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Bernard Starr

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Politicians Beware: The Boomers Are Coming and They Won't Play Dead

Posted: 09/30/11 01:00 AM ET

If it weren't disturbing it would be amusing that politicians and policy makers are glibly assaulting -- almost on a daily basis -- programs and entitlements for older adults. It's as if seniors were a passive group of neuters that have no say in matters of their own lives, or a voice in government. Perhaps this is the legacy of the ageism that has pervaded American society and stubbornly persists. But a loud wake-up call is about to be sounded by a new generation of seniors unlike any previous one: The boomers

Politicians and policy makers should take note of who the baby boomers are. First, they aren't babies any more. They're grown up, and their history of leaving a powerful imprint on American society at every stage of their lives forecasts that their influence will continue. What this means is that the boomers will define American life, as they always have. When they were babies, the sheer size of the baby boom population -- 77 million born between 1946 and 1964 -- turned America's attention to infancy and childhood. It was the "Dr. Spock era" and the child-oriented society. Children and child rearing were the talk of the town; books, magazines, theories, and advice columns about children glutted the American landscape. In their teenage and young adult years of the 1960's and1970's the boomers spearheaded the Woodstock era that ushered in the sexual revolution, the counter-culture movement and the "hell no I won't go" protest against the war in Vietnam. All of these changed the face of America. Then, as they married and grew their own families during the Reagan years, big surprise: family values was the big issue in American life and the political arena.

Now, as the huge army of boomers enters the retirement years, it's a good bet that they will define the third age of life, meaning that aging issues will take center stage in America. And in view of the powerful boomer impact on American society during earlier stages of their life we can safely predict that we are about to witness the revolution of the old.

What shape will that revolution take? Surely the current state of the union will influence the direction. But it's not a pretty picture for the first boomers who are crossing the senior line in 2011. Their prospects look grim and they feel betrayed. That should sound an alarm: "Hello Houston, we have a problem: Washington's payload is ready for launch but the boomers are coming and they're mad as hell."

The vibrant America they were instrumental in building over the last three decades is slipping away. The promised golden years are looking tarnished, and may turn out to be a mirage. Their home values have collapsed, they have scant savings, high debt, and diminishing 401K's as they draw on their retirement funds to pay for their children's education and other expenses. Others can only shudder over threats to their pensions as municipalities declare bankruptcy. And the boomers are right to worry about losing their jobs as the recession lingers and more and more jobs are shipped overseas. While economists tell them they may have to work till they drop they wonder how that will play out, even if they choose to continue to work, when over 9% percent of the population is unemployed and unemployed workers over age fifty are the least likely to find jobs.

Back in Washington, politicians and policy makers are proposing changes in Social Security and Medicare with cuts that include raising the age for Social Security eligibility, cutbacks in services, elimination of coverage for some medical procedures, higher deductibles and co-payments, means testing for Medicare eligibility, sharply lower reimbursements to doctors and hospitals that will surely force hospital closings and the withdrawal of many physicians from the system, which will severely reduce the availability of medical services, and a plan to privatize Medicare. Policy makers and pundits are also questioning the cost effectiveness of end of life care--starkly stated in the grisly title of an article in Newsweek: "The Case for Killing Granny."

So what will the boomers do? For sure, they will not play dead. It's not their history and it's not their style. More predictably they will invoke the Rostenkowski factor. In July 1989 after Congress passed a catastrophic medical coverage bill that was introduced by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Congressman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois seniors cheered at first. But when they deciphered the small print and discovered a surcharge on Medicare beneficiaries for the coverage they went ballistic. On August 17, 1989, the scene of seniors yelling "coward," "recall," and "impeach" while chasing Rostenkowski as he left a meeting in Chicago and struggled to flee the scene was played across America on the evening news. The images of seniors rioting, making threatening gestures, and venting rage terrified legislators. The bill they had passed by a three to one majority was swiftly repealed.

Those feisty defiant seniors were from the generation of the boomers' parents and grandparents -- elderly who were assumed to be submissive and fearful of authority and government. But when pushed they literally came out swinging -- and the terrified politicians frantically ran for cover.

If that generation of seniors struck back, what can we expect from the aging boomers? Keep in mind that the boomers will be the most educated seniors in history, they have high expectations for comfortable living, are computer literate and are adept in social networking.They know how to "work the system" (they were the system), will vote in greater percentages than any other age group (as senior always have), and they carry an impressive resume of protest and noise making.

All this screams out: Politicians beware -- the boomers are coming. Like drill sergeants you may bark your marching orders and expect unchallenged compliance. But this army will march to its own drum beat.

So stay tuned. For in the words of old time comedian Jimmy Durante, "You ain't seen nuttin yet!"

 
 
 

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