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Friday, September 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

As they head into the sunset, nation's boomers are a bust

President George Bush is one. Democratic challenger John Kerry almost is. But neither of them talk about it much.

Funny, one might imagine such a huge bulging demographic cohort would draw more attention, but the candidates are not overtly wooing baby boomers. Now I understand why.

Collectively, we are a great gaggle of civic sloths, whose only commonality is a birthday between 1946 and 1964. Some 77 million boomers are graying at the temples and the advance scouts will turn age 65 in 2011.

If the first rays of boomer retirement are cresting a distant hill, why aren't the candidates talking more about Social Security and retirement risk and finance? Because the system needs serious attention, not platitudes.

Both the Social Security Board of Trustees and the Congressional Budget Office predict the trust fund will run deficits by 2018 or 2019, and be insolvent by 2042 or 2052, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Back in the exuberant stock market of the 2000 campaign, Bush talked about overhauls and changes. In the current doldrums, he is quieter about individual investment accounts within Social Security. Most of privatization is intentionally vague happy talk even supporters acknowledge could cost trillions of dollars in transition.

Kerry is no help either. He mulishly pledges not to change a single thing about the current system, which is as useless as Bush's ode to a Wall Street fantasy.

So where are the hip, happening boomers, the scourges of the establishment? Napping on the La-Z-Boy watching "Seinfeld" re-runs.

A lot of smart folks are starting to think about all the baby boomers reaching retirement age. If their sheer numbers, spending habits, social awareness and consumer tastes changed the country, what will they do to the concept of retirement?

The answer, according to "Reinventing Aging — Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement" might best be described by another question: "What's in it for me?" Nothing new there.

The report by Harvard School of Public Health and the MetLife Foundation is, well, unusually blunt: "By every measure of engagement one can think of, (boomers) do less: They vote less, read newspapers less, are less apt to join churches or civic organizations."

If the do-good community imagines a vast, pent-up sea of potential volunteers, think again. More free time does not produce a greater inclination to volunteer.

The study also makes it plain the connection between the specific age of 65 and retirement continues to erode. But don't read that wrong either. The trend is not toward less work, more leisure and earlier retirement.

Boomers are headed toward their golden-plated years on shakier finances because of the debt and expectations they carry into retirement. Their parents, touched by the Depression and World War II, saved more money and learned to live on less.

Boomers are more likely to leave one job and take another that acts as a bridge into retirement. This is where the vocabulary will get fuzzier over time. Work. Job. Volunteer. Charitable organizations may be paying to attract retirees.

Prime volunteer years are during the busiest times of most adult lives, with heavy job responsibilities and families to raise. Peak volunteer years come through ties at school, work or religious affiliations. Such extensions of family, work and social life are the greatest predictor of volunteer service and they tend to disappear after retirement. Given the boomer profile, that is an especially bad omen for civic engagement.

Even the notion of volunteering is a misnomer. Most people will not volunteer if they are not asked. If they are not in the social, work and civic settings to be asked, they don't step forward on their own. Even that is generational. Boomers' parents volunteered deep into their retirement years.

The stakes here are bigger than boomers belatedly thinking about their economic security, though if they don't become politically aware and noisy, they will be ignored. This election proves that.

The folks who ought to be worried are the people who run nonprofits and charitable groups, the civic glue of any community.

Boomers should be planning to use the next stage of life for the greater good. Instead they will wait to be catered to. Again, nothing new there.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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