The baby boom generation, which has been shaking up American society for more than a half-century, is about to unleash one last revolution.
Starting next month, the first of the nation's 75 million baby boomers – born in the generation after World War II, between 1946 and 1964 – will reach age 65, setting the stage for a huge retirement rush that will test the resources of government and boomers alike. The frontier will be health care, and the danger is that the combination of rising costs and boomer retirements could swamp the health system.
Nowhere is the challenge bigger than in California, with the nation's largest boomer population (nearly 9 million) and a safety net already under enormous financial pressure.
"Two realities are on a collision course," said Gary Passmore, director of the Congress of California Seniors, which lobbies on behalf of older adults. "The number of seniors is growing, by amounts that nobody can yet appreciate." Simultaneously, he said, revenues "at every level of government are really stressed. These two things are going to create enormous tension."
It's not just the safety net that will be tested. Boomers of all stripes must adjust to a transformed health care system less centered on hospitals and nursing homes and more focused on cost savings. Many will be expected to shoulder more of their own health costs.
The spike in California's 65-and-over population will happen suddenly. The number of Californians reaching 65 in 2012 will be up nearly 25 percent from this year's total.
By 2040, with boomers well into their retirement, a projected 11.5 million people will be 65 and older in California, more than twice today's total. Meanwhile, the number of people 85 and older will more than triple, to nearly 2 million, as life expectancy continues to grow.
This will put enormous pressure on Medicare, the subsidized national health system for 47 million older adults. Medicare costs have been climbing so quickly, even before the first boomer retires, that future retirees should anticipate some combination of scaled-back benefits and higher out-of-pocket costs.