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The Age Wave

Aging As A Workforce Issue

Summary of Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. Presentation
Alliance of Work-Life Professionals
1997 San Diego Conference
February 6-7, 1997

Summary prepared by David H. Rodbourne ~ Director of Programs
Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility

Summary of Key Points

  • The fact that most of us will live well into old age, with a life expectancy in the mid- to upper-seventies and rising, is unprecedented in human history.
  • This extraordinary change forces us to rethink fundamentally all of our ideas, our assumptions, and our paradigms about what it means to be mature, to be old, to retire. It is a mistake to continue thinking of age 65 as the marker of old age or retirement.
  • The fastest growing segment of our society is older people, the very group with which we have always been most uncomfortable.
  • Considering that today’s elders are so much more financially secure than they have ever been, I cannot explain why they get 9 times more federal support than kids.
  • The linear life plan is going to end with the end of the 20th century. The 21st century will be characterized by a cyclic life plan, a direct outcome of the Baby Boom Age Wave.
  • Companies cannot ignore these demographic trends: the phenomenal number of women in the workforce, the growing proportion of mature and older workers, the growing demands for eldercare, older workers re-entering the workforce, and age diversity in the workplace.
  • Approximately 30% of all workers in America care for parents and miss some time from work each month. The average American right now has more parents than children.
  • Elders are the bridge to the 21st century (not technology), but we don’t recognize it. Our 40 million elders could be an invaluable resource to help our 40-50 million young people grow into productive adults. Yet, we have not tapped this resource. Instead the average retiree watches 43 hours of TV per week.
  • The Baby Boom is not adequately prepared for retirement, especially financially.

Ken Dychtwald’s Presentation

The most people who have lived past 65 in history of world are alive today.

Today the average life expectancy for a woman is 79, for a man 73. If you look back over the history of mankind, for 99% of that time the average life expectancy was only 18 years. It is no wonder we don’t know quite what to do about aging. A century ago we didn’t worry about retirement because we worked until we died.

There are really very few historical changes of this magnitude. What is happening now is unprecedented in human history - most of us will live well into old age. “There are no evolutionary events in this century more extraordinary than this one.”

Changing Assumptions

The impacts from this change will be numerous. Life insurance is one example. It used to be that people bought it because they worried “what if I die too soon.” Today most of us worry “what if I live to long.” Now the focus is on financing long-term care.

Over the last two decades in gerontology, the mood has shifted. We are now asking “can we stop aging, can we eliminate Alzheimer’s, can we prevent osteoporosis, can we cause the 100 year life span or the 150 year life span to occur?” The Alzheimer’s Foundation mission used to be about care; the new vision is of a world without Alzheimer’s.

Everyone believes life expectancy will continue to rise. Everybody believes it except the government. Government programs like Social Security and Medicaid are based on the assumption that it won’t rise, that there won’t be any breakthrough in medicine, biotech, pharmacy, nutrition, lifestyle, fitness or work-life for the next 100 years. As long as life expectancy remains under 78 those institutions will be solvent.

In the 1880s in Europe when Bismark set 65 as the retirement age, the average life expectancy was only 45. How zany it is that today, when we know people are living longer and life expectancy is rising, we continue to take 65 as our marker of old age, and we continue to assume there will be no elevation in life expectancy.

We will live longer, but how long? Some gerontologists believe that by the middle of the next century life expectancy will be 90 on average. You might say, it couldn’t rise 11 years for women in such a short time. Well, it was 63 the day Social Security was signed into law. It has risen 15 years over the last sixty years. Maybe it will do it again. If it does, whatever old age is, whatever middle age is, how long people might work, when they will retire will all require transformation.

Multiple Demographic Changes

“The demographic segments of our country are going through an equally extraordinary transformation.” The different age groups, almost like geologic plates, are moving and shifting.

There are twice as many of us (in the Baby Boom generation) who could have kids compared to our moms and dads, but we’re only having half as many kids per family. Even so, it is a pretty large number of kids. But it is a different. During the Baby Boom, the families that had the greatest amount of financial and lifestyle security had the largest numbers of kids. Today it is the opposite. The more middle class and affluent segments of America, in which the women and men are both working, are having the smallest families. And the most politically and sociologically disadvantaged are having the largest families. In a peculiar way, the challenges of this new baby boom won’t be the same as the ones that occurred fifty years ago. There will be even more of a need to help in the well-being of the children of America.

Young Adults

The Young Adult Segment - workers and consumers - has increased by millions every decade since we have been alive. But this decade it is shrinking by 9 million - because of the baby bust that began in 1960. That means 9 million fewer entry level workers, 9 million fewer Pepsi drinkers, 9 million fewer Polaroid picture takers at the end of the decade as at the beginning of the decade. Yet the average employer, the average marketer pays no attention. We continue to assume that there will be more and more young people pouring into the workforce. And when you add to that the fact that 25-30% of the young adults in high school are quitting before they finish high school, there is a real issue of where we are going to get the qualified, high end workers of tomorrow.

Middle Age

The Middle Age Segment - or middle-essence - is going through a boost. It is becoming a happening place to be. Middle age used to be when not much happened except you got depressed. Now middle-aged people are popular, active. They play rock’n roll. Now we are redefining what middle age is, partly because the numbers are growing - because when World War II ended 76 million kids were born and they’ve grown into middle age.

In the 1960s this age wave, the Baby Boom, caused overcrowding in high schools. In the 1970s it drove up housing prices, and benefited those currently retiring because so much of their financial equity is derived from the value of their homes. We in the Baby Boom assumed this would happen to us, but if we had looked around the demographic corner we would have noticed the Baby Bust and realized that housing values would not keep rising as they had.

The same problem will happen to Social Security. The best way to secure your old age financial security is to give birth to 3.9 children and then well educate them. So when you are in your 70s your children will earn a great deal and pay lots of taxes. But we have not given birth to 3.9 children, and there are educational and sociological concerns among the younger generation. So who is going to support us? There is no generation coming along that has 76 million people. The generation behind us has only 50 million, versus the doubling that we did over our parents generation.

The 1990s have to be about family issues. Boomers are neck deep in the middle of their family years. Sixty-eight percent are married; seventy-two percent have children.

Fifty is not what it used to be. The average age of the Rolling Stones is 53 years old. The point is when we were growing up, fifty was the beginning of the end. Fifty is now the middle of the line. It is more vital, vigorous and youthful than it has ever been.

The Older Generation

The fastest growing segment of our society are older people, the very group that we’ve always been uncomfortable with. We’ve never understood aging. The numbers are unmistakable, totally predictable and awesome in their impact. We are going to grow 12 million more 50-plus people in this decade. And it is going to keep growing.

This generation of older people are very different. When I began in this field the older generation was poor. Now the oldest are rich. Certainly there are pockets of poverty among the elderly - over 75 and particularly older, non-white women living alone. But the average 50, 60, 70 year old is no longer poor. The elderly in the last Census Report a few months ago had a 10.4% poverty level, almost a full point below the national average, compared to people under age 20 who have double the national poverty rate or 20.8%.

I have always been an advocate for the elderly, but considering how much more financially secure they are now than they have ever been, I just can’t come up with an explanation of why they get 9 times more federal support than kids. Something is not right here.

Redefining What It Means To Be Mature

As we live longer and more people reach maturity in this new era, we are having to stop and think what is maturity. What is it we are supposed to be doing with ourselves after we are young. We have long had the attitude, a youth dominated attitude that is widely reflected in our culture and marketing, that youth is good and growing older is bad. Life Magazine’s young editors did a special feature on “The Journey of Our Lives” celebrating the most important moments in our lifetime. The editors listed those “most important moments” as: birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. Now I don’t know about you, but I would like to feel that someplace between my marriage and my death something interesting happens.

This is one of the most interesting dynamics of our national consciousness. Not only have we had this love affair with youth since WWII, but also we’ve allowed young people to decide what is important in life - which is fine, but wrong. Young people believe that life is fun, exciting, creative, and productive until you reach 35, and then who knows what happens. That is not the way it is. People are vital, productive, sexy and interesting sometimes in their 40s and 60s and 80s. Yet, we have not yet created a cultural paradigm to accommodate that fact.

One of the biggest changes that is going to happen as a result of the Age Wave is the very way we define a life. Historically, we’ve lived a linear life plan. You learned. You worked. You rested. You died. The linear life plan. But what are you going to do if you live 90 years and you don’t like your job at 50, or you always wanted to be a lawyer at 43?

Today 60, even 80 year old people start new lives. Ray Kroc was a totally bummed out, failed Mix Master salesman in his late fifties before he got the idea of licensing MacDonald’s hamburgers. Harlan Sanders was in his sixties before he started Kentucky Fried Chicken. American history is not always about young, strong men. We’ve got middle aged and mature incredible women and men. One of the things that goes along with this new vitality and power in maturity is here are the behaviors that we can also take some lessons from.

The Cyclic Life Plan

The single biggest change that the Age Wave is going to bring is that the linear life plan will leave with the 20th century. In the 21st century we will have a cyclic life plan. People will go back to school many times over a lifetime. People may divorce and fall in love again. We’ll find retirees who want to go back to work, and we’ll encourage rather than discourage them. We’ll find people cycling in and out of retirement. People will take family leaves multiple times throughout their lives instead of saving all their recreation until the end. The cyclic life plan will be the model for the new century.

If we believe that, then we realize we are moving towards, what might be termed, an “ageless aging.” A forty year old, a fifty year old or a sixty year old may not be so different because of their years, but they might be different simply because of what they are making of their lives. Our research leads us to believe that after birth, adolescence and marriage—and way before death—there are all sorts of interesting adult life stages.

Changing Ideas About Careers

Number one is careers. The biggest changes in careers in this new era is two fold. First is the unbelievable phenomenon of women professionally involved, and also therefore being sociologic pioneers. Older women that work in my company can’t look to their own moms to see the way they handled work, marriage and kids because their moms, with some exceptions, didn’t do it that way. We have an entire generation of women that are pioneering a new model of life, and it is not always easy.

Mrs. Clinton in a speech last year illustrated ‘you can’t win’ nature of the choices women face in this new era. She said - “If you don’t get married and you don’t have children, you’re an oddball. If you get married and you don’t have children, you’re a selfish yuppie. If you get married, have children and go out into the work world as well, you’re a bad mother. If you get married, have children and stay at home, you’ve wasted your education.”

It simply does not occur to the average man how complicated and complex psychologically it is to be juggling your kids, your career, your boss, your subordinates, your mom, dad or spouse. It is an enormous ‘spinning plates’ exercise. It is an unbelievable level of psychological juggling.

The second major issue is demographic as well. If you look at the 1980s, look at the shift between younger workers and middle aged workers. There was a flood of young, entry level workers in 1980. When all the Boomers entered the workforce there were lots of entry level jobs, things were going to be great, we all had lots of opportunity to rise in the ranks. In the next decade you are going to see a pervasive level of frustration as people begin to realize they are not going anywhere. People will be dropping out, doing entrepreneurial things, working for Amway, and switching companies to try to create some sense of excitement about their own futures as they bottleneck in middle management.

This is the generation of having kids later in life. The more affluent of the boomers, the later they wait. I’m 46, my son is six, and I am the youngest father in my neighborhood. Now, when I was six, my dad was in his twenties, not fifties or forties.

We all know life-long learning and continuing education has got to be the game of the future due to the quick speed with which skills become obsolete, due to people being laid off, due to people becoming bored with their jobs and look for new things. Life-long education, both for blue and white collar, is going to be the key ingredient of the next century. Yet, it is hard when you are fifty to go back to school. It is embarrassing. How can you be a beginner when you are already an adult? How do you help people get comfortable with learning? Losing a job is a terrible thing, but learning how to have a new job, a new way of life is the way of the future. We have to learn to be comfortable trying new things. It is one of the essential ingredients of the future.

If you scratch under the surface of the average 40 or 50 year old worker, I think you’ll find they are less fearful of dying than of losing their job. Pat Buchanan tapped into that fear. It did not exist so much in the past when there was a different pact between the worker and the employer. The average boomer feels - “I’m here as long as I’m here and either I’m going to leave or they are going to get rid of me. Maybe my benefits will be there; maybe they won’t.” It is a different era.

It is a myth to think we will continue having people retire at 61. We can’t afford that in the next century. Let’s stop deluding ourselves. We will be working, probably, beyond 65 and into our 70s. It is great, historical fluke that we can support current retirees, but we will not have a demographic group under us who can support us. Our life expectancy will go up. And we might even like it. Work may be more flex hours, more part time. Sabbaticals will become more common. You’ve got to take a break. You just can’t go for fifty years in a row. Maybe instead of 7 years of retirement at the end, we take those years and put them in as a sabbatical every six or seven years as a piece of mind break or a family break.


The next point is serious. Eldercare. Believe it or not, I made up that word. It is a serious phenomenon - caring for parents. Right now, approximately 30% of all the workers in America care for parents and miss some time from work each month. The average American right now (the median age is 31 or 32) has more parents than children. My wife and I have two children, three parents, one step parent, and three grandmothers. We have two kids and seven parents. Family ain’t the Cleavers anymore. Its not Ward, June, Beaver and Wally anymore. It is disconcerting to me that many who are doing great things on Work/Life in corporations are not elevating to awareness among the senior executives the fact that the average worker is going to be losing more time each month caring for their mom or dad or in-law than for their children. Often it is going to be a combination of childcare and eldercare which makes things really confusing. That is the future, but the future is now. Parent care, elder care are very challenging and very critical. Let’s not leave that one off the agenda. (There are 38 million caregivers.)

Think about this. The same number of men last year died of prostate cancer, approximately, as the number of women who died of breast cancer, or as the number of Americans who died of AIDS - 60,000 to 70,000, almost identical. Yet last year the federal government spent $1.3 billion on HIV/AIDS research, $500 million on breast cancer, and $59 million on prostate cancer. Now, I’m not saying we should spend less on HIV/AIDS. In fact, I think we’ve learned a lesson from the HIV/AIDS crusaders. People who have concerns about that condition have done a phenomenal job of calling the public’s attention to the horrors of that disease, and we have responded by funding it. But how come we only spend $59 million on prostate cancer?

Similarly, think about the amount of attention to child care. This is a fundamentally important issue, but so is eldercare. We have tended to make these either/or choices, do this one thing or do this other thing. The future will not be one or the other. It will be multiple. We’ve got to be able to frame multiple issues and bind them in some way. I think the shift to family care and family leave versus child care is a wonderful step in that direction. But I bet if you analyzed this conference, if we added up all the child care mentions and added up all the eldercare mentions, they would not be equal. They need to be.

Empty Nesting

The next adult stage is empty nesting. At the turn of the century, the average couple might spend six to twelve months together after the final child had left home. Now the average couple will spend twenty to thirty years together after the kids have left home. Do we have any understanding of what happens to the family there? Of people around age 50, we’ve already got 20 million people who are single and 16 million of those are women. Two major reasons - the divorce rate we’ve witnessed for the last quarter century and also widowhood. 85% of all American women will be widowed at least one time. It also turns out that 80% of people who divorce as adults remarry. Singles and dating around the workplace is as often happy grown-ups as well as kids.


A lot of what we’ve heard about retirement has been framed 19th century concepts. The original concept is that after a lifetime of hard work, primarily physical labor, you would have a year or two to rest and gather your thoughts before you pass away. Now, the average person spends 20 years in retirement. Is that the best use for our older population?

We have 40 million retirees. The average retiree watches television 43 hours per week. I would argue that with all this fuss about Social Security and whether Medicare is solvent or insolvent, we have taken our eye off the important thing. What is the purpose of older people? What are they to be doing with their lives? What are we to be doing when we are old? Some believe that the final stage of life was a stage for giving back, that the primary emotional concern of maturity was contributing to the young. That is not what is happening in America today.

Our older population is primarily concerned with themselves. It doesn’t mean that is the way everyone is, but if you look at AARP and the overwhelming focus of their lobbying power and their 450,000 volunteers is to try to get more protections and benefits for them. I think they are living without a mission.

Now, simultaneously, remember that we have 40-50 million young people in this country who are really having a hard time. They have trouble being tutored. They live in the absence of values. They may be latchkey kids. Both parents are working. Two-thirds of all the young people in that generation have parents who are both working. Not enough funding for the schools.

Why don’t we take our 40 million retirees and create a national movement to have them help the young people of this country? I’m not saying 40 hours a week. Maybe one hour, maybe three ours a week. Maybe mediating at the church. Maybe helping with the latchkey kids. Maybe tutoring in the playgrounds and schools. Maybe mentoring in the work sites. Maybe coaching when there are family disputes.

Our elder population are the keepers of the 20th century. President Clinton keeps talking about building a bridge to the 21st century, and I think he is missing the point. The elderly are the bridge to the 21st century. But no one is walking over them. They are the keepers of the 20th century. They have more skills, more knowledge, more values, more insight and more time than any generation in the history of the world. And what are we doing with this incredible resource, nothing! Instead we are trying to create youth corps, young people to give back to young people. Why don’t we take the left hand (elders) and the right hand (youth) and bring them together. It is just so obvious. We have wrongs. Bring them together and you make a right.

For example, Chrysler has 100,000 workers and 120,000 retirees. GM’s got a half a million retirees. The military has more retirees than people in active service. We have an army waiting to be called. We fail to see that if the older population in this country were contributing to the young, they would feel better, they would understand the young better, they would be connected to the future, they would feel better getting up each day. And we would make good use of the first multi-generational nation in the history of the world. We have not seen the obvious in this country.

I love the fact that my mom and dad are retired. They have never been happier. But I also love the fact that she teaches tap dancing to the migrant kids in their community once a week. And I bet for some of those kids, it is the only contact they will ever have with a grandma. Easy to do. Doesn’t cost a cent.

I’ve been calling for the formation of an “elder corps” now for 15 years, and somehow the message has not stuck. I hear wonderful phraseology about bridges to the 21st century and the language seems to imply that the bridge is technology. I don’t think the bridge is technology. Technology is a tool. People are the bridges to the 21st century. Relationships are the bridge to the 21st century. And we now have this phenomenal opportunity to create an elder corps and set the pattern for the rest of the world, and literally spring into motion a new role for the later years of life other than TV watching. But it is just not being looked at.

Lack of Preparation for Retirement

Another point is preparing us for retirement. I cannot believe that my own generation is well prepared for their later years. We may not be able to retire. The media is confusing us. “Quit young,” one magazine says. Another says, “Don’t retire!” I am leery of the retirement seminars we give people two weeks before they leave. It is kind of like a cruel joke. Here are all the things you should have started 25 years ago.

We’ve also allowed, in this era of shifting from benefits to defined contributions, our savings rate to drop from 10% to 3.7% which is what it has been this decade. Keep in mind that in Korea it is 25%, in Japan 14%, in Europe 10-12%. How do we expect the middle aged segment to have a secure retirement when the average Baby Boomer has seven credit cards and is revolving $3200 in high interest debt. We are not prepared for our later years. This is a major issue of work/life! We have to help people prepare financially. We have a financially un-empowered generation. Yet this year there will be 3 billion credit card solicitations telling each of us it is really OK to live in debt. It is fine if you are always treading water. But if you expect to stop and then be supported by what you saved for 20-30 years and you have not saved anything, it will be painful. Now is the time to start talking to people about their financial preparedness.

Re-hirement Stage

More and more people are going to be going back to work. That means we have to get more comfortable having a 23 year old personnel directory interviewing a 70 year old who has been out of the workforce for years. We are going to have to get more comfortable with age diversity in the workplace. How do we have work teams with a 29 year old, a 61 year old, an 18 year old, a 57 year old and a 90 year old? MacDonald’s was the first leading corporation that went after this segment.


This is a paradigm issue. We always thought that old people were falling apart. But we are seeing that they can be vigorous, powerful, smart, and leaders in their 60s and 70s. Maybe that is what we should all be aiming for. Maybe we shouldn’t have this medical care system. The whole focus of Medicare is all wrong. We have 128 medical schools in this country and only one department of geriatrics. In Great Britain every medical school has a department of geriatrics. The entire focus of medicine and reimbursement in the US is geared to diagnose and treat acute, infectious diseases. Older people don’t have acute, infectious diseases. They have chronic, degenerative long-term health problems, a large percentage of which are preventable. Yet, we have no real wellness system in this country. We have no real health care system. If we could delay Alzheimer’s, for example, by five years, one half of all the nursing home beds in this country would be empty. If we could prevent heart disease a little bit, if we did our exercise, if we did all the things we know we need to do in our middle years, we would have a healthier aging.


There is an Age Wave coming. There will be more people living longer lives. We will find ourselves increasingly fascinated with the needs and concerns of middle aged and mature workers and their families. We will increasingly help people create a new vision for what they might be in their later years. We must come up with a useful role for late adulthood. We do not have one yet. There are ways to fix problems that are not the usual ones, that may require less money, using human resources. There is still time to create a new vision of aging for the 21st century.

Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. is President and CEI of Age Wave, Inc., a consulting firm which applies the lessons of aging and gerontology to the marketing, business development and policy issues confronting major corporations. He is the author of eight books, including the best seller, Age Wave, and he has been featured in every major business magazine and newspaper. Dychtwald is an aggressive proponent of the concept of “healthy aging.” The American Society on Aging recognized him for outstanding national leadership in the field of aging. Age Wave, Inc. can be reached at (510) 652-9099.

This edited transcript was prepared by David Rodbourne, director of programs, Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility for MCCR’s Work/Life Task Force and The Work<->Life Network. This text excludes slide and video elements of Mr. Dychtwald’s presentation.