Sex, Drugs, and Rocking Chairs

Baby boomers account for nearly a third of Canada’s population and now they’re starting to retire. Arguably the subject of more attention than any other generation, what makes boomers different and how will this influence their experience of later life?

Remember peaceniks and protesters? Bellbottoms and be-ins? For anyone whose senior moments are mounting, these images have just triggered a tsunami of nostalgia. Who could forget an era shaped by the most influential demographic to ever wear love beads – the baby boomers.

Commonly defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, boomers number almost a third of Canada’s population and are now hitting retirement age with the first wave leaving the workplace this year. But what will be the impact of their departure? Pundits warn of pension shortfalls and a healthcare system strained beyond capacity. But there is as much disagreement about the future for boomers as there is old vinyl stashed in boomer basements.

Many predict tough times ahead. The 2008 economic crisis put a big dent in many a nest egg and boomers are the first generation to enter retirement with significant debt. A survey released this year by CIBC showed 33 per cent of respondents aged 55-64 had an outstanding mortgage and 75 per cent reported having debt of some kind. The golden years may well be tarnished by financial strain.

Trident nuclear submarine protest, November 1975 (courtesy UBC Public Affairs )

And despite being the healthiest children ever – thanks to improved nutrition, antibiotics and vaccines – boomers are developing obesity-related chronic disease earlier than their parents did. This is the generation that popularized the idea of healthy living, but stress, sedentary jobs and fast food have gradually gained the upper hand.

As for Canada’s fiscal health, a 2010 Parliamentary Budget Office report said that boomer retirements will slow labour force growth, which in turn will slow economic growth and government revenue. The number of working-age taxpayers is forecast to shrink significantly, leaving the government short of cash to fund healthcare and pension programs. Post-boomers are worried they will be saddled with higher inflation rates, tax hikes and spending cuts to pay for it all.

Their crucible included the civil rights movement, the moon landing, gay pride and the Vietnam War. The spirit of the times challenged and reinforced the values of democracy, especially egalitarianism and social justice.

But boomer gloom is not shared by everyone. UBC Economics professor Thomas Lemieux is optimistic about the labour market in the wake of boomer retirements. “It’s important to remember that more people were born during the later phase of the baby boom than in the early phase,” he says. “Labour markets and the economy in general have plenty of time to adjust before people born at the peak of the baby boom, 1959-60, start leaving the work force in large numbers.”

Boomers will be reluctant to give up the pensions and healthcare to which they feel entitled, predicts Doug Owram, deputy vice chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. A professor of history with research interests in the history of popular ideas and their influence, he wrote Born at the Right Time, an examination of the baby boomer phenomenon. Owram says boomers will “dig in” to realize the retirements they envisioned.

But the current economic insecurity is taking its toll. Financial worries, along with a sense of global insecurity post-9/11 have brought a new conservatism, Owram says. Boomers are reconsidering the wisdom of early retirement – almost gone are ads for Freedom 55 featuring smug, attractive boomers having a swell time. Owram agrees with predictions of financial difficulties for retiring boomers and sees them delaying retirement to their late 60s or early 70s.

Daycare protest, March 1975 (courtesy UBC Public Affairs)

But what makes boomers different and how will that difference be reflected in their experience, whenever they choose to retire?

As a group they were uniquely influenced by the advent of television and marketing intended specifically for them, even as children. As young people they experienced new sexual freedom and greater access to education. In addition, “women’s lib” brought huge numbers of women into the workforce, making two-income families commonplace and creating unprecedented middle-class affluence.

Their crucible included the civil rights movement, the moon landing, gay pride and the Vietnam War. The spirit of the times challenged and reinforced the values of democracy, especially egalitarianism and social justice.

Although often referred to as a homogenous demographic bulge, there is diversity within the boomer generation, according to researchers.

Canadian Michael Adams, founder of marketing research and communications consulting firm Environics and author of Stayin’ Alive, cites four distinct “tribes.” They include Autonomous Rebels, the iconic poster children of the 60s. These boomers were politically tuned in, idealistic, critical and unafraid to protest. They were involved.

Connected Enthusiasts were the party animals, keen to exploit the new sexual permissiveness, youth culture and promotion of love and peace, a.k.a. flower power. Another group, the Disengaged Darwinists, did not identify with the counterculture at all, preferring views and values of the previous generation. The Anxious Communitarians were concerned about society’s issues, followed the rules and wanted everyone to get along. Adams calls them the “worriers of their generation.”

The outlook and behaviour of these tribes are reflected in their retirement pursuits. Adams reports the Autonomous Rebels remain experience-seekers interested in travel and involvement. Anxious Communitarians, who may have been stressed trying to keep everyone happy at work, want to completely relax in retirement. Disengaged Darwinists (who hail hockey commentator Don Cherry as philosopher king, says Adams) will carry on being disengaged in retirement, feeling excluded as social changes continue to leave them on the sidelines. The creative and confident Connected Enthusiasts believe they can build their own world and many want to start new businesses in retirement.

“Boomers use more healthcare than any other generation. They are on more and increasingly expensive drugs, use more diagnostic technologies, see more specialists, and have more surgeries.”

There may be diversity in the dreams but there is also a unifying theme. Ask boomers what they really hope for in retirement and you’ll hear an echo of the rallying cry that guided a generation: Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll.

Are baby boomers more sexually adventurous? Drug company Eli Lilly (the people who brought you sexual enhancement drug Cialis) asked the question in a 2009 survey. You betcha, replied 41 per cent of the middle-aged Canadians surveyed, as reported in a recent Maclean’s series on the well-being of boomers. More free time, no pregnancy worries, not to mention finally having the house to yourself, seem to have had a salutary effect on boomers’ sex lives. It’s the Summer of Love all year long.

Student sit-in at Faculty Club, October 1968 (photo credit: Meredith L. Smith)

The only problem is the free love generation is being a bit too free. Researchers have found that boomers are not using condoms, even with casual partners. For many boomers, condoms were phased out when the Pill was phased in. Decades later, latex seems so 1950s.

But in 2008, the Public Health Agency of Canada found that more than 12 per cent of all reported AIDS cases occurred in people aged 50 or older. Incidence of HIV for the same age group rose from about 10 per cent in 1999 to more than 15 per cent in 2008. Sexually transmitted infections are also increasing.

Dr. Eric Yoshida of UBC’s Faculty of Medicine warns that boomers having unprotected sex should also be concerned about Hepatitis B. “Just being older doesn’t necessarily mean you have natural immunity,” says Yoshida. “Today, there is universal vaccination at birth in BC but the vaccine had not been developed when boomers were children. This generation evaded population-based protection and is at risk.” Acute Hepatitis tends to be more severe in older people and can cause acute liver failure and death, he adds.

So, maybe free love does come with a price tag these days. Just add it to the bill – along with huge amounts of cash attributed to boomer drug spending. No, not the mind-expanding kind. Boomer drug culture is now about prescription medicines.

Boomers account for as much prescription drug spending as the elderly in BC, according to research published by Steve Morgan, associate director at UBC’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research. The British Columbia Rx Atlas showed medications for cardiovascular disease, depression and ulcers top the charts in drug spending. Morgan found that from 1996-2006, per capita spending on prescription drugs rose by 140 per cent.

Mowry Baden leading Arts students’ meditation class at Strathcona Lodge Outdoor Recreation Centre, circa 1970.

But boomers pride themselves on being healthier that the previous generation, so why all the drugs?

“Boomers use more healthcare than any other generation,” says Morgan, who is also an associate professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. “They are on more and increasingly expensive drugs, use more diagnostic technologies, see more specialists and have more surgeries.”

Part of the problem is boomeritis. That’s how healthcare professionals describe joint and overuse injuries seen in middle-aged patients. Unwilling to give up the high-impact, strenuous pursuits of their youth, many boomers are downing drugs like candy after hitting the track or ski slopes, hoping pills can push back the clock.

For many boomers, condoms were phased out when the Pill was phased in. Decades later, latex seems so 1950s.

It seems the Pepsi generation is in denial. Former flower children are now using drugs to help them stay forever young. In the sex department, global sales of erectile dysfunction drugs are reported at almost $500 million for Pfizer’s Viagra and about $460 million for Eli Lilly’s Cialis. For other aging body parts, the magic medicine cabinet of rejuvenators includes Botox injections, memory-building supplements, diet and hormone pills and hair growth stimulants.

Despite this consumption, Morgan disagrees with predictions that boomers will bust the healthcare system. He has recently published research that looks at population aging and healthcare spending. The findings showed rising expenditures are not driven by the aging of the population, but by factors that can be controlled by healthcare providers or policy-makers, such as public drug coverage plans.

Aided by great sex and drugs, it is expected the Woodstock generation will resist the rest home. But although most boomers know the ingredients for healthy aging, some misconceptions do exist.

“Being physically active should not be defined by how many times you go to the gym,” says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, UBC assistant professor of Physical Therapy. “Even if you go to the gym for 30 minutes a day and then sit for the rest of the day, you still have an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. Instead, conceptualize being physically active as constant movement throughout the day – take the stairs instead of the elevator or pull your own weeds instead of hiring a gardener. Small amounts of activity throughout the day truly do add up to significant health benefits.”


The boomers’ need to control their health may, in fact, drive healthcare innovations. Having helped their parents navigate the healthcare system, boomers know exactly how they want to be treated when their time comes. Their parents might have accepted pain or incapacity as part of aging but boomers are more likely to push for, and pay for, treatments to maximize health. They will look for more convenient services and co-ordinated teams of health professionals to provide the most effective care.

Healthy aging for boomers also includes staying intellectually and socially engaged. They want to retire in college towns or downtown areas that offer activities and cultural amenities. And many boomers want to keep working. In Stayin’ Alive, Adams reports that half of boomers intend to work at least part-time post-retirement. Volunteer work that capitalizes on career skills is also a popular goal. Many women, in particular, see this phase of life as an opportunity for a new career or community involvement.

So it seems boomers are not planning to slow down any time soon but they might take a moment to consider their own legacy. They will certainly be remembered for their consumerism, high expectations and self-absorption. But the glory days did yield some important changes, as Owram points out. “A sense of shared ideals and purpose has helped create a significant legacy,” he says. “Boomers were the generation that challenged systematic discrimination and fundamentally changed the discussion about who is considered part of our society.”

Not too shabby for a bunch of long-haired rabble rousers. So boomers unite, hold your heads high and get ready to rock ‘n’ roll right into the grooviest retirements ever seen.

Writer Hilary Thomson is a UBC alumna and Vancouver-based communications consultant. A proud boomerette, she has go-go boots in her closet.

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If you’re a boomer, do you welcome or dread retirement? If you’re a non-boomer, how do you think you will be affected when this generation leaves the workplace? Post your comments.

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