Australia is at the start of a generational change. As more and more members of the baby boomer generation graduate into what has been seen as ‘retirement’ age (65+ years old), it is clear that this will not only significantly change our society and our economy, but it is likely to lead to us rethinking the fundamentals of what it means to ‘age well’.

Baby boomers are the generation that were born after the Second World War (from 1946 to 1964). They lived through and created many of the achievements of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, universalisation of education and health-care – and they benefited from postwar prosperity and technological advances. They radically shifted public sentiment and values, family structures and economic power. It is likely that they will continue to reshape and restructure how we see, experience and live into ‘senior citizenship’.

Australia’s demographic structure will shift fundamentally over the coming decades. We are an ageing society, and the rising tide of the baby boomer generation will not only change the number and proportion of older people in our country, but will have significant implications for the national economy, society and culture.

Baby Boomers in Australia

There are many stereotypes of who this ‘new’ generation of older people are and what they value – they are often portrayed in derogatory terms – cruising around the country or the world, spending their children’s inheritance whilst living the high life. Certainly the baby boomers are, in aggregate, wealthier than any other living generation in Australia. However, this does not mean that we can stereotype all baby boomers as wealthy. The reality of the situation is, of course, much more diverse and nuanced than this.

Baby Boomers are different

The baby boomers are a generation that is more diverse than the previous ‘builders’ generation (born pre-war, between 1925 and 1945, they are sometimes also called the ‘silent generation’). And this diversity is not just cultural in nature – it is a generation that is economically, socially and geographically diverse. There are a significant number of baby boomers who are experiencing economic hardship, who are vulnerable and who may experience significant health, financial and social difficulties as they age.

“You need to keep young in your mind. It’s an attitude, you can talk yourself into being old.”

The big challenge for Australia over these next decades is to ask and tackle the hard question:
How might we ensure that all people in Australia have the opportunity to age well?

Rising to this challenge requires not just technical fixes such as new pills, apps, robotic carers and so on. These innovations may make the headlines, but the real changes we need to make require social innovation – creating the foundations for new attitudes towards ageing and older people, new opportunities for sharing, supporting and caring for each other as we age, new possibilities for social interaction to combat loneliness, and new business models for ensuring that everyone, not just those with the financial means, can live well into older age.

Of course all this has profound implications for much of what we currently take for granted in terms of our idea of ‘ageing’ and what services and supports might be needed to help people as they age. It will fundamentally challenge our assumptions about age and what ageing means at a personal level as well as challenge professional norms and service assumptions.

“When my mum was 50 she looked old. We’re older than that and we don’t look that old”.

The change will be a ‘slow burn’, not an overnight transformation. It will take another fifteen years or so before all the baby boomers reach and pass the age of 65. And we are not going to see the wholesale collapse of current systems and structures overnight either. So, we can certainly learn from what is working now, and tweak and evolve as more and more baby boomers begin to age.

However, we also need to start to reimagine and respond to how baby boomers themselves see their futures. And we need to find and link together the innovators so we can start to build the collective action that will be needed to contribute to systems change.

Now is the time to kick-start the next generation of ageing innovations which focus on how we can foster a generation of structures, systems, services and supports that ensure that ageing is not a process that merely helps us to decline towards our ultimate death, but rather, ensures that we can extend our potential for a life well led.

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

Find out more about The Innovation Age.

This is the second 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’, and this is the first except in six that will be published over the coming weeks. You can also download the report in its entirety here.