Anxiety and Hope in the Lives of Baby Boomers: Beginning a Conversation

[1] The need for responding to fearful narratives of aging has never been greater. Very large numbers of baby boomers are beginning to retire.[1] As those born between 1946 and 1964 move into their seniority, they are often impacted by negative scripts that can easily lead to heightened anxiety, feelings of meaninglessness, and despair. The task for Lutheran ethics in this (crisis) context is to provide a more complex, faith-filled narrative. To do so, it is important to begin a conversation around how we might best articulate the hope that is ours in Christ as it intersects with the context in which this cohort group is aging.

What do Baby Boomers Worry About?

[2] Anxieties resulting from social, financial and physical challenges as people grow old are nothing new. Ageism, for example, has long contributed to diminished feelings of personal worth and agency[2]. Poverty in the elderly, especially in women, has been a problem since biblical days[3], and chronic difficulties related to physical decline are timeless. Boomers are beginning to share these and other difficulties endured by the generation before them. The constant media overemphasis on youth and on maintaining an attractive (especially for women) and powerful (especially for men) body can lead, in the later years, to feelings of invisibility at best and shame at worst. Because of social security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, many seniors today are escaping extreme poverty, but sharply rising costs of health care threaten to force an increasing number of vulnerable seniors into making unacceptable choices, such as between buying medicine or paying for heat. Financial worries have moved into the middle class as well, and only the most privileged retiring baby boomer can avoid worrying about money to some degree. These concerns lead to anxiety, but also to resentment.[4]

[3] There are, however, aging-related factors facing this cohort unlike those in the past. In spite of their great diversity, baby boomers and their buying potential have inspired marketing researchers to search for patterns in boomers’ personality traits and for the cultural forces they create and are created by. There is currently a “wealth of demographic and psychographic data on the baby boomer generation,” albeit unorganized and largely atheoretical.[5] The great numbers in this population group excite marketers, but baby boomers themselves have an opposite response to their demographics—the very fact that there are so many of them creates an environment of competition, a battle they have faced throughout life (for jobs, scholarships, etc.). Now this struggle for resources has begun to move into their retirement experience, and contributes to a negative narrative of competition and scarcity.[6]

[4] Boomers’ high expectations, especially for comfort and wealth, are often noted. Popular opinion is that these expectations developed because boomers were born into a time of great national prosperity[7]. In a context where politicians and economists repeatedly predict future scarcity, the “credit card generation[8]” is likely to be both worried and resentful. The capacity for patient suffering, an important trait as physical decline begins, may also be less readily available in a group that has not experienced a tremendous crisis, such as the Great Depression or a world war.[9]

[5] Boomers like being in control. They like making their own choices. This characteristic is frequently noted by those in the “aging enterprise” who want to design their aging services around boomer preferences.[10] But even if designer nursing homes are created, old age inevitably leads to decreased personal control—over body, over the ability to drive, and even over whom to count on to be there when frailty and vulnerability appear.

[6] Boomers are also facing complex social and economic trends beyond their control, including a shrinking global economy, sharp declines in the value of their real estate, and drastic changes in their stock portfolios. They are aware of escalating health care costs at the very time when they are beginning to have increased needs for medical service and prescription drugs. Urbanization, a master trend of the 20th century, has also had a price–boomers have lived during a time of increased isolation and cultural rootlessness.[11] They tend to be more private and less connected to extended family. at least in terms of physical proximity. Even if aging boomers live near their adult children, both husband and wife most likely work outside the home. “Who will take care of me” may not have an obvious answer and is a realistic source of concern.

[7] Boomers tend to be passive about social issues, especially the “later boomers.”[12] Perhaps this is because these complex problems cannot be fixed with simple solutions. The protest marches or social movements (civil rights, anti-war, etc.) this generation employed when young, albeit with limited success, no longer seem useful. This tendency leaves boomers feeling less effective, and thus more anxious.

[8] Complicating matters still further is the resentment towards baby boomers from two sides. Some older adults born before 1946 write of how they dread growing old beside boomers, putting up with their “rock music and pot smoking. Again!”[13] while younger persons lament the perceived selfishness of their parents’ generation. Boomers will require high utilization of social security and health care funds, thus depleting resources needed by future generations of retirees.[14] To the extent that boomers experience worry and moral conflict about these realities, or suffer from being cared for by children who resent them, their anxiety will increase.

[9] Taken together, these characteristics and trends combine to create a perfect storm[15] of anxiety that threatens the peace and security in the personal or communal lives of those now entering the last third of life.

[10] However, there are also characteristics of boomers and of their complex context that lead gerontologists to see their future more positively. This generation is highly educated and more expertly trained than ever before. They have more general knowledge and technical expertise than their parents, and more interest in continuing their education after retirement. Education and experience helps persons of all ages to think creatively as they attempt to solve life problems, including those described above.

[11] A second cause for positive thinking is the existence of the World Wide Web. Even though many boomers are socially isolated and boom-barded with a confusing array of information, the internet is an amazing resource that almost all boomers have embraced as part of their daily lives. The internet provides social links with friends and family, information enabling people to be informed consumers (including of medical care), and support for adults who share common problems. Best of all, from an ethical perspective, it raises awareness of social problems (e.g. senior hunger) and brings together those who want to solve these problems (e.g. work on hunger by the ELCA[16] and the National Council on Aging[17]).

[12] The increase in ethnic diversity in the American population is also a cause for optimism. As more immigrants come to our country, we are enriched by their unique gifts. As a seminary professor, I found myself grateful for the fresh perspectives and biblically-grounded faith of the second career international students I taught. Baby boomers are not all American born—in fact, almost 4 million of them are immigrants.

[13] Boomers are not uniformly self-absorbed. They are also concerned, to varying degrees, about coming generations, particularly about the sustainability of the earth (unlike many members of Gen X).[18] Here, as with other pressing problems, the sheer number of boomers can have a positive impact if they are motivated to demand changes in how we use global resources and care for the earth.

[14] Boomers resist the idea of being labeled “old,” which can work in both positive and negative directions. They rightly perceive aging as a continuous process of change beginning at conception, and they prefer “cognitive age”[19] (you are as old as you think) to rigid chronological designations. Experts suggest that many boomers feel as much as 15 years younger than did people the same age a generation ago. They are a creative bunch and have “a desire to explore themselves and their world.”[20]

[15] Finally, gerontologists predict that physical vulnerabilities will be delayed for many in the boomer generation because of their commitment to exercise and a healthy diet. This pattern may be a two edged sword, however. For when disabilities do arrive, as they inevitably will, these vulnerabilities are likely to be difficult to accept by those who have spent long hours in the gym and believe that a combination of exercise and medical technology can solve all ills.

Hope and Baby Boomers

[16] The optimism outlined above is certainly good news, but what does all of this have to do with hope? Hope is understood here, after Bonhoeffer, as throwing ourselves into the arms of Christ while living completely in this world with its problems and duties. Bonhoeffer understood those duties as taking seriously both our own sufferings and those of God.[21] My past research with Lutheran men and women suggests that Christian hope, a highly relational construct and a gift of the Holy Spirit, is a force for resiliency in the presence of aging-related fears. The sixteen Lutheran elders I interviewed in the United States and Germany did not deny the aging-related problems they share with all human beings. Instead, they have learned to live with them while remaining hopeful. Hope, for these spiritually resilient elders, is tied up with spiritual community, which is the location where they learned to place self in the background and compassion for others in the foreground. [22] These older Lutherans were simply too busy caring for others to worry over much about themselves.

[17] My research, like most current work in religion and aging, was with a different population, and I often wonder if these same hopeful habits will also be chosen by those in the boomer generation that is so often described as self-absorbed. They will certainly need them—for even those who are spiritually resilient experience debilitating anxiety from time to time. Hope is necessary because fear is a part of the human condition. Although the roots of fear are culturally disguised across history, the fruits of hope, including peace and the ability to care for others, are timeless. These fruits transform the landscape of our lives, at any age and in any condition. The Church has always understood its task as the embodiment of a particular hope, and this is certainly not the first complex and dangerous environment in which a generation of Christians matured. Hope will be sufficient for the faithful in this generation just as it has been for all others. “O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?” Psalm 56: 3-4.

[18] I have come to believe that hope permeates our past, present and future. Although hope is often considered a resource for the future, aging persons need hope to heal the past, provide strength for the present, and empower us to work towards a more secure and peaceful future.

[19] Hope heals the past by joining with forgiveness. It is the sole way people move out of events that cannot be changed.[23] In a generation that has often been described as self-indulgent, and at a time of great confusion in social roles and family structures (e.g. high divorce rates), the Lutheran emphasis on a just but forgiving God provides precisely the message of forgiveness needed by the generation now moving into retirement—namely, the assurance that they can confess their sin, turn around, and move out of stuck stories of hurt and resentment. Only forgiveness permits human beings to claim the freedom that is a gift in Christ and find the energy to work for a just tomorrow. I am convinced, from both my clinical and research experiences, that the ability to forgive and be forgiven is a crucial ingredient in living a resilient life. Lutheran theology must consistently pull together the treasure present in the doctrine of justification with the continuing need to live out of Christian hope.

[20] “Forgiveness enables people to go on together. So, too, does promise keeping.” Jewish theologian Alan Mittleman envisions every hope- filled moment as an opening onto eternity, thus offering a sacred possibility for communion with the divine. He believes that a hopeful life “must be structured so as to express the deepest commitments of faith at every turn.[24]” As a Jew, this ethical response is structural, and primarily formed by a “sacred mode of life in the present.” [25] As a Christian, I deeply appreciate this vision, but I would also speak of my life as part of The Body of Christ. That is the location where the miracle of hope occurs—life together fills each moment of the present with new possibilities for ethical actions. In the Church the word of a forgiven past and a secure future is proclaimed, renewing and increasing our energy for service to others.

[21] In the lives of Christians in the baby boomer generation, this may take the form of new vocational directions. As they leave the work force and begin to retire, or as they find time for pro-bono work, boomers have an opportunity to embrace new and more ethical opportunities. Research shows that although some boomers cannot retire as early as their parents, this may sometimes be a blessing, since boomers are highly interested in finding new and more meaningful work,[26] whether paid or unpaid. Here Christian theology has a marvelous opportunity to use vocational language to assist boomers who are still working, as well as those who are beginning to volunteer, to understand their work vocationally. The men and women I met in my research who had a sense of being called in their later years tended to be far less focused on self, and more engaged in work that contributed to building up the Kingdom. Boomers want to help, suggests researchers, but even volunteers are demanding more meaningful tasks.[27] As one recent article put it, “everyone is beginning to realize that not all volunteering requires painting.” Will the Church be flexible enough to respond to a changing temperament in this generation—one that appears more excited about mentoring and consulting than about traditional volunteer tasks?

[22] While hope permeates the future as well as the past and present, it does not clear away all anxieties. Although we hope for a future in which we can live to the fullest as we anticipate a blessed end, there is an “in-spite-of” nature to Christian hope that speaks to the intractable problems facing the boomer generation. Like Christian saints before them, they, too, must learn to combine hope with imagination, courage, and respect for others, all the while knowing that the future will be constricted in some ways and inevitably bring a degree of loss and suffering. Christian hope has nothing to do with denying the realities of growing old, or with the tendency to romanticize aging so popular in the self-help literature. Denial strategies are simply manifestations of the tendency to view older people as “other”—they are a kind of reverse ageism. Like denial, defensive thinking about aging cannot ultimately be reconciled with real-life experiences nor with biblical narratives. Denial offers no genuine hope to anyone. Here again Lutheran theology, with its insistence on balancing destiny and freedom, suffering and redemption, can inform conversations about aging and hope. As we extend ourselves towards what God has promised,[28] we move beyond optimism and its limiting wishes to participate in work that gives a hopeful structure to all of life.


[23] There is obviously a great need to explore these and a great many other important issues that work against hope in the lives of baby boomers. Christian theology needs to work towards deeper understanding of the current context, relentlessly and sensitively confess universal, hope-giving truths, and boldly integrate the two. Like Luther, we must acknowledge present suffering and fears (not finding ourselves surprised by them), list demonic adversaries that instill fear and despair, and continue to remind those who age that everything that happens to the individual Christian, including grief and anxiety, has already been experienced by Christ.[29]

[24] This theological task suggests that, in creating a new, more nuanced and hopeful narrative for persons in the generation now approaching the last third of life, the church is best served by beginning to name their particular sufferings and fears. The church is well served, also, by forming partnerships with scholars in the social sciences, and with diverse organizations that strive towards creative solutions to aging-related problems. Above all, the church must hold fast to the treasure that is the Christian story. Only through the hard work of integration of social context and eternal truth can boomers remain anchored in the Body of Christ, where the promises of God are not only proclaimed but embodied.


[1] On January 2, 2011, the first wave of baby boomers turned 65. At 79.6 million, this is the largest cohort in American history.

[2] Janet L Ramsey, “Problems or Partners? Senior Adults and a New Story for Pastoral Care,” in Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care, ed. A. Kujawa-Holbrook & K. B. Montagno (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009) 227–236.

[3]Gornick, Janet C., “Income, Assets, and Poverty: Older Women in Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Women, Politics and Policy 30, no.2-3 (2009) 272-300.

[4] Achenbaum, W. Andrew, “A Boomer at Risk: A Tale in Personal, Cohort, and Historic Perspective,” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 33, no. 3 (2009) 95-99.

[5] Lipschultz, Jeremy H., Hilt, Michael L., and Reilly, Hugh J. “Organizing the Baby Boomer Construct: An Exploration of Marketing, Social Systems, and Culture,” Educational Gerontology 33, no. 9 (2007) 770.9

[6] Longino, Charles F. “The Future of Ageism: Baby Boomers at the Doorstep,” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 29, no.3 (2005) 79-83.

[7] Lipschultz, Hilt, and Reilly, “Organizing,” 759-773.

[8] This label may soon be lost since GenXers are now using credit cards even more frequently than boomers. Sterling Payment Technologies. “Generation X Leads Baby Boomers in Credit Card Usage.” (accessed September 28, 2012).

[9] Admittedly, boomers suffered from 9/11 and by a horrific war, Viet Nam.

[10] Lipschultz, Hilt and Reilly, “Organizing,” 759-773.

[11] S. A. Lowery and Melvin L. DeFleur, Milestones in Mass Communication Research, Media Effects, 3rd. Edition, (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995) 6.

[12] Longino, “Future of Ageism” 80.

[13] Stein, Joel. “I Hope I Die Before I Have to Live with Old People,” Time 179, no. 4 (2012) 62.

[14] Gillespie, N. “The Real Class Warfare is Baby Boomers vs. Younger Americans: Hey Kids, Mom and Dad are screwing you.” (accessed September 29, 2012).

[15] Longino, “Future of Ageism,” 79.

[16] “The Power of a Meal.” (accessed October 1, 2012).

[17] “NCOA, Partners Bring Senior Hunger to Congress.” (accessed September 29, 2012).

[18] Hank Campbell. “Why Is Generation X So Skeptical About Climate Change?” (accessed October 3, 2012)

[19] Timothy A Salthouse. What and When of Cognitive Aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13, no. 4 (2004) 140-144.

[20] Lipschultz, J. H., Hilt, M. L, & Reilly, H. J. “Organizing the Baby Boomer Construct: An Exploration of Marketing, Social Systems, and Culture,” Educational Gerontology, 33, (2007) 761.

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967).

[22] Janet L Ramsey and Rosemary Blieszner, Spiritual Resiliency and Aging: Hope, Relationality, and the Creative Self, (Amityville, NY : Baywood Publishing, 2012).

[23] Lois Malcolm and Janet Ramsey. “On Forgiveness and Healing: Narrative Therapy and the Gospel Story,” Word and World, 30, no. 1. (2010).

[24] Alan Mittleman, Hope in a Democratic Age. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press 2009) 196.

[25] Mittleman, Hope, 127.

[26] Freedman, Marc. “The Social-Purpose Encoure Career: Baby Boomers, Civil Engagement, and the Next Stage of Work,” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 30, no. 4 (2006) 43-46.

[27] Hannan, M. “Pro-Bono Boomers: The Over-50 Generation Wants to Help, but in New Ways.” (accessed October 1, 2012).

[28] Victor Thasiah, “Lying in a Bed of Scorpions,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 10, no. 4. (2010).

[29] Parsons, Michael. “Luther, the Royal Psalms and the Suffering Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology 35, no. 3 (2011) 242-254.

Janet Ramsey

Janet Ramsey is Professor Emeritus of Congregational Care Leadership at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.