Magazine Feature / People

Boomers trading leisure, retirement for continuing education

ceramics teacher

Maynard Tischler teaches an enrichment course about ceramics. Demand for courses that appeal to baby boomers is growing. PHOTO BY: Tim Ryan.

Baby boomers are about to retire. Or are they? 

Many experts on aging expect the boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — to not “go gently into that good night.” Instead, they say, many of the 79 million in America’s largest generation will reinvent themselves and redefine retirement. With longer life expectancies, more education and more disposable income than any previous generation in history, boomers are expected to continue working, playing and learning into retirement. 

“Universities will need to gear up for the boomers,” says Jim Davis, dean of DU’s University College. “Right now, higher education is not ready for the influx of older students.” 

University College has already witnessed the growth. The college has expanded its Enrichment Program course offerings 40 percent in the three years since the program began and now serves 1,600 students. Its “Vibrant, Intellectually Vigorous Adults” program offers twice as many courses as when it started in 1996 and now serves 850 older students. 

Enrollment also continues to grow in the college’s recently launched Bachelor of Arts Completion Program, with an unexpected surge from the boomer demographic. 

Davis sees himself as a personal and professional pioneer in the field of higher education for older Americans. During his 36 years with DU, Davis worked stints in law, business and international studies before taking charge of University College four years ago. Although he could retire in the next few years, Davis says he plans to stay on in some capacity as long as he’s still contributing and still advocating for institutional change. 

Boomers like Davis are more likely to ease into retirement, according to a 2003 Harvard School of Public Health study. Instead of retiring early, members of this age group are taking on second careers, volunteering or going back to school. If the connection between age and retirement continues to erode, the study concludes, the year 2011, when the first boomers reach 65, may be much less of a political and economic watershed than anticipated. 

In Colorado, 26 percent of the population will be 45 to 64 years old and more than 10 percent will be over 65 by 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, boomers earn an average of $56,000 annually and account for half of all discretionary spending. They spend about 3 percent of their income on education. 

Chuck Saxton, who at 59 just started his college career, has begun taking some leadership and public policy courses taught at University College. He’s become politically active within the last seven years, he says, motivated to a large extent by opposition to the proposed “super slab” highway that would bypass Denver and run right through his Weld County property. The controversy has established him as a local political activist and opened his eyes to other political trends that cause him concern. 

As he eases toward retirement, Saxton expects to take on fewer jobs as a general contractor in favor of more political education and activism. While he sees himself as too frank to run for office, he is interested in getting involved in alternative energy and property rights issues. He’s at a point in his life, he says, where he can afford to get involved. 

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he says.

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