Change can happen as the result of sudden events, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, which can turn history on a dime and set the forces of culture in a new direction. Or change can happen as the result of political decisions lived into over time — like the evolving history of the United States since its birth as a nation or the Chinese revolution of Mao that shaped the lives of more than a billion people since 1949.
The change we are talking about in Boomer Spirituality – demographic change is different. Demographic change comes with a timeline that gives us a past, the present, and a presumed future of a generation. As the result of a high birth rate in the United States from 1946 to 1964, the baby boomer generation has had an impact on every phase of life.
Born after World War II, boomers have made their mark on each stage of the lifespan by virtue of their sheer numbers. Whether it was scooping up coonskin hats, hula hoops, and Barbie Dolls when they were children, or embracing the ethos of rock’n’roll when they were teenagers, or getting in on housing boom of the 1990s, this generation has long asserted its influence on the American culture.
Boomers are now in the second half of life (age fifty and older). Because of longer life spans, more people are living into their eighties and nineties. Some will live past one hundred.
In 2016, the oldest boomer turned seventy, while the youngest turned fifty-two. By 2026, the oldest boomer will be eighty, and the youngest will be sixty-two.
At first glance, this may not seem to be a big deal – until you do the math. From now until 2029, ten thousand boomers will retire every day. The number of people over the age of sixty-five in the United States will grow from 48 million in 2015 to 74 million in 2030. By 2050, the number of adults over the age of sixty-five will increase to more than 89 million.[i]
It’s hard to understand the implications of these numbers. At no time in history has there been such a large number of people over sixty-five years of age actively engaged in life.
Because of scientific breakthroughs in medical technology, food preparation, and health care, people are living longer, much longer. While we may laugh at statements like “sixty is the new fifty,” the second half of life for boomers will be much different from that of previous generations.
Are We Ready?
The reality is our society is ill prepared for the demographic wave that is coming our way. The idea that retirement is a reward for work well done is long over. The concept of the endless vacation free of responsibility is just not feasible for most people. The image of a walled oasis of golf, swimming, and frequent trips to the local casino is not a reality for most of those approaching retirement age.
Recently I was at meeting with a group of pastors and leaders. The chair of the meeting had been retired for about six months. Before retirement she served in a leadership position in her denomination. She had responsibility for managing a group of staff plus putting together programs and training for hundreds of pastors and laity.
Suddenly in the middle of the meeting, she broke down in tears: “You don’t know what it’s like out there. My church and the senior center treat us like we are mindless infants with nothing to do.”
She explained that the goal of the older-adult ministries at her church and the senior center in her community was to keep people entertained and give them something to do with their time. “They don’t recognize us for what we can offer, for the people we are. I’m not dead yet!”
This vibrant, talented, and experienced woman had run headfirst into a world that was designed for the senior life of years past. When she is 85, maybe this is what she will need. But now, she needs to be challenged, to have opportunities to serve, and she needs to be valued.
Boomers have always wanted to make a difference in the world. And in many ways they have. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Oprah Winfrey are just some of the names that crop up when we think of boomers.
Some might think that as boomers head toward their older-adult years, their time is past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it’s in the business world, the political world, the religious world, or the entertainment world, boomers will still make their mark.
In fact, we are on the verge of transforming what it means to be over sixty. In the coming decades, some aspects of older age will get better, especially in the arena of medical advances, the use of digital technology to connect with family and friends, and the convenience of businesses that bring goods and services directly to the home.
But other aspects of aging are going to prove daunting. The boomers who have managed their finances well, who have saved for their retirement years, who have developed a network of supportive friends and family, who see their lives as having purpose and meaning, will enjoy a golden age unlike any generation before them.
But the boomers who have not been able to save, who lost jobs during the Great Recession, who live with broken relationships, and who are totally dependent on government services such as Social Security and Medicare, are a different story. Their financial, medical, housing, social, and spiritual needs will affect every aspect of American society well into the future.
Boomers Returning to the Values of their Youth
As much as we would like to think that people change their values over time, it would be more accurate to say generations are shaped by the experiences and events of their childhood and youth. These experiences and events turn into ideals that stay with a generation throughout its life. Now that boomers are entering their post-work life they are returning to the values of their youth.
Boomer Spirituality invites you to explore the values of brokenness, loneliness, rootlessness, and self-seeking which form the spiritual roots of boomers. Born out of the crucible of 1960s and 1970s, these values still inform their relationships with society and with the people around them. Much of the rancorous debates we see in our political sphere are the result of unresolved issues between first-wave boomers who embraced the counter-culture as young adults and those who held on to the values of their parent’s generation.
Godliness, supernaturalism, and wholeness capture the boomers unique search for God as they look toward a future that is filled with peril and promise. The heated debates in Christian denominations over cultural issues find their beginnings in the religious revolts of the 1970s and 1980s when a large portion of boomers gravitated to the new age movement or eschewed the traditional mainline churches in favor of the non-denominational mega-churches that now dominate the American religious scene.
As boomers age these issues will not suddenly disappear. They will be amplified as younger generations wrestle with how to take care of an aging generation who wants to stay young, who relishes its freedom, and whose rampant individualism has led to broken relationships and diminished financial resources.
If you are a boomer, you are sure to be reminded of the events and experiences that had an impact on you when you were young. If you are the child or grandchild of a boomer, perhaps this book will help you understand why your parents or grandparents act the way they do. If you are creating ministry for this generation, then this will be a guide to the way boomers view the world and look toward the future.
Craig Kennet Miller is the Director of Congregational Development at Discipleship Ministries with the United Methodist Church. He is the author of iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age and Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. He is the creator of TeamWorks a set of guidebooks for developing church leaders. He is a United Methodist pastor and has a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
[i] U.S. Census:Table 3. Projections of the Population by Sex and Selected Age Groups for the United States: 2015 to 2060 (NP2014-T3) December 2014