Initial insights: what the baby boomers told us

Participation is the first of five key themes that emerged during the time we spent with baby boomers in relation to five overarching areas that are often discussed in reports about ageing – and which we wanted to explore with baby boomers to find out what they mean in people’s lives:

  • Participation
  • Money
  • Housing
  • Caring
  • Family and friends

We linked what we learnt from the baby boomers we spent time with to what we have found out from a range of the reports and research that has also explored these issues, and analysis of statistics about baby boomers.

We spent time with an array of baby boomers from across the socio-economic spectrum. We wanted to explore what people thought would help them age well.

We were interested in uncovering what people were already doing that could be strengthened to help them age well.

And we were interested in asking, who is at risk of not ageing well? What risks were people encountering that could create barriers to ageing well? And what factors led to these risks?

So, we approached our first round of generative research with a lense of exploring vulnerability and resilience.

What stood out in all our interviews was not just the diversity within the baby boomer generation when it came to the issues we were exploring, but also the divergences between what the stereotypes are portraying and the range of both opportunities and real challenges facing many people in their day-to-day lives, and in their planning around their futures.

What Baby Boomers Told Us About Participation

Participation in the workforce and in social and community life is important in terms of personal identity but also social contact. The baby boomers we spoke with had some definite views of what participating in and contributing to the economic and social life of Australia meant to them now and into the future, whether this was in a paid or voluntary capacity. Their futures, it seems, will be varied, and certainly not characteristic of the image often depicted of baby boomers relaxing as they cruise around the world.

Barb and Vickey

We might work for longer, but not necessarily because we want to

One of the key ways people derive meaning and purpose in their lives, and participate in society is through paid work or employment. We spoke with baby boomers who were employed full-time, self-employed, employed part-time or casually, retired, semi-retired or unemployed and looking for work. We also spoke with baby boomers who were embarking on new careers, engaging in entrepreneurship or retraining or studying for work or interest.

Overall, we got little sense that the baby boomers we interviewed were looking to stop actively participating in work or life. Most expressed goals and ambitions they were seeking to pursue, and many argued that they were not able (for financial reasons predominantly) or not willing to retire.

For many younger baby boomers, the future they outlined was at least twenty or so more productive years, and many did not foresee that their contribution to society would cease even if they decided to retire from the formal workforce.

For some, continued employment was an economic necessity as they still had significant costs and debts associated with mortgages, families and/or lifestyles. For example, Richard, who is 58, says:

“I don’t want to retire, that is many years away yet… I still need to work to pay the bills”.

Charles, a cab driver who was caring for his elderly mother, insisted that despite some significant health issues, earning an income was essential:

“I will die driving a cab, it doesn’t look like I’ll be having a lot of fun when I’m older”.

For others the need to work was connected to a sense of contribution and identity. Vickey says:

“In my retirement I couldn’t sit around; I would have to work or be on the move”.

Nicky, aged 62, says that for her:

“A job is about purpose, not just money but also health”.

Research also suggests that baby boomers in Australia are likely to work longer and retire later. Some 42% of Australians believe they will need to keep working into their seventies, and around 2.6 million baby boomers are likely to have to work into older age (late seventies or eighties) because of their financial situations (Suncorp Superannuation Report, 2013). Hugo (2013;p.17) found that phased retirement plans were popular amongst baby boomers – and that only about ¼ planned to cease work all together, with almost ¾ intending to work 16+ hours per week into their retirement.

Unemployment, under-employment – it’s hard finding work as a baby boomer

Recent research in Australia has suggested that over 50% of jobseekers over 50 have experienced some form of
age-related discrimination (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2015).

For the unemployed or under-employed baby boomers we spent time with, returning to work after redundancy,
retrenchment or loss of employment due to personal or health reasons was not without difficulty.

Richard has experienced what he refers to as ‘ageism’ in his efforts to get a job in a depressed regional economy:

“I am currently trying to get work. Because I’m older it is harder. The ageism is not upfront but it is there disguised in statements like ‘someone better suited won the position’. I’m registered with a job agency, so after six months on their books I was brought in for the next step ‘plan’. Ha, more like putting me in the volunteering parking bay. The plan was for me to do 15 hours of volunteering so I don’t have to look for a job. But I still need to have paid work so I can pay the bills. So I keep trying myself. I don’t want to push too much with the agency because I don’t think they can help me. The right person probably could, but you are assigned a person and there are not many of the right people working in job agencies. Their service is erratic and they throw you away after they’ve done the basics. Most of them have no empathy; they just don’t understand what people go though.”

Peter is from the same region and has also encountered problems as a baby boomer jobseeker. Though he has a
casual cleaning job, he has experienced a reduction in hours from 20 hours to 6 hours per week on average. He suspects it is because of his age and his increased risk profile as an employee. He has sought other work but suspects his age is putting employers off, but he also says:

“It’s hard to talk about because it’s hard to prove”.

John, also unemployed, says that if he:

“fills in my date of birth on an application, I’m overlooked”.

Lana, who has struggled to find employment since leaving her teaching position to care for her elderly father-in-law says:

“A lot of the job market is all about the youth – 20s, 30s, 40s. And you get into your 50s and 60s and people are less interested in you. But you have a life of experience to share”.

Our goals and ambitions are alive and well – though opportunities to realise them are not always obvious

Many of the people we spent time with had significant goals and aspirations for their future – they were looking forward to their futures rather than looking backwards for their sense of achievement. Lana was looking towards a new career as an arts entrepreneur. Albert was considering undertaking the study he had never had the opportunity to undertake.

Picking out a card depicting a woman leaping up into the air, Pauline says:

“This image, this captures how I feel today after everything I’ve dealt with in life. What it says to me is – stuff everything, old age is allowing me to be me; I can be me; that is retirement, rediscovering and being me”.

Jayne has so many things she wants to achieve in her life (she is 59):

“I worry about all the things I have to do and I wonder if I have time to do them all!”

Of course for others, the future did not seem so bright.

When asked what he imagined he would be doing in 20 years time, Dean replied:

“I’ll be dead! I don’t expect to have many friends. I don’t care about the future. I’m not suicidal but I don’t care if I don’t wake up tomorrow”.

Volunteering is important, personally and as a means for socialising

Many of the baby boomers we spent time with were busy not just in their work and personal lives, but they also valued volunteering and community service. Some, who were looking for work, saw volunteering as personally and socially important.

Lana, who has plans to establish an independent business as a way to manage earning an income whilst she cares for
her father-in-law, values the peace volunteering affords her:

“I have more time now. Volunteering doesn’t give me finances but it gives me peace, and this environment gives you space to think and feel, it’s uncluttered”.

Some people had seen their parents volunteer, and see their own futures as involving this too. Richard recalls:

“Dad didn’t retire until he was 75 years old; he did lots of voluntary work too. The older he got the more the balance tipped to volunteer work, that is what I imagine I will do too”.

Volunteering, however, was not all about ‘giving’. For many people we spent time with, it was also a way to meet new
people and to develop personally. There were also some definite ideas of what makes for a good volunteering position or experience. Jayne says it needs to involve people of different ages:

“It would be good to volunteer again, however it would have to be with younger people in their 50s to make it fun”.

Dianne has tried volunteering but has found that did not suit her – she was expecting to get something out of it personally in addition to assisting others:

“I’ve tried Meals on Wheels but didn’t enjoy it – the people who worked for them were old and set in their ways. I tried volunteering with my local council, taking ‘oldies’ to doctors appointments, but I was put off by too much red tape, the way they inspected my car and the meetings. I’m a giver – but I know you’re not meant to expect anything,
but I need to get something out of volunteering”.

Learning is part of our future not just our past

In Australia, many baby boomers have benefited from and been committed to broadening of education – and this looks set to continue as they age.

Research suggests that there may well be a boom in adult education as baby boomers age (for example, NBN research suggests that around 35% of the baby boomers they surveyed have an unmet study ambition).

Charity identified that she saw more opportunities for learning as she got older:

“I hope I could learn more now as learning becomes part of who we are”.

Albert really wants to be able to go and study, he says he never got a chance to go to university when he was younger
and he would love to study the arts.

Peter struggles with some of the paradoxes of getting older:

“There is a funny thing about timing and ageing. I find myself with these conflicted thoughts like a little nagging thought that I’ve missed the boat on things [like learning the guitar] versus not wanting all this talk about retirees to apply to me, I don’t feel ready for that, it freaks me out a bit”.

Roger, at age 61, is studying history at the University of the Third Age, which he finds:

“Stimulating, and keeps the brain active. I’ll keep doing it till the day I turn over”.


By Ingrid Burkett, Project Director and Kerry Jones, Project Lead, The Innovation Age.

Find out more about The Innovation Age.

This is the third of seven excerpts we’ll be sharing from the Starting the Innovation Age Report: Boomer’s perspectives on what it takes to age well. This is the first report in a series as we open an invitation to be part of this movement towards what we are terming ‘The Innovation Age’. You can also download the report in its entirety here.