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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Welcome, boomers don't forget to do nothing

By John Griffin

It says something that I just got around to reading a book I bought last June. It's titled "How to be Idle" and my lame excuse is being too busy.

It turns out this self-help manual by the youngish founding editor of the English magazine "The Idler" is a whimsical read, albeit male-centric and not very sympathetic for those stuck with scraping out a living on the daily-job treadmill.

But this is not a book review. Rather it's about some evolving issues of aging and the graying of America. And at least the timing is right: This month the first of the baby boomers (those born 1946-64) will turn 60 leading a tide of 75 million in the nation's largest-ever generational buildup of seniors.

I'm of the so-called "silent generation," a relatively small group ahead of the boomers and after the celebrated "greatest" or G.I. generation. As such, I sometimes see myself as a pioneer in facing the old and new issues of aging.

When asked for my outlook on retirement, I say that one of the secrets is getting better at doing nothing, as in learning to be idle. That can bring some uncomprehending looks from those who know I also swim, go to a gym, belong to a few volunteer groups, travel, write a bit and sometimes wonder how I used to find time to go to work.

But being productively idle (thinking, smelling the roses, etc.) is just one level on a shifting scale of geezerhood that runs from vegetating on to continuing to work like there's no such thing as retirement.

While health and financial problems abound, for many, if not most, Americans, there's a degree of choice of where they fit on that scale of senior living. And some of the changes are intriguing.

In a recent column, I wrote about the great American rethinking of retirement. For many years the ideal was the "golden years" or Sun City concept of active or gentle leisure we still see in many facilities and groups catering to seniors born in the first 45 years of the last century. An article in The New York Times noted how that notion was changing with the next generation:

"Surveys by AARP and other organizations are finding that up to 80 percent of boomers plan to do some sort of work into their 70s. They see continued participation in the work force as a way to help them stay mentally sharp and socially engaged, as well as financially more secure."

Where retiring early used to be the "in" thing, now it is often staying on the job. As one expert put it, "The golden-years dream was the freedom from work. The new dream may be the freedom to work in new fields, and in jobs that are still rewarding." That's OK with me, although I seem to be a golden-years guy with a boomer wife and friends.

Then, later last year, the Los Angeles Times in a perceptive story pointed to an even newer development: "In the last few years, while no one under 50 was paying much attention, America's elders have become a somewhat divided continent. On one side are contented Medicare beneficiaries whose retirement nirvana includes volunteer work, playing with grandchildren and low stress levels few working people get to enjoy. They face and return the scorn of peers who don't want to hear the 'R' word, much less live it. The gulf is particularly evident in the economic strata in which men have the luxury of choosing whether to retire."

The story labeled this "the papa wars," an echo in emotional intensity of the 1990s mommy wars, the clash between stay-at-home moms and working mothers. (It also made the point that this is mostly a men's war because in their various roles in life women "develop a more fluid sense of identity." Breadwinner men, in contrast, are "more brittle, less tolerant." But I'm not getting into that here.)

And yet the operative buzzword "engagement" often applies to both sides, the married-to-a-job battalion and what I call the creative leisurists. The L.A. Times story made this point: "What most people want to avoid is waking up every morning with nothing to do and Peggy Lee's anthem to ennui, 'Is That All There Is,' playing in their head."

"Today, whether they retire from work or keep working, people don't see themselves as retiring in behavior," said one noted aging expert. Maybe part of the answer is temporarily banning the "R" word for the hard-charging boomers.

Still, in the end, I imagine the papa wars and other such battles of transition will be resolved and we will all adjust to the tsunami of aging boomers. In the meantime, think balance and the philosophical Golden Mean of avoiding extremes and don't forget, much less be ashamed of, the joys of idleness.