elderly alone boomersMany research studies over the past years have found a close correlation between social engagement and health. People who have healthy and meaningful connections with others not only live longer but report greater satisfaction and overall happiness. In the senior population, people ages 65 – 85 who have strong family connections, attend religious and community functions and socialize with friends and neighbors are more likely to have positive outlooks on life and less likely to suffer heart disease, drug and alcohol problems, and depression.

We might assume that the baby boom generation, the 1st generation that has known for years of the probability of living well into their 80s and 90s and has never shown any willingness to quietly fade away, would be on the leading edge of social engagement, health, and other measures that relate success in later life. But how is the current baby boom generation actually doing compared to previous generations?

Not so good. The current generation of 55 – 65-year-olds are far less connected socially than earlier generations, according to findings in a new Stanford University Center on Longevity study.  Considering that life expectancy has increased almost 20 years since the World War II “Greatest Generation,” the current cohort of pre-seniors may be looking at many years of increasing isolation. Among the study’s findings, compared to previous generations:

  • Boomers do not have as high a frequency in church or community organization membership
  • Boomers are less likely to be married or in a committed relationship
  • Boomers are much more likely to be living alone
  • Boomers do not live near family in anywhere near the numbers as did the previous generation and report fewer and weaker relationships with family
  • Boomers do not report engagement with friends and neighbors at as high a level

“We were really surprised by the current cohort of 55-to-64-year-olds, part of the baby boom generation. Compared to their cohorts from 20 years ago, they’re much less socially engaged — less likely to be connected to a spouse or partner, family, friends, communities. That was kind of shocking to us that that particular group would be seemingly socially isolated.” said Amy Yotopoulos, director of the Stanford Center.

There are several factors that could explain that not all is gloomy. Social media has taken the place of many of the more traditional ways people interaelderly social media boomersct. Many in this generation are also working longer, as the traditional retirement age of 65 is giving way to new patterns of work in later life. Working longer may thus function as a way of social connection for some.

If boomers continue this pattern of decreasing engagement, social isolation and the related health problems could be an increasing issue in the next decades. But this generation has also shown a particular resilience in problem-solving. As a proud boomer myself, I can easily see new ways of engagement coming as the social and health necessity becomes the mother of community inventions yet to come.

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