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Challenges and change confront the boomers

Our four-day series explores the impact — on both boomers themselves and the larger society — of a massive generational shift.

Maureen Stebor, left, and Lenore Hoolihan

First of four articles

In 1945, America’s worst of times – the major economic depression followed by World War II –  were about to become her best. Within a few years, schools, gymnasiums, football fields and hockey arenas began to sprout up almost everywhere. Industry and retail companies would expand to meet a growing need for their products and services. All because of one thing: America’s largest-ever generation bulge, later to be known as the baby boom, was starting to erupt.

For parents of “the boomers,” jobs were plentiful and wages increased. Educational opportunities – a figment of a dream for most who had grown up during the Great Depression – became a reality for many of those parents and for their kids. The “bust” of the 1930s and the fears of the 1940s became a boom instead.

But for many boomers – defined as those born from 1946 through 1964 – hard times have come again. They’re resilient, these boomers, but the odds have turned against them in the past 15 years. The terms “downsizing” and “outsourcing” entered the American lexicon. The translation? A lot of boomers’ hopes – for themselves and for their children – faded away with their jobs and salary cuts.

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A hint of comfort begins with the smell of hot coffee just inside the door at Woodbury Lutheran Church in suburban Woodbury. A dozen or more participants gather here on alternate Thursday nights with a nagging goal in common. They’re looking for work.

Successes and stresses

Dean Galvin, 51, comes from Roseville as a participant and volunteer co-facilitator of the group. After years in a ministry centered on filling in for pastors and other staff, money for those purposes dried up. That was more than three years ago. At a group meeting in February, Galvin offered more than his usual dose of inspiration. He shared news of his new job substituting for a church pastor in Maple Grove. “I got another offer, too,” he told the group.

Minnesota employers added 15,500 jobs early this year, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Still, many boomers are still job hunting. Maureen Stebor, 58, drives from Oakdale to the Woodbury church and other job-transition groups for some needed encouragement. Laid off after 33 years with a St. Paul manufacturing company, she’s looking for a job as an executive assistant, customer-service manager or something requiring similar skills. Out of work since August, she remains determined. “I’ve had an opportunity for an interview,” she said, but she isn’t sure the pay and location are right. She’s frustrated, too, by an unfamiliar process for some boomers of applying for jobs via the Internet. “It’s so impersonal,” she said.

Dean Galvin
MinnPost photo by Kay HarveyAfter three years without a paying job, Dean Galvin shared good news with the group he co-facilitates at the Woodbury church.

In her role as director of aging transformation for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, LaRhae Knatterud recognizes the challenge for many older job hunters.

“It’s a whole different world than it was 30 years ago,” she said. She sees many boomers in their late 50s and 60s lacking confidence in a changing world of work. They’re asking, “Will my skills be respected? Or be the right thing?”

For more than a few older boomers, she said, just the experience of going through a job interview with someone who’s younger than their children can be discomfiting.

The Woodbury church’s twice-monthly Career Transition Connection group is one of several resources, including Positively Minnesota and Experience Works. On those sites old-new job-seekers can also find dozens of workshops and classes in “networking,” resumḗ-writing, interview skills and other job-search tactics. Some might find just the fact that there’s so much out there to be a bit overwhelming.

The ‘great risk shift’

Some boomers still in their jobs also count their losses. Many who banked on a three-legged stool of Social Security, pensions and 401(k)s or other savings now see that expectation toppling. One leg or other is missing. Trends such as decreased employer contributions to employees’ 401(k) plans, frozen pensions, increases in health-insurance premiums, dipping home values, home foreclosures and increased college tuition for boomers’ children and/or retraining for boomers themselves have altered the long-range view for many. 

Knatterud and others call the phenomenon “the great risk shift.” That shift increases individual responsibility for risks in later life. It’s “losing some of what you’ve always taken for granted,” she explains. Some call it “the new normal.”

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Four part series: Baby Boom to Aging BoomShe was at the helm two years ago of Transform 2010 [PDF], an intensive project in her department to determine how Minnesota could push ahead to prepare for the age boom. The effort primarily focused on the economic toll that lies ahead as Minnesota’s baby boomers (now ages 66 to 47) gradually claim their entitlements. With that comes the fear that some boomers haven’t saved enough. Just as young people need a lot of education, Knatterud said, “old people need a lot of services.” The project set out to address these issues: fostering “communities for a lifetime,” improving health and long-term care and maximizing technology in connecting people and delivery of services. 

A follow-up Minnesota Department of Human Services study, Aging 2030, is so named for the year that the number of Minnesotans over age 65 will more than double, rising from 636,000 to 1.3 million, demographers project. It’s also the year the oldest boomers will turn 85, entering a realm demographers consider “the very old.”

2012 is likewise a benchmark year for the baby boom. Leading-edge boomers this year will turn 66, the age at which they can draw full Social Security. That’s if, of course, they’re not already getting a monthly allotment, a smaller check because they couldn’t wait that long. As they continue to age, planners say, the huge boomer generation will gradually shrink the work force and swell the ranks of Minnesotans needing health care and other older-adult services.

Looking to the future

Many boomers are uncertain how they’ll manage their needs in later years. Medicare doesn’t pay for long-term care. And only about 10 percent of Minnesotans have private long-term-care insurance.

Almost a third of boomers in a Transform 2010 Data Report survey of Minnesota baby boomers said that they don’t know how they’ll cover the cost of long-term care. Eighteen percent said they’d rely on a government program. In Minnesota that program is federal-government-run Medicaid. To qualify, applicants must have only minimal assets ($3,000 for an individual, $6,000 for a couple, though some exemptions, such as a home, typically apply). While some people have spent down assets to qualify, it’s a tactic that planners strongly advise against. Knatterud boldly puts it this way: “There is no free lunch.” 

On the plus side, Minnesota human-services planners have eyed the future for years. They’ve cut long-term-care costs by creating home-based care and introducing transitional care into nursing homes, allowing many patients to later return home. Still, with the aging of the baby boom, “so many people are going to need long-term care who aren’t going to be able to afford it,” Knatterud said.

In the fall of this year the state of Minnesota will contact Minnesotans ages 40 to 65 and introduce them to a federal/state campaign called Own Your Future, in which 26 states already have participated. A pilot project will start in May. Some campaign information is posted on the Minnesota Department of Human Services website. The site also provides a phone number and email address for individuals or organizations to get involved or to help get the message out. A link will be available by mid-May from that site to a website focused on Own Your Future that will provide information and action kits.

The goal: Get a plan 

The campaign will use a letter from the governor and lieutenant governor and Internet ads, partly supported by federal funds, to encourage people to put adequate savings aside for their long-term care or to purchase a product such as long-term-care insurance or a reverse mortgage, which could apply to the cost of care.

Policies cost less for people who are younger and “aren’t yet failing,” Knatterud said. Since Medicaid can’t stretch to cover large numbers of boomers, Knatterud said, goals instead are to encourage people to have a plan; to make current long-term-care insurance products more affordable; and to reform Medicaid to better support use of these private financing options.

“We need more affordable long-term-care products so we don’t have to be wealthy to afford them,” she said. Minnesotans will get a $100 credit on their Minnesota taxes each year that they pay premiums on a long-term-care insurance policy.

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Other state initiatives include providing financial compensation, in some cases, for family caregivers who care for persons on Medicaid, along with caregiver training and support and encouraging employers to offer flexible or part-time schedules for caregivers who also work at paying jobs. 

Boomers have more to do

While the earlier study, Transform 2010, emphasized the economic toll on Minnesota as the boomers age, the newer study, Aging 2030, looks ahead with more optimism. Aging 2030 focuses not just on planning for older age but on what the highly skilled and productive baby-boom generation can continue to give society.

“If you look at a rise in productivity, it has happened during the boomer years,” Knatterud said.

Planners emphasize “opportunities” the age wave presents as a balance to “challenges,” which tend to attract more attention, Knatterud said. There’s a lot more the boomers can do – both in the workplace and in their communities and families as well. Many will go “from paid work to life work,” she said. “It’s where some of the boomers are now. There’s the idea of being a resource. A legacy.”

The boomer generation represents “a demographic dividend,” she said.  “But that window will close soon. We don’t want to lose the boomers. We need ways to plug them in.”

Kay Harvey wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

Wednesday: What’s next for the boomers.