Not fade away

by Bruce Ansley / 11 February, 2006
As the first of the baby boomers storm into their sixties, we are seeing a new definition of ageing.

Baby boomer is a very ordinary name for the generation who shaped the last three decades of the millennium, but the baby boomers don't care. They changed the world and they changed it back again. They invented life as we know it. They gave us jogging, MBAs, rock music, cholesterol, scepticism, latte, divorce, silicon chips and counselling. John Lennon was wrong in the song: it wasn't all we were saying, not by a long shot. Giving peace a chance never quite worked, either - not even the baby boomers can do everything. But they're not baulking at the last hurdle - old age.

The boomers can't bring themselves to mention the words. Old age is what their parents had. The baby boomers are going to invent something all their own.

The matter is urgent. The first of the boomers hit 60 on January 1. They don't quite know what to call the new age they are entering: "new age" has already been commandeered by people they disparage and the "golden" age is sounding a little too, well, elderly. But they're inventive: third-agers, silver foxes, wild elderly, transformers, revivers, new phasers, middlescents and ski-trippers (spending kids' inheritance) have all been floated.

Whatever its name, movers and shakers are rapidly being introduced to it.

Turning 60 this year are poets Sam Hunt and Dinah Hawken, film directors Geoff Murphy and Roger Donaldson (who squeaked in just before Christmas), writers Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde and Gavin Bishop, coaches Laurie Mains and Graham Henry, former All Blacks Ian Kirkpatrick and Grahame Thorne, artists Robin White, Fatu Feu'u and Virginia King, Public Health's Paratene Ngata, politician George Hawkins, not to mention his more celebrated colleagues, President George Bush and former President Bill Clinton. Elsewhere, there's Donald Trump, Cher, Barry Gibb, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Van Morrison and Sylvester Stallone. Hot on their heels are writer Keri Hulme and actors Sam Neill, John Clark and Annie Whittle.

They have an entirely different agenda from their parents'. To baby boomers, death is just an option. They intend living forever on a potent formula of healthy food, fitness, medical breakthroughs (usually by fellow-boomers), lifestyle pharmaceuticals and a complete absence of tobacco.

They're not going to (old boomer saying) mess with success. They are going to fund eternal life by never retiring. They believe retiring was their dads' trick. They are going to achieve an optimum work-life balance, by which they mean more life, less work. New adventures, exciting places to live are being invented by them, for them.

Their lives will remain dynamic. They insist upon it.

Grahame Thorne escaped Auckland to a Marlborough vineyard in 1997 and has now moved to growing grapes in Nelson. Annie Whittle simply grows better by the year; her latest role was in The World's Fastest Indian, directed by the emergent sexagenarian Roger Donaldson. The acclaimed writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop gave up 30 years of teaching in 1998 to give his full attention to his children's books. Hawkins, the former Minister of Police, had a well-publicised career change at the last election.

Their kids may see them as self-indulgent, opinionated, judgmental, smug, protected, whining, too comfortable to bother taking the sin out of sinecure. But the boomers, as always, know better.

Mary Jane O'Reilly became the country's best-known choreographer in 1990 when she designed, wonderfully, the Auckland Commonwealth Games opening and closing ceremonies. She'd been a dancer until her mid-thirties, famously with the Limbs Dance Company of which she was a founder and director. She is applauded as dancer, choreographer, teacher, director, producer. She's 56 this year, and if she's counting, it's hard to notice.

O'Reilly is artistic director of the tempo dance festival in Auckland this October. She even dances a bit: "Don't ask me to do anything unusual, basketball, say. But I do a bit of ballet, a bit of contemporary." She draws from a 30-year body of work and re-creates it. "I'll just go on. That's the plan. I see myself never retiring."

Sure, she'll never be as fit as she was when she danced every day with Limbs: "Dancing is the most extreme physical activity you can think of." But she does yoga, Pilates, and when she teaches, she dances. "I can still do handstands. I'm a classic 55-year-old. Bodies get so wrecked, so depressing. At 75 you're fine. But at 80? I'd like to work until 75, though. They say dancers die one death in their early forties and I've died one death. Now I'll keep going. If you stop, your body turns to cotton wool, you die from the neck down. I can't imagine being like that."

The big difference between baby boomers and their parents is that they have the choice. Compulsory retirement has been abolished, the economy enables them to work on and, above all, they're more affluent.

People over 45 control 71% of the nation's wealth, according to Chris Schultz, managing director of advertising network Senior-agency NZ. Schultz estimates that people over 50 control 65% of disposable income. People aged 55 to 59 are the peak age-group for New Zealand's net worth. The over-fifties market, says Schultz, will grow 27% by the year 2021. In that time, the under-20 market will shrink 5%.

David Thomson once argued, in his book Selfish Generations, that baby boomers had not done as well out of the welfare state as their parents had, and that their children had done even less well.

But as Schulz's figures show, baby boomers are seen as the affluent generation. Thomson, 53, himself retired at 48 from his job as history professor at Massey University. He is, he says, comfortable. He does unpaid research work at the university, runs his small farm, And yes, he is better off than his parents.

How does he account for that? "I'm an exception. My brothers and sisters are not in the same position. If I'd tried to live as my parents did, I'd be no better off. What I and other baby boomers have done is change our lifestyle.

And, he says, his choice may yet impoverish him more than his parents. "My wife and I had two incomes and no children. We might be financially better off than our parents, but emotionally worse off ."

The median age of New Zealanders is rising, according to Statistics New Zealand, and the reason is that death rates among people previously considered elderly are falling. Proportionately fewer 50- to 79-year-olds are dying. Since the mid-70s, women's life expectancy has grown by 5.8 years, men's by eight years. Even Maori, usually well behind in life expectancy, caught up a little.

We're wealthier, we're staying healthier and we're living longer. A newborn girl can expect to live until she is more than 81, a newborn boy until he is 77, and men are closing the gap. (The chances of reaching 100 are one in 50 for newborn girls, one in 200 for boys.) So, Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossan says, "We've got a longer lifespan to think about. Forty years and the gold watch have long since gone, bugger that."

Although they were never much for religion, the deathless baby boomers believe in eternal life. A recent Oprah special featured Dr Mehmet Oz declaring, "Ageing is a choice." Lots of boomers believe it.

Clive Chester was a butcher in Hamilton when sheer boomerism overtook him. He got arthritis in his hip, couldn't see himself cutting up meat in his sixties, but did he despair? No, he did not.

He sold the butchery he'd owned for 20 years, managed a supermarket in Te Puke until 2001, then moved to that boomers' mecca, Tauranga. He became a real estate agent. He likes the flexible hours. His wife Lorraine is a part-time travel consultant.

But the two have another life. Now 57, Clive is a champion water-skier. He carried off the Grand Masters water-skiing trophy in last's year national Masters' games. He has won the national barefoot water-skiing title no fewer than seven times. And he has sundry other titles.

Lorraine is a waterskier and bodybuilder. She was in the New Zealand barefoot skiing team that won third place in the world champs in 1999, when she herself was fifth overall. Now 54, she was third in her class at last year's bodybuilding nationals.

He says: "I'll never retire. You need a reason to get out of bed."

She says: "I don't think about stopping. You don't have to think like that. You might slow down in some things, but you can still do it. I'll keep on going until I get chucked out of the gym." Which is, of course, the ultimate boomer disgrace.

Retirement Commissioner Crossan, meanwhile, is predicting the end of retirement as we know it. Instead Crossan, 56, talks of "a new life stage, a change driven by the over-fifties who are trying to find better balance in their lives rather than bridging their way to retirement."

Boomers are redefining life past 50, she says. They're not stopping work; instead they are negotiating flexible time with employers, becoming financially literate so they can earn money in other ways, upskilling to jobs they want, moving into other lines of work.

"Boomers made the rules all their lives," she says. "It seems like they're going to continue to do so. They invented cool and they're going to keep it."

Unlike their parents, who retired at 60, or 65, dug the garden, then died. "When you were 60," says Crossan, "you were finished. We're saying, blow that, we're not going to be finished. We're going to do things differently."

Certainly, Warwick Ross is doing things differently from his dad.

Ross, who started a dental practice in Dunedin in 1987, originally planned to retire at 60, like his parents. Ross is 56 now and no longer thinks in terms of retirement any time soon. Instead, he has left his practice for locum work, becoming a roving dentist in New Zealand and overseas. He has just returned after six months' work in Britain.

Events conspired to make the change: two of his three children live overseas; he and his wife Keitha like travel; family, friends and colleagues of his age started to die. He re-evaluated. His next step: part-time work in Naseby, where he has a cottage to do up.

Adrian Ramsay was a manager in the Corrections Department until late last year. The job was growing more and more stressful, judges were demanding short-notice reports, he was being called in to investigate slip-ups within the department. For the first time in his 25 years there, he found himself not wanting to go into work. And one day he quit.

This is the crunch point for many baby boomers. How can they afford it?

Their houses have made many wealthy. But you can't pay the grocer with a good address.

The way the argument goes is that New Zealand will find it increasingly hard to find and retain skilled workers as international immigration policies change to attract them globally. Our workforce is ageing, Smaller numbers of younger workers will enter it. The resulting labour shortages should suit baby boomers admirably.

"The labour market has changed," says Crossan. "There's still quite a lot of discrimination among employers about age. But I think we'll change that. One thing is, they need us.

"And the other thing is, you can get a job for a day a week. You couldn't when my parents were around. I've got a friend who looks after people's houses at a resort place, mows lawns - he's going along fine, he's got a couple of rental properties, he's on the local community council to keep the brain going, he's got a whole lot of little things."

As long as the economy stays on course, baby boomers will, too - for despite their affluence, not many have saved enough to quit.

Ramsay was an exception. He joined the government superannuation scheme when he started work in his early twenties. He was financially secure. He was fit from a lifetime of cycling, his children had left home, his mortgage was paid off. Now he works two hours a day, four days a week taking tourists on cycle tours around his beloved Christchurch.

"My dad was a doctor who worked until he was 65, then part-time until 70 and his view of retirement was that it was the end of the line. But, for me, it's just another phase," he says. So he travels - he'd just come back from Russia when I talked to him - cruises his boat around Lyttelton Harbour's bays, takes Latin dancing very seriously indeed.

Martin Hill, on the other hand, had to make a living. He invented a novel solution. Hill, 60, was a successful communications designer in Auckland, but his heart was always in the wilderness. Then he found himself getting breathless when he was climbing. "A couple of stents later ..." he says. For Hill is, of course, a boomer, for whom disasters happen to someone else. He and his partner Philippa Jones sold their house in Auckland and built a new house on a Wanaka mountainside. "It's amazing," he reports.

Now he makes a living by going into wild places, making sculptures from natural materials, setting them in pristine environments, taking their photographs and destroying the sculptures.

He sells the resulting images as cards, posters, prints and books.

"It's not a huge living, but it's adequate," he says. "I don't know if it's changing the world. People say they enjoy the images." Jones writes. It works. "We love it here so much. It suits everything we do. Yes, we miss art galleries, friends, all the things you get in a city. Wanaka makes up for it. It's just magical."

For baby boomers have discovered something that no previous generation has had: the wild excitement of complete change, a new place.

Rebecca Butts, 51, and her partner Sally Carwardine, 41, lived in Auckland until 18 months ago. Butts ran a successful landscape-gardening business catering for affluent Aucklanders. Carwardine was sales and marketing manager at Auckland Museum.

They were looking for something different, away from Auckland, and they found it in Wanaka. They took over what Butts calls a pretty mundane B&B and turned it into a luxury five-star boutique lodge. That's serious change, although gardener Butts still has 4ha to turn into a park.

"We don't miss the traffic, the crime," says Carwardine, but, says Butts, "we do miss the buzz, the cafés, the sea. But I love the lifestyle change. You can't kick your heels up, but if you need a dose of something, you can always go to Auckland, or Dunedin. I don't know if I'd go back now." (But, with a house in Grey Lynn and holiday houses on Waiheke and Great Barrier islands, that option remains open.)

She and Carwardine do all the work themselves, with part-time help. "It's full on. I can't see myself stopping work. A lot of our friends talk about doing this. But we've actually done it."

New Zealand baby boomers are in a class of their own.

The Americans set the fashion in postwar baby boomers, leading a copycat world to accept the semi-official age band of people born between 1946 and 1961.

Here, says Ian Pool, demography professor at Waikato University, the surge was caused by people who delayed their child-bearing because of the depression or the war and the effect multiplied in 1946. "From then on," says Pool, "it could be called equally a baby boom or a marriage boom. There was a drop in the age of marriage and an increase in the proportion of people marrying." And from 1947-48 it all burgeoned as early marriage combined with an awful lot of children, three and even four to a family.

New Zealand and Australia had baby booms unparalleled in the western world: high fertility rates, large numbers of babies born, early child-bearing and long duration combined to scale new peaks.

Numbers of births grew until 1961, dropped a little, then peaked again for the last time in 1971. So New Zealand, almost alone in the world, had a double-headed baby boom. It ended with what Pool calls "a massive shift to a new phenomenon: co-habitation. And because of superior contraception by that time, they could avoid pregnancy."

Denise Church, 50, was born in the great flush of the baby-cum-marriage boom. She is the classic baby boomer. Already, she has quit the kind of job some spend their lives trying to get.

Church resigned as chief executive of the Ministry for the Environment in 2001, for that most hackneyed of reasons, to spend more time with her family. In her case, it was true. She had a two-year-old daughter, Caitlin. Now she's a part-time worker, fulltime mother. "I changed pace," she says, simply. She turns down a great deal of work to stay part-time: "If you want to be at the school gates at three, you've got to say 'no' a lot."

But retiring is not on her agenda: "I like doing things that make a difference."

The classic baby boomer raison d'être.

For, as Church says, "the old generation stopped work and didn't know what to do with themselves. We don't want to get to a stage where we're boring and not committed to things. You don't retire from life. You just change the activities round a bit."

Who is The Greatest?

The baby boomers sit like a huge Rorschach ink-blot on the demography of the 20th century. Some see a generation grown fat on the Depression- and war-era sacrifices of their parents; others a shadow of self-interest cast over Generation X and the others who have followed them. However, Professor Leonard Steinhorn, author of the just-released The Greater Generation: In Defence of the Baby Boomer Legacy, sees virtue. His title is a riposte to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw's bestseller The Greatest Generation, which heaped praise on those born from around 1910 to 1925. They endured the Depression and won World War II, but Steinhorn argues the boomers did better. "This generation's accomplishments eclipse what came before it," he writes. "Whereas the Greatest Generation accepted racial bigotry, sex discrimination, cultural conformity, and environment degradation as unchanging realities, the Baby Boom deems them unconscionable realities that need to be changed."

Steinhorn was moved to write the book by present-day students who sneered at boomers and "the overwhelming popular image of boomers simply as narcissists". Boomers in the West heroically questioned authority and created a more diverse and inclusive society, he told AARP magazine. "It's time for the female basketball player who says she's not a feminist to figure out how the ball got into her hands."

Reviewers have pointed out that much of the postwar social change he admires was sparked not by boomers but by the World War II generation (eg, John F Kennedy and Rosa Parks) and the Silent Generation, 1925-42 (eg, Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali and Gloria Steinem). New Zealanders might add Sonja Davies, Norman Kirk and Matiu Rata. Others might also argue that it was the energy of Generation X that made the environment a mainstream issue. All depends on how you read the ink-blot.

Here come the blippers

In 1991, a sudden new surge of babies burst upon New Zealand.

Just recovering from educating and housing the baby boomers, the government was taken aback. How was it to educate this lot? House them? Find them work?

In fact, the surge was soon over. This was not another baby boom, but what Ian Pool, demography professor at Waikato University, calls a baby blip.

And the blippers, says Pool, are the key to the nation's future.

Here's how the baby boom ended in a baby bust, then the blip:

In the 70s, women began putting off having babies. "Sixty-five percent of professional or managerial women in fulltime work will be childless," says Pool. "Of the most powerful women in New Zealand, the Speaker, Prime Minister, the Governor-General, the Chief Justice, the head of our largest company, only one has children and she was wise enough to marry one of the country's wealthiest men.

"But among the same group of women who work part-time, the childless are only about 15%.

"Of all women in fulltime work, about half of them will be childless and of all women in part-time work, it's 12-15%."

But, in one of those shifts that seem to guide reef fish and humans alike, women who had been putting off having babies suddenly began having them all at once, resulting in the baby blip.

Now, Pool is arguing, the blippers are crucial. They will dampen down the effects of long-term ageing on the country: "The baby blip will hit the labour market from about 2008. They will provide a workforce that will look after the baby boomers from about 2015. You have more workers, relatively fewer children. So we're not going to age now in New Zealand until we get into the 2020s. It won't be until about 2040 that we start to build up higher proportions in the age groups over 75 when the costs really start to come in.

"But we'll only be able to cash in on that if we can train and educate them, get them into meaningful jobs with adequate pay, and paying taxes.

"Other countries will need the young New Zealanders of the baby blip when they come into the labour market. Our big problem will be to keep them here. It's a win or lose situation, completely."

Postmenopausal zest

Independence was hard-won. BY SARAH BARNETT

As the quintessential baby boomer, Briody O'Neill has nothing but options. At 59, she has three kids and two grandchildren, has weathered divorce, mortgages and menopause and reinvented herself several times over. Now she and her partner are about to head to Italy. "Who knows?" she says, "I might end up learning Italian or going to cooking school or something." Financial independence is the hallmark of the baby-boom woman, and if it heralds a me-generation selfishness, so be it - independence was hard-won.

O'Neill married at 19, suffering from morning sickness. "I had all that responsibility thrust on me. I work with 19-year-olds now ... they're babies! They're darlings!" For O'Neill, like so many others, liberation wasn't a defined political experience, though she was a voracious reader, taking in second-wave bibles like Marilyn French's The Bleeding Heart and The Women's Room, and Passages, by Gail Sheehy (who would later popularise the Margaret Mead-coined "postmenopausal zest"). "You don't realise it, but when you're searching for knowledge, you know that what's happening is not right ... In the end, I left [the marriage], because I couldn't deal with the treatment. I would have to go down to my husband's office to collect my housekeeping. I'd be outside with the pram, and I would think, 'I will never, ever, when I get older, have to ask a man for any money.'"

So she got a job. First in the reading room at the Manawatu Standard, then as a sub-editor. "Then I thought I'd sling my hook and come to Auckland to try my fortune." Arriving in Auckland after the stock-market crash, at the age of 40, meant a new life of girls' nights out at Cin Cin, avoiding brokers who'd put Moet on the ladies' tab, and a job at Truth, where her brother, Mike, also worked. Mike's death, of a heart attack at 49, led to the next incarnation, running a B&B at Cooper's Beach at the end of the 80s.

"When you've married young, you miss out on that sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. It left me quite naive, but also with a bit of an edge, because I'd plough into something." Ironically, that lack of worldliness led to some ballsy property investments, barging in where more seasoned investors may not have bothered treading. Now, a part-time job at Smith & Caughey's department store keeps her in holidays and furnishings for the inner-city apartment she bought with her partner.

Liberty meant she was light-years away from her mother's parenting style. Her kids had "a lot more freedom of expression. And I wore jeans, and I travelled and, most of all, I was financially independent." Her daughter's style is different again: "She had a wild growing-up, experimented with everything ... [but] she's pretty conservative with her two. She'd like to see a lot more of me. That's another thing - grannies, now, they're not there. She hasn't settled into that earth-mother thing as much as I thought she would, perhaps because she's had so much freedom in her life."

Where once mothers were mothers for life, baby boomers are putting themselves first more, not prepared to drop everything again for children. Mead's postmenopausal zest means that Granny's too busy for roast dinner every Sunday.

"You are conscious of the odd twinges and little set-backs and things that remind you that you're not as young. But you're still feeling healthy and mentally you're young. You've got this excitement ... When you're growing up, you wonder whether you've formed your own personality because you've got to be lots of things to different people. But I just like to be dopey me now, just quietly sitting back and taking in the world and seeing what it has to offer me."

Boom time

Why advertising needs to grow up. BY NICK SMITH

There is one thing missing in all those ads for cars, cosmetics, stereos and any other consumer product you care to mention. The absent ingredient is older people with the cash to buy them, specifically those aged over 50.

It's an article of faith among business and advertising agencies that youth sells, even when you're selling to older people. So when flogging product, the thinking goes, make sure the models are young enough to be a baby boomer's idea of a mid-life crisis.

The idea driving this chronological tyranny is simple: older people aspire to youth. Conventional wisdom says they even think of themselves as more youthful than they actually are, says Chris Schultz, managing director of Senioragency, an advertising network dedicated to reaching baby boomers and senior citizens.

"If you aren't selling ointments, life insurance, retirement villages or Zimmer frames, then people over 50 pretty much aren't being targeted," Schultz says.

We are, he says, obsessed with youth. And that may be costing business big-time. Baby boomers are flooding into the over-50 demographic and spending is something they do well.

Representing 28% of the population, the over-fifties account for an estimated half of all new car sales and 80% of luxury models. Half of all face-care products and mineral water is bought by those aged 50-plus, and they are also over-represented in coffee sales (55%) and olive oil (60%). They may be older, but they also have grandchildren, and buy a quarter of all toys.

Jan Moran, managing director of Total Media, an independent media planning and placement agency, says baby boomers are largely ignored. "Although there is a slow move to target people by attitude, rather than by demographic, most of the target audiences currently used by advertisers end at 45 or 50 years," says Moran. "We don't think baby boomers are particularly valued by either marketers or the media."

But why does it matter if marketing and advertising panders to society's obsession with youth? We are, says Schultz, heading into a period of reduced earnings as the economy slows.

Business, he says, is under pressure to deliver levels of performance similar to that achieved during the boom times of the last three or four years. In the present environment, business will struggle to achieve those levels of revenue growth and, Schultz says, ignoring the richest demographic in society does not help their cause.

"We aren't saying, 'Change everything to focus on the older market'; we're saying, 'This is a key secondary market for brands.'"

By 2020, the 50-plus market will grow by 27% to 38% of the population. By contrast, the under-20 market will contract by 5% during the same period.

Retirement Commission figures show the net worth of people aged 45-plus is $329 billion (comprising homes, assets and financial investments, minus liabilities).

Estimates based on this research suggest that 50% of disposable income is in the hands of those aged over 50. They are, after all, at the peak of their earning capacity and usually rid of mortgage and children.

So why aren't companies trampling over each other to reach older customers? To be fair, says Schultz, youth and beauty do sell. And it is important to build brand loyalty among the young.

Also, the spending habits of the parents of baby boomers were shaped by the Depression and the war. Thriftiness and rationality guided their decisions, says Schultz, which is one of the reasons why advertising is aimed at the under-fifties.

But the boomers - defined as early BBs (50-59) and late BBs (40-49) - have pushed past the target demographics used by marketers and media. And baby boomers are not thrifty.

Even so, advertising and marketing is unlikely to change in the future. As Moran says, there will be less and less TV advertising spend aimed at baby boomers.

"The TV networks decide on programming and pricing based on their own 'core' demographics [25-54 for TV1, 18-39 for TV2 and 18-39 for TV3], which means the baby boomer group is gradually becoming marginalised," she says. "To make matters worse, the television broadcasters recently agreed to work to a new set of demographics, none of which include the over-54s."

As a consequence, says Schultz, business and marketers are missing out.


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