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GRAYING OF HAWAII | PART 1


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Boomers to remain politically powerful

By Michael Tsai

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:01 p.m. HST, Nov 18, 2010


When Paul McCartney asked the musical question, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" he likely had no idea how profound his sing-song query might one day seem to the Beatles' legions of baby boomer fans.

The eldest of America's largest generation are, in fact, 64 right now.

Next year, when they initiate the mass boomer crossover to traditional retirement age, they should expect not a birthday greeting nor bottle of wine, but a collective groan as lawmakers, younger taxpayers and others confront the long-anticipated fallout of a historic shift in population demographics. People age 65 and older are expected by 2020 to account for one-fifth of the total state population, up from 15 percent this year. That figure could rise to 23 percent by 2030.

The community will certainly "need" skilled baby boomer workers to continue working, at least for a decade or so, to minimize the expected experience gap in key industries and to soften the blow to Hawaii's tax base.

Today

» Graying of Hawaii
» Boomers to remain politically powerful

Tomorrow

» Over extended families: Hawaii's high costs and healthful living mean that more senior citizens will be cared for at home.
» Helping hands: Counseling and advice are available for at-home caregivers.

Wednesday

» Booming costs: Hawaii is unprepared for the costly combination of more retirees and fewer workers to support them.
» Keep working: By choice or necessity, many boomers will postpone their retirement.

Thursday

» Unhealthy debt: The state has put aside nothing for the expected $10.8 billion in health care costs for government retirees.
» Changing care: Hawaii's future health care will feature more technology, fewer doctors.

To be sure, the government will find a way to "feed" the thousands of boomers who rely heavily on entitlement programs to make ends meet in Hawaii.

But it is no sure thing that other needs or wants of the senior population -- universal long-term care, assisted-living facilities, upgrades to infrastructure -- can or will be satisfied.

At least without a fight.

At 80 million strong, the baby boom generation is the largest in American history. However, the Millennial generation, made up of those born between 1981 and 2006, is nearly as big -- 78 million -- and will have its own distinct set of political and social priorities as it matures through child-bearing age and beyond.

"This is likely an issue -- the conflict between young and old for diminishing resources," said Jim Dator, a University of Hawaii professor of political science and director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies. "However, Millennials are not as selfish as Generation X, and they may be more inclined to share with the elderly."

Maybe.

State Rep. Marcus Oshiro, chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he already sees signs of conflicting priorities. "On one hand you have people who are asking for funding for preschool or A+ or other programs that serve children and families," he said. "But then you have people who may be retired who are more concerned with health care or drug costs."

Boomers are not likely to fade into political irrelevance as they age. Politicized in their young adulthood by the civil rights and women's movements, Watergate, the second Hawaiian renaissance and other historical turning points, boomers have retained their taste for political activism and could evolve into an even more powerful voting bloc if galvanized behind a set of common age-related issues.

According to AARP, people age 50 and older already constitute the largest voting population in Hawaii and across the country. AARP claims a membership of nearly 150,000 members in Hawaii, and a July poll indicated that 98 percent of respondents intended to vote this year (95 percent said they voted in 2008). In that survey, respondents identified the economy (27 percent), health care (24 percent) and retirement (13 percent) as their top priorities. Education ranked fourth at 11.5 percent.

"Boomers are politically potent because they actually get out and vote," Oshiro said. "They carry greater political clout than the younger generation, which is not as active."

Continued political apathy by Millennials coupled with the eventual dying off of the Traditionalist generation (those born between 1925 and 1945) could leave boomers as the deciding voice on issues that have festered for decades. For example, some observers believe the boomers' more liberal stance on drugs may lead to eventual legalization of marijuana for more than just medical purposes. Dator said boomers also may be willing to consider legalizing assisted suicide as they face their own mortality.

"Assisted suicide will be more of an issue as a larger senior population considers quality of life," Dator said. "If life is not worth living, many will want to die with dignity. The financial burden of taking care of the elderly -- end of life is a major expense -- could make society more willing to say OK."

Whatever issues prove most unifying for the boomers, the impact of their political action will, by virtue of their numbers, be widely felt.

AARP Hawaii director Barbara Kim Stanton said the boomers are already a uniquely potent political force in Hawaii. Progressive in their politics yet increasingly protective of the assets they have worked to accrue, they take a pragmatic, community-minded approach to political issues, she said.

"With age comes perspective, and these boomers are very savvy because they've seen it all already," Stanton said. "They know what they've fought for, they know enough to know what the stakes are and they are used to taking action."

Stanton said those qualities will be important on an individual basis as boomers increasingly find themselves in competition with younger people and with each other for scarce resources. Stanton said there are already critical shortages in staffing, services, facilities and programs for older people -- "and the big rush hasn't even started yet."

Stanton said those with ample financial resources will be able to determine their own destiny, while those who do not (the majority, according to U.S. Census data) will face difficult choices in how and where they will be able to live.

Such a grim scenario is likely to mobilize boomers to act collectively and demand that lawmakers make the accommodations necessary to assure their dignity, liberty and survival.

"We're talking about 1 in every 4 people who is going to be part of this group," Stanton said. "Just by virtue of their numbers, anything they do is going to have an impact.

"We can see the aging tsunami," she said, "and it's coming this January."






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