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Stop Scaring Boomers: Why Social Security Matters

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Old people have irreplaceable value. If you don't want to take it from me, take it from the birds and monkeys. Quoting Harvard Medical School's Dr. George Vaillant: "Among jackdaws and chimpanzees... the young are unable to alert their fellows, but the alarms of the elderly are taken very seriously."

I'm no jackdaw -- but I am sounding the alarm. America is in danger of squandering one of its most valuable resources: aging Boomers. Every time the Tea Party or any politician, for that matter, pecks away at our survival with threats against Social Security and Medicare, our country slips one notch further down the pyramid of adult development. We are in trouble: but it's not too late.

Experts in adult development will tell you that individuals have the potential to play an increasingly vital role in society as they age. In his seminal book Aging Well (Little Brown), Vaillant stands side by side with the pioneers of the field Erik Erikson, Simone de Beauvoir and Carl Jung. And surely you're familiar with Abraham Maslow's adult development pyramid: the hierarchy of needs.

The key take-away is this. Boomers, on the verge of old age, have the potential to reach unprecedented heights of maturity, expanded perspective and concern for the well-being of future generations. In fact, as the attack on entitlements escalates into full swing, I have evidence to support the fact that an increasing number of Boomers have been, indeed, on a vibrant trajectory of growth towards the peak of fulfilling the human potential.

But as social scientists warn, just as one can ascend the pyramid towards actualization, so can one slip back down to the bottom, where fulfilling the urge to give back is replaced with the survival-driven pursuit of basic needs. How does the laddered pyramid turn into a greased slope? Scare us. Give us cause to worry about our survival. Focus our attention on reacting to threats rather than on nurturing our lifestage-appropriate desire to make our finest contribution to the greater good.

As I said, I have evidence that Boomers aspire to rise up the pyramid. It comes from the world of marketing. When I joined VibrantNation.com in the role of Senior Strategist several years ago, we had just done a consumer segmentation study on our demographic: upscale, educated women of the Boomer generation. With my doctorate in adult development, as we studied the demographic, we saw a distinct correlation between consumer segmentation and the adult development pyramid. With one major exception. The majority of women in our study had made great strides moving beyond the self-centered survival concerns at the bottom, rising towards the increasingly higher levels of adult development.

In a nutshell: Only 2 percent of the women in our study comprise the least developed cohort, a group we refer to as "Other Pleasers." Fear-driven and focused on survival, this segment consists primarily of women who just want to be taken care of and protected. They are easily manipulated and concerned about pleasing others in an effort to assure their own security. (Ironically, this is the dominant stereotype that many marketers and politicians hold of Boomers, and to whom the majority of messaging is directed.)

It is a tenable degree of challenge and change -- often experienced as crisis -- that moves us up the pyramid. In fact, the longer we live -- ergo the older we get -- the more opportunity we have to learn from trial and error, to overcome challenges and to handle the lesser self-developmental tasks so that we can increasingly focus on the bigger picture.

When "Other Pleasers" become exposed to life events, such as going off to college, divorce or illness, they tend to progress to a stage akin to adolescence -- but that can actually occur at any age. We refer to this segment as Experiential Indulgers, representing only 9 percent of the women in our study. The woman at this stage reacts against having spent so much time seeking approval, and now wants to please only herself. At 2 percent and 9 percent, these first two least-developed segments are so marginal statistically as to have virtually dropped off the adult development pyramid.

It's only as we approach the next category, which we refer to as the Self-interested Spender, that we encounter the new, higher bottom to the pyramid. At a whopping 48 percent, the women at this more evolved stage begin to think in terms of personal values and quality, rather than status. This is a time for moving beyond her original fear-driven programming -- as well as her knee-jerk reactivity to it. This is a woman who is engaged in reinventing herself and aspiring to ascend even higher on the pyramid of human development.

When she does, she enters the second category to the top of the pyramid, at 20 percent, the category we refer to as the Simplicity Seeker. This woman is willing to downsize, live with less and make savvy choices "So that I can focus on what really matters to me." Resourceful and optimistic, she is actively co-creating with others, bringing innovative solutions to societal as well as personal issues. She is committed to redefining and making "the good life" a reality, regardless of our challenging times.

At the top of the pyramid, at 14 percent, are the Value Endorsers. While 14 percent is a small percentage, it is much larger than the 3 percent that Maslow once estimated to have achieved actualization at the peak of human development. The women at this stage in our study put serving the greater good, through the pursuit of meaning and legacy, over all else.

Society needs these time-seasoned women, just as much as birds and chimpanzees need their elders to make their own irreplaceable contribution. But just as a certain degree of challenge and change can push us to evolve, so does an untenable degree hold the potential to scare us back down into survival mode. Society may save a few bucks on Social Security and Medicare, but may well squander the largest, best educated and most ready to serve cohort in history.

I don't know about you, but if chimpanzees have figured it out, I have hope that slash and burn politicians are yet capable of coming to their senses. Listen to us. Your elders are sounding the alarm. Pay attention!