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Baby boomers or bums?

Looking to the '60s generation for lessons on how to plan

By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN

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(CNN) -- In the 1960s and '70s they burned their bras and draft cards, marched on Washington, founded Earth Day and vowed never to trust anyone over the age of 30.

Today, the baby boomers are doing the limbo, dancing wildly and waving their arms in the air to the unintelligible lyrics of "Louie, Louie."

At least that's what they're doing in Portland, Oregon, at the Baby Boomers' Social Club Friday night dance at the Red Lion Hotel.

"We have a live band once a month, and we do all sorts of different dance styles," says Melanie Pedersen, co-founder with Julie Dahlman of the Baby Boomers' Social Club.

"Julie does a wall sweep," Pederson says. "She says, 'come on gals ... go get the guys that are holding up the walls.'"

"You know, we're in our 50s now, so it's okay to ask the guys to dance," Dahlman adds with a laugh.

Indeed, this mammoth generation -- at once lauded for its commitment to social change and derided for its perceived self-indulgence -- has grown up and is now going gray.

So, how did the "Me" generation do for itself? Have the boomers prospered as much as they could have, or did they miss key opportunities to better their nation and their lives?

It depends on whom you ask.

Some experts say the boomers did not plan well for their future, especially their financial futures, relying instead on the whimsy of a historically rosy economic era to carry them along.

Others contend the boomers may have had sound, long-term plans, but were sandbagged by economic and political shifts so dynamic that the boomer generation became preoccupied with adapting to their new world and rewriting the social contracts that bind our nation together, instead of fulfilling long-term financial and personal goals.

"I think they've been baby bummers," says Suze Orman, a personal finance expert and host of her own financial advice television and radio show.

"We are a fascinating generation," she says, admitting that she's a boomer herself. "We're really independent and free-thinking," but from a financial perspective, "we did not save money, and we loved to spend money. Many of (the boomers) were saved by the real estate markets, and their wealth was created for them; they did not create it themselves."

Another expert takes a gentler view.

"Various rugs have been pulled out from under this generation," says Leonard Steinhorn, an associate professor at American University and author of the book, "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy."

Steinhorn points out that the deindustrialization of the economy, the loss of job security and an erosion of trust in authority figures challenged this generation as no preceding generation had been.

America swells with baby fever

"You have to put it in context," he says. "Boomers have had to adapt to a changing landscape throughout their entire lives. They've had to adapt to new technology and learn how to base an economy on it."

Born between 1946 and 1964, 78 million babies flourished in the optimism of post-World War II America.

The boomers were more educated than any previous generation in American history; and thanks, in part, to advances in medical care, they are projected to live longer than any generation before them.

This generation grew up reading Mad magazine and thumbing through Joseph Heller's ironic tome, "Catch-22."

The boomers so influenced American culture that in 1966, Time magazine broke with tradition and selected the baby boomer generation instead of an individual in its Man of the Year place of honor.

"It was the dawn of the baby boom era, when the Greatest Generation felt secure in its authority, but Time understood how boomers were about to shake up the sediments of American life," Steinhorn writes.

Indeed, the boomers would go on to challenge almost every facet of their parents' lives.

Steinhorn points out how this generation embraced multiculturalism and diversity like never before, making discrimination in the workplace against women and minorities illegal. Boomers listened to the disparate voices of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan. And environmental causes gained steam under the boomers' stewardship; suddenly, being "green" was hip.

But the seismic social and economic shifts took a toll on a generation intent on forging their own path.

The boomer divorce rate is triple that of their parents' generation, according to Ken Gronbach, author of "Common Census: The Counter-Intuitive Guide to Generational Marketing."

"They got married, they got divorced and half their money goes out the window," says Orman, who hears from many divorced boomers on her shows. She worries that starting over financially in mid-life may be too difficult for some.

Orman also chides the boomer generation for allowing precious health care and retirement benefits to erode on their watch.

"It's a serious bummer of a situation," she says. "We have a generation that has to pay for health insurance and retirement themselves. One day Toto is going to come in and pull back the curtain and we'll see just how bad it is."

Steinhorn isn't sure blame for a failing health care system and upended retirement benefits can be levied against one generation.

"The economy changed under their feet. I don't think we've figured out how to deal with the changing economy as of yet," he says.

"Is not dealing with health care reform a boomer failing?" Steinhorn asks. "Were the founders a failed generation because they didn't deal with slavery? Is the World War II generation a failed generation because they took a pass on social issues? You have to put it in context," he says.

Orman worries that boomers approaching retirement age may be getting concerned about their financial health too late to fix the problem.

"We keep thinking that time is on our side. We don't look our age and we don't feel our age," she says. "Boomers don't think they'll get ill. But now they are approaching 60, and I'm beginning to hear them get a little worried."

Like many of her baby boomer peers, Dahlman says she worries about retirement.

"I planned a little bit, but I went off on a lark -- a couple of marriages that didn't work," she says.

Dahlman says she is considering a communal living arrangement when she goes to retire, a cheaper option that will still keep her engaged in life and less isolated.

"As a single person, why do I need to have my own home and shoulder that responsibility?" she says.

Always innovative, the baby boomer generation promises to upend ideas of conventional retirement just as, in their youth, they re-tooled American society.

"There will be no quiet retirements," Dahlman says, "Our party is just beginning."

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