Baby boomers: This may be the best advice you'll ever get for the rest of your life

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Technically, I'm not a baby boomer, having been born right at the end of World War II. But I'm close enough to the swarm of Americans about to retire that I pay close attention to the boomers and the impact they will have on Social Security, Medicare, health care, the economy, political choices, social trends, religious evolution and consumerism, just to name a few key issues.

It's hard to say, exactly, how many baby boomers there are, but a good estimate is nearly 80 million. The math is not as simple as you might think.

There were 75.8 million births in the U.S. from 1946 to 1964, the official baby boomer span. Of those, 4 million have died. But millions more have become part of the official U.S. population through legal immigration, and who knows how many there are who are here illegally. The Census Bureau puts the number somewhere between 79 million and 80 million, or right at 28 percent of the population. I'll stick with the rounded-up number.

The oldest boomers are turning 62 this year, which means they can, if they choose, apply for reduced Social Security benefits. Recent trends indicate many boomers will wait longer than their parents to retire. There is a good reason for this.

Boomers, with their access to easy credit and their consumptive lifestyles, have fueled the economic bubble that exploded this year. Many of them are in debt up to their ears. They know they can't live on Social Security plus what little they haven't bothered to save.

I am interested in all these facts and figures because retirement is a big topic in the Sullivan house. My wife is retiring -- even though, I must quickly disclaim, she is barely old enough to vote and has been since the Johnson-Goldwater faceoff.

So we are trying to arrange our finances appropriately. We are dealing, not for the first time, with the mega-engines of governmental bureaucracy otherwise known as Social Security and Medicare. Maybe you know what I'm talking about.

Our first dealings in this labyrinth came when my brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and became eligible for Social Security disability benefits for a few months before he died. Then we dipped our toes into Medicare supplemental plans and Part D prescription plans when my mother moved to an assisted-living facility.

Now we are fully immersed in medigap plans A through L and have looked at just about every website offering to compare Part D prescription plans based on the medications we take.

Are our heads spinning? Not exactly. It feels more like they've been twisted off, beat with a sledgehammer and sewn back on with knitting needles.

My wife and I, obviously, are not inventing the wheel here. Millions of Americans have been dealing with these issues and have the scars to prove their battle-worthiness. But if ever a large segment of the population needed a warning about what lies ahead, it is the 80 million boomers who will either force a revolution in federal entitlements or watch them go bust.

Not only are there lots of boomers, they are expected to live longer, adding even more pressure to the ability of Social Security and Medicare to keep up with them.

Meanwhile, about 4.5 million Americans each year will, over the next 18 years, embark on the same voyage of discovery my wife and I are on. We can't tell yet if we jumped overboard or if the ship is sinking. Either way, we're about to drown.

Frightening? Well, it is almost Halloween.

Frankly, signing up for Social Security and Medicare is a breeze. Sign here, please. The Social Security office in Cape Girardeau is, in our experience, a model of bureaucratic efficiency with helpful and knowledgeable people.

But you're on your own, basically, when it comes to deciding which medigap plan suits your needs and which private insurance company offers the best premiums. There are dozens and dozens of insurance companies, which means there are dozens and dozens of options.

That's nothing compared to the Part D prescription plans, which are the spawn of a diabolical organization that looks patriotic and sounds patriotic -- an organization we create every two years and call the Congress of the United States of America.

What Congress gave us with the Part D prescription plans has to be one of the most monstrous follies in the history of democracy.

Part D plans depend not just on an insurance company and its premiums, but also on what prescriptions you are taking, whether or not they are generic, which tier of pharmaceuticals they are on, whether or not an insurance company covers those particular scrips, where you choose to have your prescriptions filled and what copays and deductibles you're willing to pay out of your own pocket. There are other nuances as well, but that's enough for starters.

My advice to baby boomers: eat right, exercise, stay healthy and avoid prescriptions. Unfortunately, my advice isn't practical, because baby boomers are at that age when, by divine design, our bodies start falling apart.

The fact is that, of 80 million boomers, most of them will be taking prescriptions to stay alive by the time they start filing for Social Security and Medicare.

The Internet provides gobs of information that will educate boomers about Social Security and Medicare and medigap plans and Part D prescription plans. I strongly advise all boomers to become as informed as possible in order to make some decent and crucial decisions. Then turn to the experts for help.

The "experts" are insurance brokers. They know what's what and can show you the pluses and minuses of the jillions of options. There also are some not-for profit agencies that offer some assistance.

If you are reasonably healthy and take maybe one prescription or none at all, everything I've described here probably won't mean a thing to you. You have some easy choices. But for anyone with lingering health problems that require multiple prescriptions, you're going to need all the help you can get.

I wish I'd had, in my younger years, better advice and a no-nonsense coach to convince me of the need to plan for retirement. I think my wife and I have done pretty well on our own, but we waited far longer than we should have.

My point today is that if you are thinking about retirement, you need to be thinking about how you're going to deal with Social Security and Medicare before you start signing on the dotted line.

Baby boomers, that means you.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editorial page editor of the Southeast Missourian.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: