Boomers redefining meaning of senior

Of course "seniors" aren't really a monolithic group. Most boomers believe that old age begins at age 79. And, Tom Otwell, AARP's spokesman, explains that the AARP has in effect two memberships: the 50- to 64-year-olds who are still working and raising kids, and the 65-plus folks who are retired and getting Medicare.

"You can't lump everyone under one umbrella," Otwell says. "We have multigenerational memberships. A lot of the members may not be ready for retirement. When we discuss options for nursing homes, we're talking to them but not about them; we're giving them options for their parents."

The first boomer turned 50 in 1996. In the next 25 years, according to a 1995 study done by Roper Starch Worldwide for Modern Maturity magazine, more than 115 million Americans will be 50 and older, an increase of 47.2 million people.

But, says Otwell, this is a market that hasn't been tapped.

"They have buying power and attitudes and preferences that are not stereotypical," he notes. "Our study found that the 50s are the most turbulent decade in life. It's a midpoint, not an end-point.

"Boomers are starting second families and careers, they're caring for aging parents. They're healthier, better educated, better traveled and better off economically. They can anticipate a longer life so they're going to have different attitudes and aspirations about aging."

If the recent Rolling Stones tour is any indication, that generation still has a viselike grip on the culture. And as they age, the traditional notions of growing older are going to evolve as well.

That doesn't necessarily mean visions of Dorian Gray. It does mean that the influence they had as young people will only increase as they get older — demographics equals power. They're interests will be the agenda in the coming years.

A look at the major events that happen at this stage gives an indication of what that will be: a major career move, empty nest and then nest revisited, parenting (either first or second families), parental care, remarriage, retirement and surviving the death of a spouse.

So aging isn't going to mean being sedentary. In fact, some may stay on the job way past age 65.

"The common assumption is that many boomers want to retire earlier and earlier, but the reality is that they won't be able to, because they're not socking the money away," says Otwell. "So many of us will be retiring later. Plus the notion of retirement is changing. Boomers will be on the cusp of that phenomenon if they're not already."

So, while retirement may mean leaving a long-held, full-time job, it's not for a life of total leisure but, instead, in favor of setting up a small business or consulting.

According to Carter Henderson, author of "Funny, I Don't Feel Old: How to Flourish After 50" (Institute for Contemporary Studies), more than 25 percent of Americans 65 and older are self-employed, as opposed to 10 percent of all workers.

Car dealers may find that customers for their minivans are increasingly older because they're shlepping around children from second families.

Even leisure, Otwell says, is different among this generation, "if you look at the number of travel agencies that cater to adventure travel for seniors," a market that "didn't exist a generation ago."