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the boomer shift

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Our series The Boomer Shift has focused on the challenges and opportunities the baby boomer generation presents. We asked whether Canada was ready for the growing number of retiring boomers.

But what do the parents of the boomers think? The people who raised them and watched this generation become the wealthiest in history. Here is a message from one parent, 97-year-old Russ Brown. Mr. Brown was born in 1918 in Woodstock, Ont. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and returned to Canada to complete a degree in business from McGill University. He went on to a long career with Bell Canada and raised three children. Casting his thoughts back to the first year of the baby boom, Mr. Brown says it was a time of incredible change.

Uncertainty reigned. It was a mixture of organized confusion. The war was over. Joy and foreboding were there. The troops were coming home. War brides were arriving. The Cold War was just beginning. There were more questions than answers. We were getting back to normal, but what was normal? Would another Depression take over as it did after the First World War?

Everything seemed to be in short supply or just not available. I was looking for a refrigerator. New ones did not exist and finally I found a five-year-old one. Tens of thousands of people were without telephone service. A new Chevrolet could be ordered at the list price of $750 but orders were taken only when $100 was slipped into an outstretched hand.

Back at university after seven years, we had a little three-room apartment. Me on a chair with my feet on the bed and a new baby girl on my lap. With a book in one hand and a bottle of formula in the other, the member of a new generation got fed. It was 1946.

In November, 2015, I quote from Atul Gawande's book Being Mortal: "We are always trotting out some story of a ninety-seven-year old who runs marathons, as if such cases were not biological luck but reasonable expectations for all."

While the age is right, I do not run marathons but agree wholeheartedly with the luck.

The generation that became known as the baby boomers is beginning to retire. It has become famous, or infamous depending on one's perspective, not only because of its large size, but because it introduced a completely new era – recognized as new only after it was happening.

In retrospect the centrepiece of the new era was the pill that offered more sexual freedom to women. It was the kind of freedom men had enjoyed. The prospect of sexual freedom spawned a new spirit, a spirit of rebellion against the old order, the conventions society had imposed. Many had been carried over from the Victorian age.

Everything was questioned, every convention was challenged. Marriage was no longer a licence to share a bed with one's partner. Every custom was subject to challenge and to change.

Racial discrimination was fought throughout the southern United States. On the way to Florida, we saw it and experienced it. Washrooms labelled "Ladies," "Gentlemen" and "Blacks." When we stopped to buy ice cream cones, I walked in the wrong door. The attendant said "I cannot serve you. This is the door for black people." In Florida, blacks had their own beaches – we simply did not see them.

My wife and I were not directly involved in the concerns and tribulations faced by our children. Yet we sensed and were conscious of the issues being faced. We learned from our children and they were good teachers.

Retirement originally referred to a relatively short period for rest and recreation after 30 or 40 years of work. With longer life expectancy owing to medical progress, we are faced with a longer capable life – not a longer retirement.

I would say to the baby boomers that you have more years available for whatever you choose to do – continue your career, seek a new experience. I believe we will go through a period of transition to a longer life, not to a longer retirement. I visualize a completely different pattern for work – with respite holidays every five years or so. Our economy at this point cannot afford to have a large proportion of its population unproductive.

Thanks to saving, investment and good management, the boomers are relatively well off and able to support themselves, perhaps better than any previous senior cohort. That is assuming their entitlements are not withdrawn and the demands of social programs and health care can be met. Ideally this expense could have been covered in a reserve fund accumulated years ago. My generation must assume responsibility for that failure.

The baby boomers have seen economic growth lead to a higher standard of living. They have witnessed great achievements in space, the birth of the Internet and the new world of digital communication. Society has also moved toward a more realistic approach to life and death.

History will salute the baby boomers and I am proud to be a parent.

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