A dramatic revolution is transforming American society, creating a new stage of life between the ages of 55 and 75, a Cornell University sociologist said yesterday.
And the baby boomers who will soon be entering this phase in large numbers are unprepared for it.
"I call it limbo," Dr. Phyllis Moen, co-director of the Cornell Applied Gerontology Research Institute, told a meeting in Baltimore yesterday of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dr. Moen said more and more Americans are retiring at earlier ages, many propelled into retirement by companies that are "downsizing."
That revolution, she said, is intersecting with one bringing about improved health and longevity.
"They are caught between two worlds," she said. "They have left their career jobs but they haven't entered old age, as characterized by physical in-firmity.
"There is no place for them in our society, where we have equated value with paid work. Those who aren't in paid work are on the fringes of society."
America's great population bulge, the baby boomers, are turning 50 this year. They are charting a new course as they proceed through each phase of life.
Now, Dr. Moen predicts, the baby boomers will begin redefining retirement from a financial planning issue to a lifestyle choice.
Dr. Moen, who directs the Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study financed by the National Institute on Aging, said about 2 million Americans retire annually. In four years, at the turn of the century, that will increase to 3 million.
She reported that:
* By 2030, there will be two workers for each retired person. Now the ratio is 3.4 to 1.
* Today, 12 percent of the population is age 65 and older. By 2030, 20 percent will be 65 and older, about 70 million people.
* Forty years ago, the average retirement age was 66.9 for men and 67.7 for women. Now it is 62.3 for men and 62 for women.
* Family is a key source of satisfaction for retirees.
* Although 93 percent of those between 65 and 72 are retired, many still work, usually part time.
"The United States will look like Florida and parts of Arizona in 2030," Dr. Moen said.
Americans will have to come up with new ways to occupy their time as they age, she said. People need a sense of purpose to live a happy life, and often they find that purpose in their jobs.
"We need to get out of the lock-step way of thinking of education, work and retirement and start thinking of new ways to organize our lives," she said during an interview at the Downtown Sheraton, headquarters of the AAAS meeting. "Now we equate retirement with leisure."
Earlier generations were expected to retire, play golf for a few years and then die, she said. "Now you're looking at 20 or 30 years without active, meaningful engagement. That's a lot of golf."
Dr. Moen predicted that volunteer work will become more important for baby boomers, along with part-time jobs, as they develop ways to put meaning into retirement.
One option for older people might be computer tasks, according to a study under way at the University of Miami.
"At the beginning they are slower," said Sara J. Czaja, who is directing that study, "but they made fewer errors than younger people. And after three days of practice they all showed improvement."
Another challenge that aging baby boomers must confront is how to keep driving, synonymous with independence.
Karlene Ball, professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University, has developed a way to improve the level of visual attention. The average person can instantaneously react to oncoming traffic, while some older people take 10 times as long to process the same information -- and the result can be turning into the path of an oncoming car.
Dr. Ball uses a computer screen, with oncoming cars and other activity pictured, to improve visual attention.
In the future, that kind of driver education for the elderly will likely be as common as behind-the-wheel training for teen-agers.