About 4.1 million members of Generation X will turn 50 this year, joining another 4.4 million who reached this age in 2015.   The nation’s 62 million Gen Xers, who demographers and commentators say were born from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, have generally garnered less attention than the previous baby boom generation, so it is not surprising that many have failed to notice this demographic milestone.

One organization that has been paying attention is AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), which lobbies to improve the lives of senior citizens. It has been closely scrutinizing Gen Xers and looking at ways they could change Americans’ conceptions of aging. 

“We are looking at them a little differently,” explains Nancy McPherson, AARP’s California state director. “They are having more fiscal responsibilities than prior or even future generations, financially supporting their children who are returning home, and they are providing care for their aging parents.”

For this reason, and because Gen Xers will be living longer, McPherson says many will continue to work past traditional retirement age. According to an AARP-sponsored survey of Gen Xers, 56 percent feel overwhelmed by financial burdens, with only 35 percent confident they’ll have enough money to live the life they want during retirement. 

In addition, only 34 percent believe that Medicare will be around and just 24 percent say that Social Security will be available to them as it is to current retirees. 

Above all, it seems, Gen Xers are health conscious, with 56 percent taking an active role in their overall wellbeing. Most 50-year-olds expect to live another 30 years or more, which is why they are increasing their longevity by maintaining good health and a balanced diet.

While the fate of Gen Xers is important, it’s equally worthwhile to know a little bit about generations that came before and those to come, and what the little ones of today might face as they age into adulthood and beyond.

Explosive Growth

Our story begins with “the Greatest Generation,” a phrase coined by Tom Brokaw to describe those who endured the hardships of the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to well into the start of World War II in Europe. That conflict formally began for the United States with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, followed shortly thereafter by a declaration of war against the US issued by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. By then, 1939 to 1941, Germany had invaded Poland and occupied France, as well as much of Western continental Europe, save Great Britain. This is the same generation that fought in that two-front war and made extraordinary sacrifices for the sake of future generations; hence, they have been dubbed the greatest of all.

It seems no sooner was the last shot fired than the world saw a steep surge in procreative activities, resulting in a veritable explosion of births between the years 1946 and 1964. Hence the term “baby boomers,” or those who are now between the ages of 51 and 70.

During this time, starting in 1946, those who had postponed marriage and childbirth during the Great Depression and World War II were being joined by young adults, many of them war veterans, in starting families. In 1940, reports history.com, “the average American woman got married when she was almost 22 years old. In 1956, the average American woman got married when she was just 20. And just 8 percent of married women in the 1940s opted not to have children, compared to 15 percent in the 1930s.”

Twenty percent more babies were born in 1946 than the previous year — a total of 3.4 million infants, the site states. Another 3.8 million babies were born in 1947, and in 1952 another 3.9 million babies were born. “[M]ore than 4 million were born every year from 1954 until 1964, when the boom finally tapered off,” the site states, for a total of 76.4 million baby boomers — 40 percent of the US population. By 2030, about one in five Americans will be older than 65.

Generations X, Y and Z (Millennials)

Gen Xers, are little harder to define than baby boomers. In fact, says Philip Bump, writing for the Atlantic Wire, boomers are the only generation to which the US Census Bureau actually assigns a name. 

“I think the boundaries end up getting drawn to some extent by the media, and the extent to which people accept them or not varies by the generation,” Tom DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, told Bump in 2014. “I actually haven’t seen efforts to document [generations] rigorously, and I would be somewhat skeptical that they can be documented rigorously.”

According to Paul Taylor, executive vice president for special projects at the Pew Research Center, Gen Xers range in age from 34 to 49. And, Taylor writes, there are fewer of them, 65 million compared to nearly 77 million boomers and an estimated 83 million millennials, or Generations Y and Z, “assuming a roughly 20-year age span and including those who have yet to reach adulthood,” Taylor writes.

Gen Xers don’t easily fit into the metrics used to characterize generations which usually include racial and ethnic makeup; political, social and religious values; economic and educational circumstances; and technology usage, Taylor writes.

“For example,” he states, “over the course of their voting lives, older Gen Xers have tended to be more Republican than both older boomers and younger millennials. Also, Xers are more pessimistic than both of those larger generations that they’ll have enough money for their retirement — though some of that negativity is doubtless tied to the economic stresses of middle age.”

Preparing for the Future

Baby boomer Akila Gibbs, executive director of the Pasadena Senior Center, notes that “being in shape is really important to Gen Xers.” 

This generation also got married and had children later in life than baby boomers like her. “My generation had to get married by 25,” she says. “These kids are holding off on getting married and having kids.”

Gibbs, who is 64, says baby boomers have already begun changing traditional notions of aging. 

“When my grandmother was in her 60s, she wore a housedress and never went outside the house. … She was totally resigned to her family and doing everything for her family. I look at my mom, who is 85 and went to nursing school at 50. I know my grandmother would have never done that.

“My whole idea about aging is that I’m working out five days a week,” Gibbs said. “Neither my mother nor grandmother would have ever broken a sweat, let alone gone out wearing spandex in public.” 

The Pasadena Senior Center has altered its programs to appeal to baby boomers. “When I first got here, I felt that we had classes that catered to a little bit of an older generation,” says Gibbs. The center added exercise classes, like Zumba, Pilates, yoga and tai chi, as well as courses in French, Spanish, acting, relaxation, nutrition, chess and using an iPad. 

Gibbs wants to start another class to prepare Gen Xers for getting older. That course would include discussions about estate planning and taking care of elderly parents. Gen Xers, she adds, need to know “what retirement means to them. People push that question off; they don’t want to think about it. But what does that mean? How do you see yourself in retirement? What do you want to do? What kind of older person do you want to be?”

“This is a really good time to get older,” she says. “This is probably the best time to age because there are so many of us aging at one time.”

And the number of elderly people will only get larger, according to McPherson, who says more than 27 percent of Californians are now 50 years of age or older. That number will grow to 35 percent by 2020 and will more than double in 2060. This growth, she says, is “something public policymakers will have to address.” The increase in senior citizens will necessitate a need for more support services and an improved transportation infrastructure for people who no longer drive. Provisions for long-term care for seniors will also have to expand and will need to be offered at prices affordable to low- to moderate-income Californians.

AARP, she adds, “really wants to challenge stereotypes about aging,” in part by raising awareness about the wisdom and experience of older people. This includes altering perceptions of the “longevity economy,” by demonstrating how older adults contribute to sustaining communities by performing paid or volunteer employment. Elder people, she maintains, are “not a drain” on the economy, but are “an important part of the fabric of our community. They are vibrant and engaged.”