CEDAR RAPIDS — Although baby boomers have started turning 65, they aren't old. At least they don't see themselves that way. They certainly aren't comfortable using the word “elderly.”
If Mick Jagger can strut his stuff onstage at 71, boomers can stay in the work force, maintain their own homes and remain relevant in politics and advertising.
“Boomers don't think of themselves as seniors, and I don't think they ever will,” said Jay Newell, an Iowa State University associate professor of advertising.
Thirty years ago, in 1984, The Gazette did a series called “From Baby Boom to Elderly Boom.” Reporters interviewed experts in sociology, gerontology, media and culture about what the world would be like in 2011, when the boomers at the earlier end of the age group started turning 65.
Some of the predictions were dead on. For example, sources said Iowans would be working longer, giving birth to fewer children and ditching malls to shop “by home computer.”
Other predictions haven't borne out. The Gazette's 1984 sources thought communal living and mass transit would thrive in the 21st century to cater to seniors. Most older Iowans still live in single-family houses and many drive cars into their 70s and 80s.
Iowa a gray state
Iowans aged 65 and older make up 15.6 percent of Iowa's population. By 2030, that's expected to be closer to 20 percent as more boomers age into the demographic.
Iowa is the fifth “grayest” state in the country, behind Florida, Maine, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, with an average life expectancy of 79.7 years. Iowa also has a knack for extreme longevity, ranking third in the nation for the share of population over 85.
The majority of Iowa's seniors are in the Mature/Silent Generation, born between 1927-1945 and broadly characterized as a disciplined, self-sacrificing group that did not divorce or change employers.
Baby boomers, born roughly between 1946-1964, are poised to swell the ranks of Iowa seniors with their general optimism, teamwork and self-centeredness. For some, retirement will mean enjoying travel and hobbies.
Other boomers will stay working, either because they need the money or crave interaction.
More than 6,000 seniors were working in Linn, Benton and Jones counties in 2013, making up about 17 percent of the local work force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
“I retired from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics four years ago,” said Pat Badtke, 67, of Cedar Rapids. “I got all the projects done, read all the books and went, 'Hmm.' So I went back to work.”
Badtke is employed 14 to 17 hours a week selling women's clothing at Four Seasons in Lindale Mall. “I like the people, both the clientele and the people who work here,” she said.
Mark Prastka, 63, of Cedar Rapids, retired as a wholesale jeweler in 2008. He became a shuttle driver and greeter for Pat McGrath Chevyland, working between 30 and 40-plus hours a week.
“It's partly the extra income,” Prastka said. “But with this job I meet a lot of people, and every day is different. I like to talk, and this job is perfect for that.”
The Iowa Department on Aging and the Vocational Rehabilitation Services teamed up to create the Older Worker Employment Program in January. People 55 and older with documented disabilities can get help finding work through resume development, interview techniques and internships.
Living longer, different lives
Life expectancy in the United States has climbed steadily since the late 1800s. Although some researchers believe we may see this growth slow due to obesity and chronic health problems such as diabetes, Americans continue to live longer lives.
“People tend to marry later and have children later,” said Jennifer Margrett, an associate professor in the ISU Department of Human Development and Family Studies and director of the Gerontology Program. “The number of children in industrialized countries has gone down.”
As offspring move away to find jobs, seniors are left with fewer family caregivers.
Sato Ashida, a University of Iowa assistant professor of community and behavioral health, interviewed 76 older Ottumwa residents about their social support networks. She found 44 percent of social support members were nonfamily.
Iowa seniors living at home rely on neighbors, friends, free programs such as Meals on Wheels or hired caregivers.
Contrary to stereotypes of older people living in nursing homes, only about 4 percent of Iowa's population lives in long-term care, said Ingrid Wensel, director of The Heritage Agency, which provided services to about 5,500 seniors in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties in 2013.
“The vast majority of older adults live at home in the community,” Wensel said.
But the challenge, especially in rural areas, is finding services that allow older people to stay in their houses. Iowa provides the Department of Aging with money to help seniors living in nursing homes relocate to community-based facilities, but sometimes there are no nearby facilities, Wensel said.
Many boomers have close relationships with their children and grandchildren, likely because they have fewer of them, Ashida said. Instead of avoiding technology, some boomers are jumping online and into social media to stay connected to their progeny.
A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found 59 percent of seniors went online and 77 percent had cellphones.
Age less important
Boomers are considered the TV generation, and commercials have been the primary way advertisers have reached this group for decades.
“They were some of the first to consume media on a daily basis,” said Jaime Spencer, vice president at Frank N. Magid Associates in Marion. “Because of the power of the boomers and because they spend more (money) than their parents did, advertisers are extending that model.”
We still see a lot of stereotypical elderly products — think Osteo Bi-Flex, Cialis and Hoveround — on shows with older audiences. But some companies are using their ads to appeal to multiple demographics, said Spencer, who advises media companies around the world.
Lincoln Motor Co., for example, hired John Slattery, who plays silver fox Roger Sterling on AMC's “Mad Men” as a pitchman for MKZ and MKX. For the crossover MKC, Lincoln chose Matthew McConaughey, 44, who bridges boomers and younger buyers.
But with the Internet, advertisers can go after specific audiences, regardless of age. If a company wants to sell Hoveround wheelchairs and scooters these days, they might buy ads on websites that deal with physical mobility.
“You have a layer of targeting that transcends demographics,” Spencer said.
Older Iowans in politics
American society values youth, but not necessarily in politics. Sixty of 100 U.S. senators are at least 60 years old.
Iowa's own Chuck Grassley is among five octogenarians.
Among the people The Gazette interviewed in 1984 was Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who at 37 already was sporting his trademark mustache and had just started his first term as governor. The newspaper asked him what he thought he would be doing in 2011, when he turned 65.
“I will try to stay as active as I can,” Branstad said in 1984. “I have been involved in agriculture and I want to stay close to the family farming operation. I will probably be in some sort of senior citizen organization.”
Instead, Branstad assumed his fifth non-consecutive term as governor in 2011. The 67-year-old is now seeking his sixth term.
“I never imagined back in 1984 I'd be back as governor again,” Branstad chuckled in an interview last week. “But here I am, and I'm glad to serve the people of Iowa.”
Branstad, who was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1973 when he was 26, said he doesn't think older incumbents are keeping young people from getting into politics. He's been working with Adam Gregg, 31, of Hawarden, who is running for Iowa Attorney General against Tom Miller, 70, who was first elected to that position in 1978.
“I tell young people to get involved,” Branstad said. “Don't forget where you came from.”
Seventy percent of Americans aged 65 and older voted in the 2012 general election, compared to about 60 percent for all ages and 45 percent for 18-to-29-year-olds, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. Nearly 90 percent of 65-plus Iowans registered to vote in 2012, according to May report by the State Data Center and Iowa Department on Aging.
“Our strength comes because they know we will vote,” said Anthony Carroll, AARP Iowa's advocacy director. “We're also the people who will make calls, be active and raise their voices outside the voting booth.”