They called themselves Gray Panthers, the Gray Power Movement and other names denoting people over age 65 who banded together for political purposes. Their issues included mandatory retirement, Social Security, taxes, healthcare, fairness in housing, nursing home regulation . . . and they became a powerful lobbying and voter block in every state.
The New York Times in 1977 wrote about the surging power of the elderly, who then comprised only one in 10 Americans. Today, the Census Bureau estimates 47.8 million—or 14.9 percent of the total population—is over age 65. With the addition of Baby Boomers, the age 65 and older segment grew by 1.6 million from 2014 to 2017.
A national population projection forecasts 98.2 million senior citizens by 2060.
Many significant characteristics are shared in the senior population. The segment includes a high percentage of voters, veterans, church-goers, retired business, professional, government and union people, experts on healthcare, Social Security and Medicare, folks who understand economics and budgeting and individuals who aren’t afraid to speak up.
Something new is happening to senior citizens these days. It wasn’t predicted back in the 1970s when gray-haired political groups fought for changes to laws that discriminated against the elderly. Many probably didn’t understand the significance of senior folks patrolling the aisles of Walmart, grocery stores or home improvement chains. They are seeing the tip of an iceberg that instead of melting is growing in size.
People age 65 and over are getting back into the job market in a big way. Some have been forced back to work because their retirement income is insufficient. Others take jobs to offset rising healthcare costs. The wrinkle, however, is that many have chosen to rejoin the nine-to-fivers.
Overall, the movement is called the Gray Wave. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says labor participation is expected to increase rapidly for older segment of the population. The reason? All of the above and, according to the World Economic Forum, because people live longer but continue to learn.
They desire to be independent, productive and contribute to society. Work gives meaning to their lives, so senior citizens are entering the job market in unprecedented numbers, surprising even professional recruiters. Seasoned, experienced with tried-and-true work ethics, senior workers have shifted a long-held employment paradigm.
I address this subject because I am a Baby Boomer and senior citizen. Although retired, my life is busier than when I was an employee, working for a bi-weekly paycheck. I write (freelance, columns and fiction) edit, publish and provide business communication consulting services. Often, my workday starts at 4 a.m. and doesn’t end until after dark.
The foregoing statement is not boast but meant to preface my next words. For every Baby Boomer (whether they’ve returned to work or not) who felt insulted by the recent meme “OK boomer” that went viral and sparked a generational feud, please consider the following opinion about what the words might have meant.
To many senior citizens, the meme came across as dismissive, disrespectful: what children might say to their parents or grandparents. Instead, I believe “Ok Boomer” simply repeats the tried-and-true strategy of younger people when dealing with folks much older and separated from them by societal change.
Hey, oldsters realize when they’re being patronized—and I for one understand. Did the same thing when I was a whippersnapper and young adult. Time passed; I reached middle age and realized my father was smart, skilled, hard-working, dedicated to his family and nation (WW II combat vet) and a better man than any I had ever met.
He retired but remained self-employed through his 60s and 70s. My younger brothers and I could not keep up with him. However, when he expounded on the virtues of his generation and the keys to success we should pursue, we tended to tune him out after a while. “OK, Greater” could have been our response.
This is why I wasn’t particularly bothered by meme others thought controversial. It seems, at the root, a quick way to end a debate that neither generational side can win: namely, what’s the best way to achieve your dreams? Doesn’t matter, as long as you do.
Another factor diminishing my reaction is understanding the power of the new Gray Wave because I am part of it. Here’s the thing—I love working with the young people employed by my clients. It’s exciting to teach them the ropes and watch their development. They’re building on our advice but taking their own steps.
Their respect is tangible. They truly appreciate what I bring to the table. I take no offense at being called “old man” or “gramps” because, in my opinion, this is a unique opportunity for generational networking. Gray-wavers are passing on their career experiences and knowledge. The recipients of this information transfer thereby realize what we’ve done, how we persevered and, importantly, on whom we patterned ourselves.
Maybe—just maybe—our nation will become stronger and more resilient because of these new generational links.
ν Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor. He resides in Tennessee.