Baby boomers' future holds competition with the young for resources

January 04, 1992|By Sam Fulwood III | Sam Fulwood III,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Baby boomers, whose advance guard is now entering midlife and rapidly nearing retirement, will compete with other age groups -- and even among themselves -- for increasingly scarce Social Security and health care resources, according to an analysis released yesterday.

The graying of the baby boomers, or those Americans born between 1946 and 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, non-profit 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 Leon F. Bouvier of Tulane University 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," Mr. Bouvier and Mr. De Vita said in the report.

Boomers, who represent the largest generation in American history, are already flexing their collective political muscle to ensure that 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 -- 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.

"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."

* Younger workers, even within the baby boom generation, will find themselves in competition with their elders for jobs and career mobility.

* 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.

* 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 longer in the workplace.

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