In the late 1960s they were flower children, and it was all about peace and the summer of love. Now, with 2008 nearing, it's going to be all about the check.
The first baby boomer in the US, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, applied for her old age pension this week, heralding the arrival of what demographers call Boomsday, or the "silver tsunami," the graying of a generation that never quite believed it would grow old.
Casey-Kirschling turns 62 on Jan. 1. She is the oldest of the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 who are threatening popular expectations of a secure retirement.
A former teacher and nutritionist, Casey-Kirschling argues that just as they defined the youth generation 40 years ago, baby boomers will change the ways Americans look at aging.
"It's just like [when] they had to build schools for us growing up and universities expanded ... it's the same now with retirement issues like financial planning and assisted living homes," Casey-Kirschling said yesterday. "Everything is still going to be for the baby boomer."
The postwar demographic bulge is forcing Americans to abandon the idea that they can rely on a state pension to see them through old age in comfort. There is a severe strain on the US' social security administration, which pays out both disability and old age pensions. By 2017 social security will be paying out more than it takes in from payroll taxes.
The 50 million Americans already drawing a government disability or retirement pension will see a 2.3 percent rise in their monthly payments, it was announced on Wednesday. The increase in the cost of living will bring the average pension to about US$1,079 a month.
As Casey-Kirschling admitted when she filled in her online pension application, "I'm just lucky to be at the top of the boom."
For those following her into retirement, demographers predict the crisis in the social security net will emerge as a key concern on the domestic political agenda -- if not in time for next year's elections, then certainly in subsequent years.
And as they changed the way the US looked at youth, Casey-Kirschling and her contemporaries look set to redefine how Americans perceive the process of aging. For one thing, they are less likely than their parents to have had the experience of a lifetime of paid work under a single employer. They also have greater expectations of how they intend to spend the rest of their lives.
Like Casey-Kirschling, who is taking her pension three years early, the boomers feel no obligation to spend the rest of their years earning a living if they can afford otherwise. They are probably also in far better shape. Casey-Kirschling, who lost both parents to heart disease, has devoted her life to a regime of cycling, walking, tennis and a restored wooden boat called, appropriately enough, First Boomer.
Over the past five years the average age of retirement in the US has fallen to around 63, said Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the social security administration.
The trend is likely to continue for some years despite pressure to raise the official retirement age to take account of longer life spans and to help the social security system.
For Casey-Kirschling, such debates on the future of the baby boomer generation have become almost second nature ever since she was discovered by journalists on the eve of her 40th birthday.
After marrying at 21 to a doctor who served in the Vietnam War, Casey-Kirschling worked part time and earned a master's degree in nutrition. It was, she admitted, the American dream of her mother's generation.
But as her 40th birthday approached, she found herself in the throes of a divorce, the mother of two teenage girls.
Now remarried, she looks forward to dividing her retirement between homes in Florida and Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
The youth worship that once defined the boomer generation is giving way to a veneration of the twilight years. Most US media markets have radio stations that play music of the 1960s, and it is impossible to turn on the television in the US without being confronted by images of now wrinkled counter-culture icons fronting advertisements for retirement savings plans.
"It seems that at every age that the baby boomers tended to be is the age that is the age to be," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
"It was the case when they were out at Woodstock protesting. It was the case when they went off to college. It was the case when they started buying their first homes. It was the case when they started going into the stock market in a big way, and it is going to be the case now whether they are going to some new age commune retirement community or taking up new hobbies," he said. "They are certainly going to be at the center, just by virtue of their size."