The mass retirement of the baby boom generation is fast approaching, and it seems like a looming nightmare: 76 million Americans transformed overnight into legions of the elderly, swathed in robes and slippers and consuming social spending that amounts to nearly six times the current U.S. gross domestic product. But in his new book, The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation, Jeff Goldsmith argues that a doomsday scenario isn’t necessarily the only one the country faces. There is another, much brighter future on the horizon, and whether you’re a “Set for Life,” “Might Be OK” or “Struggling and Anxious” boomer, Goldsmith’s book has a plan — and a corresponding fictional representative — for you.
The president of Health Futures Inc., Goldsmith advocates a “pro-work, pro-savings, pro-health-improvement” social policy that gives central importance to the argument that boomers’ plans for retirement are markedly different than those of past generations. Despite lingering images others may have of the 1960s’ all-play mentality, he stresses the importance of work in aging boomer lives, claiming that longer life expectancy and healthier aging have changed our culture’s perception of the “golden years” to include working into our early 70s. The case for the boomers’ continued presence in the work force is indeed an attractive one, economically speaking, and though it would require compromises such as flexible work schedules, technology-focused retraining and a radical shift in how society views older workers, Goldsmith argues that the benefits would be manifold.
Indeed, older citizens’ prolonged employment is an integral part of the author’s plan for keeping Social Security afloat. Benefit payments are expected to exceed payroll deductions within the next decade, and while he rejects calls to raise the eligibility age, Goldsmith does support reforms, including voluntary deferral of Social Security payments and a gradual phasing out of the early-eligibility option by which many start collecting benefits at 62. These changes — along with tax revenues from workers over 65 and a modest increase in payroll taxes — are expected to fill the funding gap that the so-called “catastrophists” predict as the first step toward national bankruptcy.
Goldsmith dedicates a significant portion of his book to plans for reforming Medicare — the “Mount Everest” of federal entitlement programs — and advocates a four-part program that would modernize the system in preparation for the vast numbers of people who will soon be enrolled. Improving communication between health care providers caring for the same patient, eliminating the need for supplemental insurance and creating a “single point of contact” for patients in the health care system, he argues, would make for a more user-friendly program, reducing the confusion inherent in its design. His plan also suggests permitting people to buy into Medicare at 55 and enabling working boomers to defer enrollment past 65, reforms that would allow many to remain in the workplace and benefit those who would otherwise be uninsured as they shift to part-time employment.
The Long Baby Boom makes a well-crafted argument that the problems associated with the aging of the baby boom generation need not be earth shattering. Written in a friendly style supplemented with historical explanation, the book is an accessible take on a potentially bewildering topic, and though the effort to draw in readers with fictional stories of his three different types of boomers is too full of clichés to be completely successful, Goldsmith’s novelistic forays don’t detract too much from his otherwise straightforward approach. Complex subjects like healthy aging and the large array of retirement options are considered with care and tied into his principal argument: The generation now moving into its golden years will not retire in the traditional sense but continue to work — and continue to change the social fabric of the country, as it has for half a century.
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