Louise Machinist, a Pittsburgh clinical psychologist, had noticed that her ex-mother-in-law, who lived alone, was lonely in a large house in Upstate New York. Since her ex-mother-in-law didn’t need all that space, and because the home was expensive and difficult to maintain on her own, maybe she could live with one or two others, Machinist suggested.
That idea didn’t fly with her former mother-in-law, but it did get Machinist thinking: When she herself got older, rather than living solo and feeling isolated, why not share a house with other single women? She mentioned the idea to church friends Karen Bush and Jean McQuillan. The suggestion of shared housing intrigued them, too—and not just for the future.
When it comes to living arrangements, boomers are determined to get by with a little help from their friends.
WHEN CHARLENE DICALOGERO LIVED ALONE in an apartment in Watertown, she knew none of her neighbors. “I felt lonely and isolated,” says the 53-year-old, a grants administrator at Lesley University. But since buying a $230,000, 700-square-foot home at Camelot CoHousing in Berlin four years ago, DiCalogero couldn’t be lonely if she tried.
Camelot is an enclave of 34 compact homes with welcoming front porches that sit clustered together in this rural town, about a half-hour drive northeast of Worcester. The road and parking areas are off to the side, while pedestrian walkways wind among the houses. The development is engineered to encourage relationships with neighbors — and it seems to be working.
Boomers love to do everything their own way, and they are out in front on divorce, too. While the overall divorce rate in the United States has decreased since 1990, it has doubled for those over age 50.
Reasons vary: Longer lives mean more years with an incompatible spouse; no kids to use as a reason to stay together; less stigma about splitting; more women working, some outearning their spouses; and a remarriage failure rate of 60 percent.
The surge has spawned the term “gray divorce.” As Jay Lebow, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, says, “If late-life divorce were a disease, it would be an epidemic.”
One out of three boomers will face older age unmarried, says Susan Brown, codirector of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in her new study “The Gray Divorce Revolution.”
That’s significant. The fact that one time legally bound partners have gone their separate ways later in life — or are single by choice or circumstances — has many personal and societal ramifications.
Paying on your own
Even if not divorced, older adults can be vulnerable financially in today’s economy. But a split-up hardly helps. “You end up with only half of what you had when you were married, and half can feel like nothing,” says Ginita Wall, a San Diego CPA and certified divorce financial analyst.
“Keep in mind that many consequences of divorcing later in life revolve around one fact: less time to recover financially, recoup losses, retire debt and ride the waves of booms and busts,” says Janice Green, an Austin, Texas, family law attorney and author of Divorce After 50.
More than half of all workers or their spouses have less than $25,000 in household savings and investments, according to the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey, published by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute. Women also still earn less than men and have a longer life expectancy, which puts them at greater economic risk. “Once women wind up older and alone, whether it’s widowed, divorced or never married, they’re at a fairly high rate of poverty, on average 20 percent,” says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Singles will also depend more on public benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, according to Maya Rockeymoore, a Social Security expert. With the oldest of the 78 million boomers turning 85 in 2031, the government tab could be staggering. In 2021, Medicare alone is expected to cost taxpayers $1.1 trillion — up from $586 billion in 2012.
To stay afloat, some singles, like Eileen Lewis, 66, take in boarders. Divorced at 50 after a two-decade marriage, she rents out a room in her Catonsville, Md., home. The income helps her pay her utilities, gas and part of her mortgage — and enabled her to take a cruise, “something I never would have been able to do before,” she says.
Someone to watch over me
Caregiving adds to the burden of aging alone — and it, too, typically affects women. A 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP survey found that 66 percent of caregivers were female, with women providing on average 21.9 hours per week vs. 17.4 hours for males. And, according to a National Alliance for Caregiving/Evercare survey, the average out-of-pocket expense for caregivers is $5,531 a year, $8,728 if helping from a distance and $5,885 if the caregiver and care recipient live together.
Older men may make out better financially than women, but they don’t fare so well at finding someone to take care of them when they’re older. “They often don’t have alternative care networks the way women do,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. “If a man gets divorced, his support in later life is gone. Plan B may be to remarry because he needs a caregiver.”
After divorce, children often live with their mothers. If dads move away or don’t stay close, adult children may not be willing to be caregivers when needed.
Remarriage for either ex is murky territory, too. “If you acquire a stepson when you’re 60, will he help you when you’re old?” asks Cherlin. “We’re creating complex family relationships where we’re related to more people but obligated to fewer.” Even if there is a close bond, children may not live close by.
When asked who they’ll turn to when they’re older, single men often cite paid help, says Teresa Cooney, a gerontologist at the University of Missouri. But paid help is pricey, and can be hard to find. Up to half of the 5.4 million adults with Alzheimer’s have no identifiable caregiver. Former spouses often step in, mainly to spare their children, or because no one else can, says Cooney.
The end of a marriage often leads to the formation of a new family, with relatives or friends assuming the caregiving role of a spouse. It can also lead to some unexpected living arrangements.
After her marriage of 32 years ended in 2008, Ellen Rittberg, 60, of Long Island, N.Y., moved to her mother’s home to save money. A year into the arrangement, her mom broke her pelvis; Rittberg decided to stay. Now they care for each other. “It is mutual love and companionship,” says the mother of three and grandmother of two. “I went from being embarrassed that I was living with my mother to feeling so lucky we’re close, and that I can do this.”
Not everyone has family, can live with them, or wants to. According to AARP, 22.3 percent of women and 12.5 percent of men age 50-plus live alone. With people living longer, adult children could wind up caring for three or four parents, plus stepparents. Already, one-third of all female caregivers care for two or more people.
Though most people want to grow old in their homes, some don’t have that choice. Those living in the suburbs or a rural area with limited public transportation and social interaction have additional challenges.
Some singles who don’t want to burden their children are creating their own support systems. Arthur Okner, a divorced, retired management consultant, owns a condo in a Boulder, Colo., cohousing community, where decisions are made by consensus. “I have very little family,” says Okner, 70. “Here, I belong to a community.”
Also on the rise are “villages,” where older adults living on their own have access to vetted services, like home repair, as well as trips, lunches or evening events for an annual fee, $350 on average. Other singles make their own arrangements. Edith Heyck, 61, an artist from Newburyport, Mass., shared a condo for three years with another divorcee in her 50s. “I enjoyed the companionship and it was a financial relief,” she says. When her friend sold the condo, Heyck moved in with an older woman, until Heyck lost her place to a new boyfriend. Now, Heyck is “sofa surfing,” until she’s eligible for senior housing. “I never planned for my financial future,” says Heyck. “I just assumed I would be married.”
Who says baby boomers don’t like sex, are terrible with technology, are all rolling in the dough, are healthier than their parents and rottenly selfish? It’s just not true! In a piece I wrote for The Washington Post, I put these myths to bed.
Take a look and see what you think:
There are 75.4 million baby boomers in the United States, people from 51 to 69 years old. They are the largest generation in American history, raised during the economic prosperity that followed World War II. Media and marketers have treated the generation as one enormous, monolithic group since their youth. But larger than the entire population of France, America’s baby boomers are a far more diverse demographic than any of their many stereotypes convey. The oldest boomer, born in 1946, was 18 years old when the youngest was just entering the world. It’s time to debunk some generalizations about the original Me Generation.
Sally Abrahms is a nationally recognized writer on baby boomers and aging.
1. Boomers are wealthy.
Rather than downsizing, many empty nesters are snapping up second homes or moving into bigger quarters, seeking more prestige and space for friends and relatives to visit. For instance, the Lake Weir Preserve retirement community in central Florida offers custom homes with garages as huge as 3,000 square feet, to fit RVs, boats and classic-car collections. Increasingly, “retirement isn’t all about being practical,” Ken Dychtwald, founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Age Wave, told U.S. News & World Reportthis year.
Such stories of big spending have dominated popular perceptions of boomers in their later years. But many boomers couldn’t be further from living that dream. While some benefit from multiple income streams, members of this sandwich generation often are saddled simultaneously with their children’s eye-popping college tuition payments and health expenses for their aging parents. Some have to leave their jobs to be full-time caregivers. A 2013 AARP study found that about 1 in 5 workers between ages 45 and 74 had either taken leave or quit a job to care for an adult family member in the past five years. That amounted to an average $303,880 in lost income (including pension and Social Security benefits) per caregiver, according to a MetLife estimate.
On top of that, there’s a mounting number of “gray divorce” couples who, in their 50s and 60s, suddenly have to divide assets they had counted on. Given boomers’ longer life expectancy, that translates into a lot more bills for many more years.
Savings aren’t helping them much. A Wells Fargo study released last month shows that working Americans age 60 or older have median savings of just $50,000, about $250,000 short of their goal. And plans to keep their jobs longer might not work. In the same study, 49 percent of retired respondents said they left the workforce earlier than expected, frequently because of health problems or an employer’s decision.
Boomers know that their financial situation is more precarious than others think. “When I talk to audiences around the country, I hear this palpable fear that boomers will outlive their money,” says personal finance expert Kerry Hannon, author of “Getting the Job You Want After 50.”
2. Boomers are healthier than their parents.
Baby boomers have the longest life expectancy in history. The average 65-year-old today can expect to live to 84.3 — nearly three years longer than a 65-year-old in 1980. New tests to screen for health issues, along with greater public awareness about the dangers of smoking, sitting and obesity, give boomers health advantages that their parents never had. Statins to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease weren’t even introduced until 1987. Boomers are tracking their fitness, tallying their steps and counting their calories. It’s natural to assume they are healthier than the previous generation.
But the data doesn’t agree. “We have all these medical advances, fitness and technology. There’s this belief that with so many more tools available that boomers have to be doing better, but it’s a misperception,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.
Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013 showed that boomers were in worse health than their parents at about the same age. They had more disabilities and higher rates of chronic diseases. Just 13 percent of the studied boomers said they were in excellent health, compared with 32 percent of people from the previous generation. Boomers were more likely to be obese, exercised less, and had higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol.
3. Boomers are selfish.
If you want to see how unpopular the cohort unfortunately nicknamed the Me Generation has become, just Google “baby boomers selfish.” My search returned 147,000 results, including headlines declaring them “The Worst Generation Ever.” Detractors complain that boomers stay too long at their jobs and in their homes, not making room for the next generation, spending their children’s inheritances and running up debt.
Elsewhere in this issue, Jim Tankersley writes, “the generation that was born into some of the strongest job growth in the history of America, gobbled up the best parts, and left its children and grandchildren with some bones to pick through and a big bill to pay.”
Not so fast. Boomers have been far more generous with their money than they’re given credit for, a benevolence that will continue after their deaths. The generation is poised to lead the largest wealth transfer in U.S. history. Researchers at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy estimated that between 2007 and 2061, heirs will receive $36 trillion from deceased relatives, and $20.6 trillion will be given to charity. A new Merrill Lynch report credits boomers for an upcoming surge in charitable giving: Over the next 20 years, retirees will donate money and time worth $8 trillion.
The generation has also solidified the concept of the “encore career,” with retirees parlaying their experience and skills into volunteer roles or paid “second act” jobs that have a positive social impact. The San Francisco-based nonprofit Encore.org launched in 1997 to place skilled retirees in health-care, human services, environmental and educational fields. Encore.org’s research shows that more than 4.5 million Americans ages 50 to 70 are already in encore careers and an additional 21 million plan to pursue them. As founder and chief executive Marc Freedman told me, “The so-called ‘Me Generation’ is being shown to be the ‘We Generation.’ ”
4. Boomers are technology-challenged.
It stands to reason that people who weren’t exposed to personal computers until adulthood would have a harder time learning digital skills than those who have been using them since childhood. The personal computer didn’t even exist until the oldest boomers were a decade out of high school. The youngest were in their late 20s when the public Internet was born. In 2001, educator Marc Prensky coined the term “digital immigrant” for those born before 1980 who can find technology foreign. It’s assumed that older adults are slower to grasp new skills and that computers, digital gadgets and social media are too complicated for them to use.
But boomers, like younger generations, have integrated digital technology into almost every facet of their lives — from banking and shopping to following news and watching videos. A 2010 Pew Research Center studyfound that 84 percent of Americans between ages 57 and 65 owned a cellphone, about the average for adults of all ages. They were nearly as likely as Gen Xers to own a desktop computer — 64 percent compared with 69 percent (though Gen Xers were more likely to have a laptop). And among younger boomers, 42 percent owned an iPod or MP3 player, while 38 percent owned a game console.
They’re also far from social-media-shy. Users over age 55 are Facebook’s fastest-growing segment; 7 out of 10 boomers already have an account. They have no problem logging on for love, either. Several dating sites, including OurTime.com and SilverSingles.com, cater to the 50-plus set, who now make up 20 percent of all online daters.
5. Boomers don’t have sex.
On that note, boomers also have challenged the notion that our sex lives collapse as we age. A culture that glorifies youth and glamorizes taut bodies has grimaced at the idea of grandparents as sexual beings. Older actresses are sidelined as romantic leads in movies, and the sex lives of married couples are the butt of jokes on TV shows. Society’s discomfort with older-adult sexuality makes Viagra and Cialis ads seem almost ghoulish.
Have you ever seen the Dos Equis beer ads starring The Most Interesting Man in the World? If so, you know what my husband looks like. He’s a dead ringer for the actor who plays Mr. Cool. I wrote the story below, that appeared recently in AdvertisingAge, one night after yet more “fans” approached him.
I am in a bar in the West Village with my husband, daughter, and nephew. My husband David gets up to order a drink in the other room. “It’s happening again,” he tells us when he returns.
That’s all he has to say. We know the rest. At the bar, there will have been stares and whispers. Invariably, as they did that night, someone will come over to ask my husband if he’s “that guy” and want to take a picture with him. He has yet to turn down a photo opp.
At a recent meeting attended by hundreds of attorneys, my husband’s buttoned-up law firm puts up two photos side by side on the massive screen. One is of my husband and the other is that guy.
And last summer, on Nantucket, our family is listening to a band playing at a packed brewery. All of a sudden, the lead singer stops mid-song and says, “We are honored to have in the crowd with us the Most Interesting Man in the World.” People turn as he points his mic at my husband.
Dozens of times — in San Francisco, Houston, New York, Nantucket, and Chicago, in airports, elevators, bars, restaurants, on subways and the street, and last night, at a professional basketball game in Boston — David has been stopped and asked if he is The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercials. Although he’s more than ten years his junior, a wee 63 year-old boomer, my husband looks remarkably like the actor.
And that suits David just fine. After all, The Most Interesting Man in the World is sophisticated and adventurous. He drops from helicopters into igloos and hosts rambunctious cougars (the animal, not the older women who hook up with younger guys) in his kitchen. Did I mention the beautiful women on his arm?
My husband is not a poser. He doesn’t say he is Mr. Dos Equis, and always gives his real name. He has been known, though, to toss out, “Stay thirsty, my friend” to star-struck gawkers. When pressed, he always admits he is a mere lowly lookalike.
The truth doesn’t stop him from having his favorite one-liners from the ads: “I once had an awkward moment just to see what it felt like” and “His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”
The message is that if you drink Dos Equis, you, too, will be cool like the guy in the ad.
How refreshing! In a society that only seems to celebrate the young and dismisses the old, these advertisers have chosen to build a campaign around a septuagenarian with a gray beard and laugh lines–not a hottie in his 20s or 30s.
Rather than assume an older person is over the hill and no longer has what it takes, Dos Equis made its man an object of desire for women, and someone men want to emulate.
And many of his fans happen to be young.
The Benefits of Age
What makes The Most Interesting Man so appealing is his experience, knowledge and wisdom, all gained from living a long life. These positive qualities are acquired by aging, a concept that has had little value in the marketing world.
Instead, advertisers usually target a younger demographic with, say, a buff, boyish male model wearing tight jeans and no shirt.
If there is a product for older people, it is likely to involve retirement (doom and gloom, you haven’t saved enough) or erectile dysfunction (you’re old, so see, you can’t perform).
Dos Equis has chosen to show a different face of aging, someone who is sexual, fun and vital. The ads have received a grand reception from viewers; there are pages and pages on Google with Dos Equis commercial witticisms and life-size cardboard cutouts on eBay of the real McCoy.
Have we turned the corner with stereotypes of clueless older people? Is this the beginning of multi-layered depictions and a better understanding of the wide range of boomers and seniors? Is ageism dying?
A 2012 campaign for Toyota Venza showed older parents biking with their friends, getting a puppy or clubbing while their millennial age children assumed the folks were going to be early and missing out on life. That’s a start.
The creative ranks of agencies, which are typically made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, could use more boomers. No doubt they would change the script rather than play it safe.
At the very least, there are financial incentives for an advertising shift: the 50-plus group has $2.4 trillion in annual income, or 42% of all after-tax income; the 55-plus demographic controls more than three-quarters of America’s wealth; and 55-64 year-olds outspend the average consumer in almost every category. The buying power of 78 million boomers, the oldest who turn 68 next year, will likely flip the TV picture from black and white to grey.
But my husband isn’t thinking about advertising dollars or his important faux role in transforming how older people are perceived. He’s thinking it’s funny that he’s repeatedly mistaken for The Most Interesting Man in the World.
That part of the story is compelling, feel-good fiction: The fans believe they’ve had a brush with fame, the Dos Equis folks have a winner on their hands while debunking ageism, my husband gets a good chuckle, and even I make out. Not only do I have a new man in my life without having to stray, but he happens to be more interesting than I even knew!