nearing mid-life and thinking ahead to retirement, will increasingly compete with other age groups--and even among themselves--for Social Security and health care resources, according to a new analysis released Friday.

The graying of the baby boomers, or those Americans born from 1946 to 1964, will place new strains on the nation's social safety net as "this crowded generation passes through its life cycle," the private Population Reference Bureau said in its report.

The Washington-based, nonprofit research organization predicts that over the next 20 years, the boomer generation "will be laying the foundation not only for its own retirement and older years, but also for the nation's future."

The report portrays a future political and social landscape that is stratified along generational lines. It also takes issue with characterizations of the boom generation as a cohesive demographic group, noting that older boomers tend to have different life experiences, values and goals than their younger counterparts.

The study notes that "leading-edge" boomers, or those born before 1955, "enjoyed the advantage of arriving first" to fill college dormitories and entry-level jobs, forcing those who came later to compete for fewer openings.

The older boomers "cut their teeth during a time of political activism and optimism," the report states. "Younger baby boomers entered politics during a time of government retrenchment and public cynicism and apathy."

Written by Tulane University professor Leon F. Bouvier and bureau researcher Carol J. De Vita, the study suggests that financially strapped post-baby boomers may question their ability to support the overwhelming demands of retired parents and grandparents.

"In the decades ahead, the struggle over the allocation of scarce resources will almost inevitably be seen in terms of generational conflicts and trade-offs," Bouvier and De Vita wrote.

Boomers, who represent the largest generation in American history, already are flexing their collective political muscle to ensure they receive a fair share of the nation's future resources. "As the generation in the middle, baby boomers will play a pivotal role in this debate as they provide for their children, assist their aging parents and plan for their own futures," the report says.

Since the advent of the baby boom after World War II, demographers have watched carefully as this enormous group--numbering more than 80 million in 1990--forced the nation to adjust its schools, workplaces, housing markets, consumption patterns and government programs.

Over the next four decades, as baby boomers age into "senior boomers," the number of elderly Americans will double from about 30 million today to about 65 million in the year 2030, when the youngest boomers reach 65 and the oldest are about 84.

Moreover, the researchers predict that in the next century the nation's senior citizens will for the first time outnumber those Americans under the age of 18, reducing the number of young workers available to support the growing number of retired persons.

"The baby boom generation is like a boa constrictor swallowing a pig," said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "The aging of the baby boom generation does give rise to some predictable changes in the society. But these are not lightning-fast changes; they are very slowly occurring, and the government can make a lot of policy changes to anticipate them."

The Population Reference Bureau cites several challenges posed by aging boomers:

* Families will face increased pressure to assist older relatives with "very basic needs--eating, bathing, dressing, walking, or using the toilet." The report says that boomers "will first encounter this problem in regard to their own parents; later they will face the need for themselves."

* Younger workers, even within the baby boom generation, will find themselves in competition with their elders for jobs and career mobility. "The career advancement and promotional opportunities of younger baby boomers (and members of the smaller baby bust generation) may be stymied as long as older baby boomers remain in the labor force."

* With the elderly population soaring and the number of working Americans contracting, the ability of the Social Security system to provide for the needs of future retirees will be endangered. That potential crisis "may be one of the first major tests of the baby boom generation's political cohesion and power."

* As they approach the end of their careers, many baby boomers will face a dilemma involving their retirement options. Private pension plans are likely to provide new incentives for members to retire before the age of 65, but anticipated revisions in the Social Security system may pressure many Americans to stay in the workplace for longer periods.

A Crowded Generation

A new study calls attention to significant differences among members of the boom generation.

Median income of households headed by a baby boomer, 1989 ($ thousands) All Baby Boomers: $33,000 AGE 25-34: $29,800 35-44: $37,600 GENDER Men: $37,500 Women: $22,300 RACE White: $35,000 Black: $21,000 Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census

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