Case Western Reserve University, circa 1980. Lowell Arye, a 22-year-old graduate gerontology student, contemplates the number of people his age and asks a question: “What are we going to do with the baby boom generation?”
Thirty-three years later, Arye, now deputy commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, is still working on it. The problem is not that baby boomers exist. The problem is how to handle the effect of them reaching old age. According to the Public Broadcasting System, there were 76 million births between 1946 and 1964, with an estimated 72 million survivors into 2012. This swell of senior citizens who started reaching retirement age in 2011 and will continue to reach retirement age through 2029 has been called the “silver tsunami” or the “baby boom tsunami.”
Either way, it spells a logistical conundrum for generations X, Y, and Z: When it comes to services, industry, and finances, what are we going to do with the baby boom generation?
Arye will present “The Baby Boom Tsunami: Implications for Services and Workforce for the Next Generation” on Tuesday, April 9, at noon at Mercer County Community College. For more information on this free event, visit www.mccc.edu or call 609-570-3324.
Arye, who earned his bachelor’s in sociology from Hiram College in 1980 and his masters in social administration, specializing in gerontology, from Case Western in 1982, was born in 1958 (“at the height of the baby boom,” he says) and grew up in Westchester County, New York. He learned the value of college early from his father, who was an attorney. “The only reason he was an attorney is because of the GI Bill,” Arye says. The senior Arye, now 88, attended the City College of New York when it was free to city residents and then used his GI Bill to get his JD from NYU.
“My father wanted his sons to become lawyers,” Arye says. “None of us did. He wasn’t happy that I was going into social work. He said ‘Social workers don’t make any money.’” But Arye’s interest in gerontology occurred in the middle of college when a friend and expert in geriatric psychology spoke to him about the subject of aging.
After Case Western Arye immediately landed on Capitol Hill, working on the congressional Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment, eventually serving as acting staff director. He then became the senior policy analyst for the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
In the 1990s Arye left Capitol Hill and served as program officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the associate director of the Center for Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and the executive director for the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities in Hamilton, where he stayed until 2011. He joined the Christie administration that year as a policy advisor before becoming the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services in 2012.
Part of the reason Arye and his family came back up north (to Yardley) was his wife’s family. Her aging parents needed care, “and it’s easier to help when you’re a few minutes away rather then three hours away,” he says. Though his in-laws have passed away, Arye still must care for his father, whom he refers to as “an 88-year-old toddler” because he is in need of so much attention. In the meantime, Arye is working on that question he asked in 1980, and wondering what it might be like for him if he reaches the age of 88 himself.
Though baby boomers have officially started retiring, the effects will not truly be seen for about 10 or 15 years, Arye says. Today’s 65-year-olds are not the same as they used to be. People in their mid-to-late-60s are active and healthier than their parents were at the same age. Many boomers, though officially at retirement age, are not retired at all and don’t plan to be for a few more years. In some cases they can’t retire, in others they want to get back the nest eggs they thought they would have before the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Still others just don’t want to stop working.
But in another decade or so, when 30 to 50 million people will be in their 70s, the way life operates will change, Arye says. Everything, from architecture to food service will be affected by the sheer demand of an enormous number of people.
What about their kids? Through their sheer numbers, baby boomers created new jobs, new industries, and new ways of working. That’s all well and good, but the issue for the generations that follow the boomers is that there aren’t as many people. As baby boomers become more reliant on services and less able to provide them, the demand for services will greatly outweigh the supply of people able to provide those services.
The most obvious and potentially frightening aspect of this is healthcare. As seniors, especially as they get into their 80s, boomers will rely on an already-stretched healthcare system to help them medically. And it isn’t just a problem for boomers. “Doctors’ average age is in their late 50s and early 60s,” Arye says. “We need to have doctors for the next generation.”
Architecture and planning are other areas of change, Arye says. Most boomers want to retire and age in-home, not in facilities. But as motor functions deteriorate, the need for houses and buildings to have more age-friendly fixtures and access points will increase. And when it comes to food, most boomers have complex palates, built on years of spicy, ethnic foods and complex flavors. And with age, taste buds demand more flavor still. “That means there will be changes in how food is done for people,” Arye says.
What about Social Security? Let’s get one thing clear — Social Security was never intended to fully fund retirement for 20 to 30 years. And yet, Arye says, about half of Social Security recipients rely on that money for 90 percent of their retirement income. While Arye says Social Security is, contrary to popular belief, solvent over the next 75 years, there still will be massive payouts from now until 2040 to 2060.
A bigger problem is Medicaid, which is not so financially sound and will be expected to help pay for that immense pool of boomers who will need it over the next few decades — particularly Part B Medicare, which pays doctors partly through insurance premiums and partly from the general fund. “With people living longer and the higher cost of living,” Ayre says, “Part B is in financial trouble. It’s not clear at all what to do with so-called ‘entitlement spending.’”
Under all this is still the issue of who will be there to take care of the millions of seniors when they will need it. And while opportunities abound in avenues such as physical therapy or at-home care, a big question that remains is, will there be enough people to do the jobs?
“That’s a good question,” Arye says. “We’re not really sure yet. We need people to start seeing opportunities and what careers are available to them.”