OTA Photos via Flickr.
OTA Photos via Flickr.


With the baby boomer generation hitting retirement ages, it’s important to consider how retirement affects this enormous cohort and their families. One unique aspect of today’s retirement is the occasional retirement overlap: both parents and children are retired at the same time. In an interview with The New York Times, Phyllis Moen of the University of Minnesota says,

This is still historically unprecedented, where you have older people and their still-older parents. Families are having to figure out those intergenerational relationships.

This may be a situation unique to the current time period, though. For the trend to continue, the younger generation must retire while their parents are still alive. Since expected and actual retirement ages have been rising for more than a decade, future generations may not be able to afford to retire at all, let alone alongside their parents. Then again, “by the time their children retire, we may have even more medical advances to help us live even longer,” says Professor Moen.

One potential downside of dual-generation retirements is that they can add retirement stress in the form of caregiving for older family members. As Moen states, “The pressures are less intense while the younger generation is still employed,” because “work can offer an escape from the stress of caregiving and the stress of that family relationship.”

Not pictured: oil derricks, influx of young males, Hispanic residents.
Not pictured: oil derricks, influx of young males, Hispanic residents.

The United States Census produces massive amounts of data that can be combed through to learn more about our population and how it changes over time. In her piece for US News, Danielle Kurtzleben highlights some of the major findings from the latest Census data release.

Depending on the way you look at it, Asians or Hispanics (or both!) were the fastest growing population in the United States from 2011-2012. Hispanics had the largest growth in terms of population numbers, while Asians saw the largest rate of population growth each year. Meanwhile, the white birthrate was very low. More white people died than were born, and the population would have seen a net decrease if not for immigration. Further, among the elderly (over 80 years old), nearly 80% were white. The majority of children under age two are now minorities.

And then there’s North Dakota. An outlier in the data, the “upper Dakota” is actually getting younger. It is also majority male and has the fastest growing Hispanic population in the nation. All of this is largely a result of the state’s booming oil and gas industry, coupled with its relatively low past population (increases seem bigger when they’re building on a smaller population base). The new oil rush has also shored up North Dakota’s shockingly low unemployment rate of just 3.3%. For over a century, the Census has shown a nation in flux, but right now, it’s solid old North Dakota that’s hardest to pin down.

Photo by BlakFate via
Photo by Brenden F via

No matter who you are today, you’ll likely be a pretty different person in ten years.

Don’t agree?  According to a recent study conducted by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, you’d be in the majority.  Most people generally fail to appreciate how much their personality and values will change in the upcoming years, even if they recognize how much they’ve changed in the past.

“I have this deep sense that although I will physically age—I’ll have even less hair than I do and probably a few more pounds—that by and large the core of me, my identity, my values, my personality, my deepest preferences, are not going to change from here on out,” says Gilbert, who is 55.

As NPR reported, Gilbert wanted to see if others felt the same.  So, he and his colleagues Jordi Quoidbach and Timothy Wilson analyzed data from over 19,000 surveys and found that people, whether they are teenagers or middle-aged, underestimate how much they will change in the future.  Life is a process of growing and changing that never really stops, but people of a variety of ages seem to think it does.

Personality changes do take place faster when people are younger,  says Gilbert, so “a person who says I’ve changed more in the past decade than I expect to change in the future is not wrong.”  But that doesn’t mean they fully understand what’s still to come. “Their estimates of how much they’ll change in the future are underestimates,” says Gilbert. “They are going to change more than they realize. Change does slow; it just doesn’t slow as much as we think it will.”

Gilbert and his colleagues don’t yet know why many of us seem to have an “end of history illusion.”  It might be really difficult to imagine a different future, or it might be difficult to think of unknown change.


Our love is here to stay
Photo by Tommie Milacci via

Younger generations aren’t the only ones cohabiting these days. Research by sociologist Susan Brown and her colleagues at Bowling Green State University find that the number of Americans over age 50 who are living with their romantic partners – but are not married – has increased from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.75 million in 2010.

As MSN reports, this arrangement provides older cohabitators many of the benefits of marriage without the potential economic risk.

Older couples may want to protect their individual nest eggs so they can pass the inheritance down to their kids. They also may not want to jeopardize a pension, Social Security payment or other benefit they are receiving because they are divorced or widowed. And they may not want to be financially responsible for the other person’s health care bills.

A “been there, done that” attitude is also contributing to the trend, Brown says. According to the team’s research, “71 percent of older couples living together were divorced, and another 18 percent were widowed.” The prospect of re-entering a union may be particularly unappealing for women who feel an “underlying expectation” to take care of their husbands.

Alternative relationships other than cohabitation also appear to be on the rise. Although the numbers aren’t as clear, Brown notes a group engaged in “living apart together.” “They’re very committed to each other ,” she explains, “(but they) don’t want to give up the autonomy that they have.”

Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via flickr

Talk about a chronic condition! According to new research from the European Journal of Public Health, higher rates of poor health among women aren’t just the result of reporting bias, but higher actual rates of chronic health problems.’s “Vitals” section (via MyHealthNews Daily) covers the research, which included interviews and medical records data from over 29,000 Spaniards, and reports:

…when the researchers matched up the number of chronic conditions each person had with his or her health rating, the gender difference disappeared. Having a higher number of chronic conditions correlated with poorer self-rated health to the same degree in both genders.

For men and women with the same conditions, or the same number of conditions, women were no more likely to claim poorer health.

To put these numbers into some context, reporter Sarah C.P. Williams sought out British sociologist Ellen Annandale, who studies the connections between gender and health. Dr. Annandale confirmed the long-standing notion that women simply communicate better and more often with their doctors, but don’t actually experience worse health outcomes than men—but said this new research upends that idea and offers clues to better medical treatment for people of all genders:

“Gender influences that way that people are treated and diagnosed in health systems,” Annandale said. “It influences the kind of health conditions that men and women suffer from, the way people relate to their own bodies, and what kind of access to health care they have.”

Understanding gender differences in health can help scientists and doctors find ways to better treat patients, she said.

“Women generally live longer than men, but in many countries that gap in life expectancy has been decreasing over time. One of the reasons for that is thought to be that men’s health is improving, but women’s is not.”

A new study shows higher rates of suicide among middle age adults in recent years. CNN reports:

In the last 11 years, as more baby boomers entered midlife, the suicide rates in this age group have increased, according to an analysis in the September-October issue of the journal Public Health Reports.

The assumption was that “middle age was the most stable time of your life because you’re married, you’re settled, you had a job. Suicide rates are stable because their lives are stable,” said Dr. Paula Clayton, the medical director for the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide.

But this assumption may be shifting.

A sociologist explains:

“So many expected to be in better health and expected to be better off than they are,” said Julie Phillips, lead author of the study assessing recent changes in suicide rates. “Surveys suggest they had high expectations. Things haven’t worked out that way in middle age.”


Baby boomers (defined in the study as born between 1945 and 1964) are in a peculiar predicament.

“Historically, the elderly have had the highest rates of suicide,” said Phillips, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. “What is so striking about these figures is that starting in 2005, suicide rates among the middle aged [45-64 years of age] are the highest of all age groups.”

The 45-54 age group had the highest suicide rate in 2006 and 2007, with 17.2 per 100,000. Meanwhile, suicide rates in adolescents and the elderly have begun to decline, she said.

“What’s notable here is that the recent trend among boomers is opposite to what we see among other cohorts and that it’s a reversal of a decades-long trend among the middle-aged,” said Phillips, who along with Ellen Idler, a sociologist at Emory University, and two other authors used data from the National Vital Statistics System.

Several theories have been proposed to explain this trend, including higher suicide rates among boomers during adolescence.

Baby boomers had higher rates of depression during their adolescence. One theory is that as they aged, this disposition followed them through the course of their lives.

“The age group as teenagers, it was identified they had higher rates of depression than people born 10 or 20 years earlier — it’s called a cohort effect,” said Clayton, from the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, who read the study.

Others cite health concerns:

Some say health problems could be a factor in increased suicide rates among baby boomers.

Boomers have their share of medical problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and complications of obesity.

“There’s a rise of chronic health conditions among the middle aged,” Phillips said. “In the time period from 1996 to 2006, we see fairly dramatic chronic health conditions and an increase in out-of-pocket expenditures.”

Some speculate that the increase in baby boomer suicides could be attributed to stress, the number of Vietnam veterans in the age group or drug use, which was higher in that generation. Boomers are also the “sandwich generation,” pressed between needs of their children and their aging parents who are living longer, but have health problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Finally, economic woes may be to blame.

All this is unfolding in a lagging economy, meaning boomers could be affected by the “period effect.”

“One hypothesis is that the economic pressure during this period might be a driving force, with the recession in the early 2000s — loss of jobs, instability, increases in bankruptcy rates among middle age,” Phillips said.

Unemployment correlates with increased rates of suicide. People who are unmarried and have less education are also more at risk.

NaptimeA recent story in the Star Tribune explores the recently documented trend of women delaying the birth of their first child or choosing to not have children altogether.

More than ever before, women are deciding to forgo childbearing in favor of other life-fulfilling experiences, a trend that has been steadily on the rise for decades. Census data says that nationally, the number of women 40 to 44 who did not have children jumped 10 percentage points from 1983 to 2006.

As University of Minnesota sociologist Ross Macmillan explains, the childless trend is not limited to the United States.

The number of children born is dropping “like a stone in pretty much every country we
can find,” he said, and the United States has seen a 50-year rise in the number of  childless women.

There are also a large number of women choosing to delay childbirth. State Demographic Center research analyst Martha McMurry points out that while there has been a decline in births among women in their 20s, the number of women having children in their 30s and 40s is increasing.

This delay is in part attributed to the high cost of having and raising a child, estimated at $250,000 by some studies,  as well as the potential negative repercussions in the workplace.

“Actually, while it is true that women can have it all, it is also true that women who have children suffer from some penalties in the workplace,” said University of Minnesota associate professor Ann Meier.

She was referencing Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll’s research that shows that mothers looking for work are less likely to be hired, are offered lower pay (5 percent less per child) and that the pay gap between mothers and childless women under 35 is
actually bigger than the pay gap between women and men.

As the numbers of women choosing not to have children has risen, groups organized around the decision have sprung up.

In the Twin Cities, a one-year-old Childfree by Choice group’s numbers are growing
weekly. On, the site through which it is organized, other such groups are
cropping up nationwide, with such names as No Kidding and Not a Mom.

For many of these women children are simply not seen as the key ingredient to living a good life.

Aleja Santos, 44, a medical ethics researcher who started the Twin Cities Childfree by
Choice group a year ago (greeting members on the site with “Welcome, fellow non-
breeders!”), said she never wanted to have kids. “There were always other things I
wanted to do.”

First Self Portrait
Contrary to more pessimistic societal assumptions, research has shown that old age often correlates with increased happiness. A recent Washington Post story reports on studies that seek to explain this trend.

One factor that may lead to increased happiness is the emotional and cognitive stability that grows with old age.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

Wisdom, while long associated with age, has always remained a murky term. Ipsit Vahia, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, explains

“[wisdom] involves making decisions that would be to the greater benefit of a larger number of people” and maintaining “an element of pragmatism, not pure idealism. And it would involve some sense of reflection and self-understanding.”

The source of this wisdom and happiness remains subject to debate. Some emphasize neurobiological changes.

An MRI scan cannot isolate a part of the brain associated with wisdom, says Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and author of “The Wisdom Paradox.” Still, he says, the aging brain has a greater sense of “pattern recognition,” the ability to capture a range of similar but nonidentical information, then extract and piece together common features. That, Goldberg says, “gives some old people a cognitive leg up.”

While others attribute the change to social and emotional factors such as the ability to regulate emotions. Psychologist Susanne Scheibbe cites a pragmatic basis for cognitive change.

“Old people are good at shaping everyday life to suit their needs,” explains Scheibe. By carefully pruning their social networks or looking at life in relative terms, older adults maintain cognitive control. And although multiple chronic illnesses that cause functional disability or cognitive decline can affect well-being, most older adults are able to tune out negative information into their late 70s and 80s.

So perhaps there is something to that whole ‘respect your elders’ thing. Or as the Washington Post story concludes

If older adults are predisposed to wisdom, perhaps a graying population means a wiser one.

SweetheartsAl and Tipper Gore recently decided that 40 years is enough.   Are there broader social implications of this story for other long term couples?  The Monterey County Herald called upon the expertise of sociologists to answer this question.

It makes us frightened for our parents, our friends, ourselves. “[The Gores] were seen as this perfect couple, that’s why we’re traumatized,” says Terri Orbuch, a marriage therapist and sociology professor at the University of Michigan.

“This is supposed to be one of the easiest and happiest periods of marriage … the reward for a job well done,” says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies families.

But the other fact is that we’ve never before faced empty-nest periods that could easily extend for 20 or 30 years. “The institution of marriage wasn’t designed for that. It was designed to help us raise kids and put food on the table,” says Cherlin. “It may just be that it’s a difficult task for married couples to keep a happy life going for decades.”

“It’s more threatening to us if we see a couple who we thought were happy just drift apart,” Cherlin says. “If even well-behaved people get divorced after 40 years, then some of us will worry about what our own marriages will be like later in life.”

How do you keep the flame going after 40 years?

To really work, long-term relationships need “regular attention, regular affirmation on a daily basis,” says Orbuch, who recently completed a 20-year study of marriage for the National Institutes of Health. She wonders whether Al Gore was gone too much — out saving the world — to save his marriage. (Then again, maybe it was Tipper who was inattentive?)

Iowa Round BalesAgriculture Online reports results from the Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa farmers conducted by Extension Sociology at Iowa State University.

The latest [survey] indicates concerns are growing surrounding the passage of farms to the next generation. In the 2008 poll, 42% of farmers responding said they were planning on retiring in the next 5 years, and among those, 56% said they had identified a successor, according to J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., leader of a team of ISU Extension sociologists administering the poll.

The survey explores what the farmers think motivates their children to take on the family farm:

“The 735 farmers who were over 55 — approaching retirement age — had 350 children who farmed, a proportion (48%) that represents less than half of the number that will be needed to replace the current generation of farmers as they retire,” he adds.

Of those saying the younger generation planned to take the reins of the farm, reasons like quality of life and love of farming topped the list of motivations.

“Following in importance were quality of life considerations and having grown up wanting to farm. Seventy-two percent of farmers rated these factors as having been important or very important criteria in their children’s decisions to farm,” Arbuckle says. “Ability to be their own boss (68%), desire to stay close to home (56%), desire to carry on family tradition (55%), and family ability to help get them started (55%) were also rated as important or very important by a majority of Farm Poll participants.”

Why are members of the next generation planning on other careers instead of returning to the farm? Arbuckle says income opportunities elsewhere comprised the top motivator, while industry entrance hurdles like input costs, high land rents and excessive overall financial risk topped the list of drivers toward other careers.

“In contrast to the factors influencing the decision to farm, most of the reasons that were rated as most important in the choice of a non-farm career were economic,” Arbuckle says.

“On the whole, results suggest that for those individuals who chose farming as their career, cultural and lifestyle factors were the predominant reasons underlying that choice. Whether regarding their own decisions to farm, or their children”s decisions, love of farming and quality of life issues were fundamental,” he continues. “On the other hand, for those children who did not choose to farm, parents’ assessments clearly point to economic factors as the most important decision criteria, whether in the form of economic barriers to farm entry or better income opportunities elsewhere.”

Check out the site for “The Farm Poll” for great summary reports of surveys dating back to 1982.