Aging Is Inevitable, but Boomers Put 'Old' on Hold

By Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When the first Marine Corps Marathon took place, in 1976, the oldest runner to finish the 26.2-mile race was 58 years old. On the race's 30th anniversary last year, the oldest finisher was 82 -- one individual's testament to how Americans are aging differently than they used to.

So who's "old" these days?

The 60-year-old with twins in preschool? The 65-year-old launching a second career? The 70-year-old with no gray hair, no wrinkles and great cleavage?

The cliche that "60 is the new 40" may be overdoing it, but it captures a sense that Americans -- particularly the 78 million baby boomers born from 1946 through 1964 -- are approaching their later years with different plans and expectations than their parents and grandparents did.

The first boomers will turn 62 next year, the youngest age at which one can start to draw Social Security retirement benefits. Yet surveys show that boomers see themselves as in their early middle age and think "old age" starts sometime in the mid-70s, said Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, a marketing research and consulting company in Richmond.

For boomers, " 'Old' is still 15 years off into the future," Thornhill said.

This makes sense for people who can expect to live longer than their parents did. In 1950, the average 65-year-old American man could expect to live 13 more years; a woman 15 more. Today, the average man will live 17 more years and the average woman 20, according to the National Institute on Aging. Americans are generally more fit and able in their 70s, 80s and 90s than men and women were 20 years ago, studies show.

That's good news, but it also raises some questions about how to fill that extra time and find the money to pay for it. And with new opportunities, boomers also face new anxieties.

Writer Nora Ephron said that after age 60, "the whammies start to mount up," as you or your friends start getting ill. "And it's very complicated to know how to deal with all the things that are realities when you are older, not the least of which is how you prepare financially for the fact that you have no idea if you're going to die tomorrow or live forever."

As boomers head into the future -- whether toward retirement, travel or a second career -- they have to get their finances, bodies and heads in order. For varying perspectives on these matters, The Post interviewed experts in medicine, marketing, cosmetic dermatology, philosophy and religion. For edited excerpts, turn to page 5.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company