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Commentary: Hippies, then yupppies, are soon-to-be

SAN DIEGO -- People are busy talking about what this country is going to look like in a few years when a cohort of 78 million Americans acquire a title they never wanted: senior citizen. Hippies who turned into yuppies are about to turn into golden oldies.

Just what I wanted to hear: more about the baby boomers.

USA Today recently wrapped up a series on aging in America that touched on everything from life expectancy to saving for retirement to long-term health care issues.

The newspaper insists that by the year 2046 -- when those Americans who were born from 1946 to 1964 are between 82 and 100 years old -- it'll be a boomer's world. As far as boomers are concerned, the future promises to be, well, to use one of their words, groovy.

The way the article paints it: "Thanks to lifestyle habits and medical advances, they probably will be the healthiest group of elderly in history. Thanks to extended employment spans, they will be the wealthiest. Thanks to their huge voting bloc, they will be the most powerful." So basically the boomers will have their health, plenty of cash, and lots of political clout to get their way.

And the point is? That's how it is now. Americans can't make it through a presidential election without rehashing the Vietnam War. The phenomenon began when the nation's first boomer president, Bill Clinton, was accused by some of dodging the draft to avoid going to Vietnam. The phenomenon reached ridiculous new heights in the 2004 election with the emphasis on Swift boat veterans and George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

And when Bush started talking up the need to reform Social Security, he framed the issue as a system in crisis because the program wouldn't be there for boomers when they retire. He also tried to head off any criticism from boomers by assuring them that any changes wouldn't affect those who were 55 and older.

Nobody seemed to care much about the financial burden that will almost certainly befall the two generations that follow the boomers -- Generation X (now in its 30s and early 40s) and Generation Y (in its 20s and teens) -- just to keep Social Security afloat. Certainly not the boomers. What they care about is what the future holds for them. And why should that surprise us?

This generation has never been plagued with low self-esteem or the sense that the world didn't revolve around them. This is, after all, the generation that helped deliver on the promise of civil rights for blacks and Hispanics and equal rights for women, that fought and helped end the war in Vietnam, and that helped drive a corrupt president from office. You could stop there, and already have enough to say grace over. Not boomers.

Listen to how Newsweek put it in a cover story this week on the boomers turning 60: "They and their siblings invented not just the epiphenomena of youth culture -- blue jeans and rock music, sexual permissiveness and political alienation -- but the very idea of youth as a separate realm of experience and knowledge."

That's a heck of thing to have on your resume, or to break the ice at cocktail parties. "That's Fred over there. He's a baby boomer. He invented youth. Good for you, Fred!"

But even the egotistical baby boomers can't escape Father Time. And so, the latest product being pitched is retirement planning. Financial services companies are running commercials that rely on lava lamps and images from the 1960s to convince boomers that they really are getting older and approaching retirement age, and that it's time to plan their exit from the work force.

Good luck with that. Boomers don't seem to be in any hurry to leave. This is the generation that doesn't think the rules apply to them, and that includes rules about getting old and retiring. The Newsweek article mentions a retirement survey conducted by Merrill Lynch that found that 81 percent of boomers plan to work past the age of 65.

Expect many boomers to work at home, perhaps log shorter days and weeks, but to keep on working as long as their minds and bodies hold up. These folks aren't going anywhere. But you knew that.