The Road Ahead: A Boomer's Guide To Happiness

The 50 thing started hitting Kate Donohue at 49.5. "I don't want to be that old," says the San Francisco psychologist. "It's a half century." But when the big day came in January, Donohue decided to see it as a chance to fix the things in her life she didn't like. She made three resolutions: to worry less, to "make more space" for herself by not being so busy and to be more adventurous--more like the woman she was in her 20s and 30s when she routinely set off on solo trekking and biking trips. In August, she will head off to Africa to learn more about West African dance, a longtime passion. Procrastination is not an option. Her 83-year-old father is in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease; her mother, 79, is active but suffers from a heart condition and glaucoma. "Seeing my parents get so tiny is the way it hits me," Donohue says. "How many more years do I have?"

For so long, the generation born between 1946 and 1964 (an estimated 78 million Americans) has been in collective denial as the years added up. Boomers couldn't be getting older--although, amazingly, everyone else seemed to. But while they're still inclined to moments of self-delusion ("No one would ever guess that I'm 50"), they can no longer escape intimations of their own mortality. The oldest boomers will turn 55 next year, an age when many people begin thinking seriously about retirement. Even the youngest members of this overchronicled cohort are on the cusp of Grecian Formula time.

Their own parents are aging and dying, making many of them the elders in their families. "There's the feeling that you're the next in line, and there's nothing between you and the abyss," says Linda Waite, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. When they look in the mirror, they see gray hair and wrinkles. Their bodies are beginning to creak and they're worried that all those years of avoiding the gym and stuffing their faces with Big Macs may add up.

At work, they're feeling the threat of a new generation fluent in technology and willing to work 24/7. Corporate America seems to value experience less, and has come to view older workers in the same way investors view Old Economy stocks: sure, they perform at a steady pace, but these younger, untested companies/employees have so much potential.

But don't expect boomers to go quietly into boring and predictable senescence. They're likely to transform the last decades of life just as they have already demolished other conventional milestones. There are 50-year-olds lugging toddlers and 40-year-olds retiring early after cashing out piles of dot-com stock. Settling down is anathema. Boomers switch jobs, and even careers (not to mention spouses) in a never-ending search for fulfillment. "The first generation to grow up with remote controls, we invented channel-surfing and attention-deficit living," says journalist Michael Gross in his new book, "My Generation." "That taught us to be infinitely adaptable, even in the baby-boom cliche of 'diminished expectations'."

It helps that they're better educated and richer than previous generations and, as their parents die, expected to benefit from the largest transfer of inherited wealth in history. In a new nearly half of all boomers said their personal financial situation was "good" or "excellent." Unlike their parents, they don't have to rely on Social Security or limited pensions. A healthy economy and a strong stock market give them new options as they phase out of full-time employment. They may decide to freelance, work part time or start their own companies.

At the same time, they're likely to embrace their more spiritual side, motivated by a need to give back--an echo of the anti-materialism of the '60s. Marialice Harwood, 53, a marketing executive with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, had her moment of reckoning three years ago when her brother, then 51, died of a heart attack. "My faith is more important to me," says Harwood, a Roman Catholic. "I care about different things." She's downsized to a town house now that her kids are grown and, although she intends to work until she's 65, "when I retire, I don't see myself in a resort community. I see myself in the inner city working with kids. That's my dream."

California gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, who has written extensively about boomers, says many "will age rebelliously," resisting stereotypes and convention. Paul Fersen celebrated turning 50 by getting a tattoo and putting down a deposit on a Harley. "I always wanted a tattoo and I got one, a striped bass," says Fersen, a marketing manager for Orvis, the fly-fishing outfitters based in Manchester, Vt. But that's just one of the changes he sees in his future. "Some people say my job could be voted best on the planet," Fersen says, given that he gets paid for fishing all over the country. But, he says, "I'm still working for somebody else." He has a quieter, more independent vision for his future: "There's a little country store in the next town. It's got two gas pumps and it's a deer weigh-in station. It's the main focal point of the town. I'd like to finish out my days by owning that store."

While their parents--seared by the Depression and war--craved security, boomers have always embraced the new and the unknown. Boomer women, in particular, have learned to march ahead without a road map. "Ours was the generation that broke the rules," says Jeanne Giordano, 51, an urban planner in Manhattan. "Anything was possible. You could speak back to your parents. You didn't have to get married." She found meaning in her work, including designing the master plan for the restoration of Grand Central Terminal. Now, like many boomers, she's thinking closer to home. "What I would like is to have a relationship that takes me into my final chapters," she says. "I no longer look at it as an imposition. The one thing I haven't done is rely on someone, trust someone to be a part of my life."

Unfinished business is a persistent theme. Dreams interrupted or delayed, regrets about relationships that fizzled. Staring at the abyss, many boomers are reordering their priorities. "You recognize that life is really very short," says Terry Patten, 49. In 1998 he sold his company, Tools for Exploration, and he's now working out of his house in Marin County, Calif., writing a book on improving intelligence. His marriage of 22 years broke up three years ago but he's committed to a new, "wonderful, loving" relationship. He's doing yoga, lifting weights and running. Like many boomers, he's also a prodigious consumer of products that claim to extend life and takes 25 supplements, including DHEA. Says Patten, "I'm just trying to optimize my quality of life as I embrace the inevitable." In other words, going out with a bang--and just a little bit of a whimper.