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'Zoomers' rewrite retirement rule

The oldest boomers still want what boomers have always craved: everything. They want to retire yet work, kick back yet keep active, have fun and live well. They'll still be rockin' - just not on the front porch.

By JOHN A. CUTTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001


photo
[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
Are retirement communities such as Sun City Center ready for Bill Clinton?

The former president, perhaps the perfect example of the baby boom generation's best and worst traits, turns 55 this year. That's the minimum age required to buy a home in most retirement communities, such as the Sun City subdivisions, which are synonymous nationally with "active" retirement living.

It might be scary for today's seniors to imagine Clinton hanging out by the clubhouse, trolling for votes to the homeowners' association board and telling all those stories that start: "Why, when I was president up north in Washington, D.C., we did it this way. . . ."

In addition to Clinton, about 3-million other boomers born in 1946 are turning 55 this year. They are the first wave of an assault on aging, one that includes more than 76-million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. A post-war rush to parenthood spawned a youth movement whose members now hope they don't die before they get old.

We made a fuss when boomers turned 50 in 1996. Perhaps it was because 50 has come to represent the River Styx between youth and old age, when your birthday card includes a welcome letter from AARP, and the dominant color is black -- and not because it's chic.

For him, 55's a milestone on a pleasant stretch of road
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Jim Thomas made sure no one could throw him a surprise party when he turned 50 in 1996.

Boomer's outlook on aging changes
HUDSON -- As Linda Bonasera describes her childhood in New Jersey, she makes it sound like life in a Norman Rockwell painting: "loving family," "such good times," "We were so innocent," "Grandma lived nearby."

Baby boomer chronology
The baby boomers born in 1946 lived their youth in some of the most exciting and turbulent times. Here, year by year, are some of the events:

Baby boomers by the numbers:
Number of babies born in America in 1946 -- 3.4-million.

Still, 50 wasn't all that far from 40, or even 30, boomers told themselves. But 55? Isn't that somehow closer to 60 than to 50? And isn't 60, like, your dad's age, man?

"This group doesn't want to be looked at and told they are old," says Betsy Carter, 55, the editor-in-chief of My Generation, AARP's new magazine for (excuse us) "aging" boomers. The magazine's first issue includes titles such as "Retire Rich! It's Not Too Late" and "Have Sex, Live Longer." The topics seem to sum up some people's perceptions of boomers' two main obsessions: money and sex.

Of course, it is silly to generalize too much about a generation that the media helped create, whose current members range in age from 36 to 55, and whose most famous members born in 1946 include Clinton and his antithesis, President George W. Bush.

Members of the leading wave of the baby boom are now entering their mid-50s. Retirement is a reality for some and close enough to start counting off the years for others. Still others are starting new careers, either by choice or necessity. And from a generation that made "conflicted" a common concept, surveys suggest most boomers want to retire in their late 50s, and most expect to keep working.

Go figure.

What does the future hold for the first boomers to enter their young, post-midlife, old age?

Del Webb, the Arizona company that created Sun Cities, calls them "Zoomers." Definition? A "no-limits baby boomer who sees retirement as the fast lane to a more energetic, new life characterized by healthy living, a high level of physical activity, a quest for further education and who possesses technological and financial savvy."

Del Webb's news release even helpfully uses it in a sentence: "It's a Zoomer thing."

As overwhelming a standard as that is, many boomers probably fit that definition, research suggests. They have cash, good health and the urge to buck the stereotype of fragile old age.

For example, despite the woeful picture of penniless boomers buried in debt, a chunk of them -- perhaps 30 percent, or about 23-million boomers -- seem to have the income and savings to sustain themselves in retirement. Many are in the oldest part of the baby boom.

Of course, that leaves 53-million boomers. Many have little or no savings. One survey suggests that as many as 40 percent of boomers -- 30-million people -- have less than $10,000 in retirement savings. Perhaps that's the reason so many want to make sure Social Security remains strong.

However boomers turn out as retirees, they have role models. Many of today's seniors fit Del Webb's definition of Zoomers.

"I think every generation looks to the generation before them," says Carter, of AARP's My Generation magazine. "We have terrific role models, because so many older persons keep changing their lives in so many ways."

Of course, Carter adds, the younger part of the baby boom and Generation X-ers are getting tired of boomers.

"They probably want us to keep quiet already. They think we're very self-centered."

Gee, you think?

* * *

John A. Cutter, a former Times staff writer, is a Kaiser Family Foundation health-care reporting media fellow, working on a project about Alzheimer's disease. He is a baby boomer who does not remember Winky Dink and You but liked to color on his TV set anyway.

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