Coming of age
Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 4:07 a.m.
At 40, the birthday balloons were black, imprinted with such snide phrases as "Lordy, lordy, look who's 40," a poke-in-the-gut reminder of entry into middle age.
At 50, the festive balloons proclaimed "Over the hill."
Now the first wave of baby boomers - those 2.8 million Americans born in 1946 - are starting to turn 60. What might the birthday balloons now say?
Conversations with several Gainesville area boomers standing at the threshold of their latest milestone birthday suggest they're at a point in their lives that they don't care what the balloons say. They're entering life's next stage with optimism, hope, some trepidation - and perhaps some aches and pains that take longer to shake off.
"I see turning 60 as a doorway opening into greater wisdom and compassion," said Barbara Kerkhoff, a professional harpist and yoga instructor who steps through the doorway on March 14.
"At 40, I was more steeped in what this culture deems as important and hadn't really explored other cultures and other ways of being," said Kerkhoff, who also teaches tai chi. "Turning 50 was very freeing. I just felt like I was who I was and there was no need to try to be anything other than that. And I think 60 will be like that."
She's among the nation's 78 million baby boomers, that post-World War II group of Americans born between 1946 and 1964.
The youngest boomers were born the year most of the first-wavers were graduating from high school.
Figures aren't available for the number of Alachua County residents born in 1946. But registered voters in the county who turn 60 this year number about 1,950.
Trust thy elders
In recent months the media, ever obsessive over all things boomer, have expressed awe and wonder at this latest transition of the leading-edge boomers. Pundits have noted that early boomers, who made famous the phrase "never trust anyone over 30," now are turning twice that age.
All the fuss generally has escaped David Fann, who has given little thought to his 60th birthday on Feb. 17.
"I'll probably dye my hair dark for a day or so," joked Fann, a geographer with Florida Sea Grant.
He said he sees his 60s as a continuation of his 50s, which he called "a good 10 years." Among the issues he and other first-wave boomers do think more about now than they did a decade ago is retirement.
"We're probably financially able to retire, but I don't relish the thought of a permanent vacation," Fann said. "I'd like to do something interesting and useful, and Sea Grant is that."
A similar view was expressed by Carolyn Kitchens, a former Alachua County School Board member who owns her own consulting company specializing in education-governance issues.
"I don't relish the idea of bringing up a rocker on the back porch," said Kitchens, who turns 60 Sept. 29. "I hope if my health holds, I can do some of my work and stay connected in that world, but also to have more flexible time and do some of the other things I want to do.
"Retirement to me is having the freedom to do things that really mean a lot to me," she said.
Ernest Sheppard, who has more than a year of retirement already behind him, said he finds on the approach to 60 that he worries less about life.
"When I look at life now, whatever the future is I look for a brighter day," said Sheppard, a former Gainesville Sun pressman who enters his 60s on Oct. 5. "In retirement, I'm lucky enough to choose what I want to do each day. I don't worry if anything goes wrong."
He retired on disability after injuring one of his hands on a piece of press machinery. Although he has the use of his hand after several surgeries, he said, it isn't 100 percent and he felt it would be hazardous to continue working. Now he indulges his hobby of collecting old tractors.
"My outlook on life is brighter now because I have more to look forward to," Sheppard said.
Patricia Fryer Sullivan also is retired, doing so at age 57 after a 35-year career with the Social Security Administration. She'll turn 60 on May 2.
"I started planning for retirement long before I was 50," she said. "My primary issue now is making sure I'm taking good care of myself so I can enjoy the fruits of my labor.
"I have some real concerns about where our country is headed," Sullivan said. "I don't have children and frankly there are some days I'm glad I don't. And I hope the (nation's) tremendous debt doesn't have an impact on the plans I made and my financial situation."
She said the aging process really hit home when she found herself older than some of the people who were running for president.
"It was like, wow, we're really getting old," she said. But she doesn't really feel it, Sullivan said.
"I love to travel, scuba dive and work outside," she said.
Barry Bovitch is one of the earliest of the early boomers, having turned 60 on Monday. For him, it was a transition accompanied by some concern for the future if his job circumstances change.
"The biggest thing that worries me is the job situation," said Bovitch, a field engineer who does computer maintenance for Northrop Grumman out of its Orlando office. "When I was 40, there were a lot more opportunities than there are now for someone my age."
He said he doesn't think he can afford to retire soon, and hopes to work at least until his official retirement - which for his age group is 66.
"Fortunately, the company I work for does have a retirement fund," he said. "If it stays like any other company, my retirement will be there. But look at all the airlines that have dissolved their pension plans. I'd hate for us to be looking forward to that."
Former Gainesville Mayor-Commissioner Tom McKnew said 59 may be the best year of his life, and he sees his 60s building on that.
"This year I married my ninth-grade girlfriend after 45 years," said McKnew, a Realtor who has worked with Howard Freeman Realty for 30 years.
He said that as he approaches his July 3 birthday, he's dealing with some "tiny health issues." Beyond that, he said, he doesn't see 60 as prompting big changes in his life.
"Some people see the 60s as the winding-down decade, but I don't," McKnew said. "I don't like thinking I might not be competitive. I want to keep going."
He said his business associate turned 60 in December and he thinks Freeman shares his outlook.
"I think Howard would say, 'Don't bother me, I'm on cruise-control and just enjoying life,' " McKnew said.
New middle age
Jaquie Resnick, director of the University of Florida's Counseling Center, said that as baby boomers have aged, the chronology of aging seems to have changed.
Thanks to the boomers, she said, 60 now has become "the new middle age."
"What's interesting to me, as a first-wave boomer, is that I've identified with that group and enjoyed being a part of that group - the highs and the lows," said Resnick, who turns 60 on Feb. 23. "I feel like I'm not doing this alone."
The new middle age for her, she said, is a time to continue enjoying her career and her supportive family and other relationships. But she said she recognizes that her advantages of a good education and reasonable access to health care allow her to move into her 60s with opportunities others might not enjoy.
"It might not be so optimistic for those who are less fortunate," Resnick said.
She said her expectations of her 60s are grounded in the reality of aging.
"Obviously, as we approach 60, we're moving on in our lives and time becomes even more precious," Resnick said. "So I look forward to being a little more appreciative and accepting of what happens . . . and I hope to be increasingly thoughtful about how I use my time."
Some early boomers said turning 60 is somewhat different for them than it was for their parents.
"A lot of it has to do with circumstances," said Billy Brame, president of Brame Architects, who turns 60 on Jan. 22. "I came from a very modest background, and I might have more now than my parents. That's not to say I was not happy growing up in more modest circumstances.
"Also, technology today has broadened what we can and do create and become involved in," he said. "Travel, for example, is a lot easier now than it was then."
Sullivan said when her parents turned 60, "they seemed a lot older to me." Unlike her generation, the world didn't celebrate her parents' every life event, she said, and their 60th birthdays passed by almost unnoticed.
Fann said that for his father, a child of the Great Depression who worked for the post office all his life, "the idea was to cling tenaciously to his job as long as he could."
"My father took me into the post office in Lake Wales and showed me the place where he stood at the counter, where his two shoes had worn depressions in the terrazzo floor from all those years selling money orders and stamps," he said. "I'm not clinging tenaciously, although my job is not something I need to flee from either."
His move to Sea Grant about 10 years ago was what he calls "Chapter 2" in his life, following 25 years "in rocket science" as a technical editor with Martin Marietta.
Kitchens said she sees her 60s as promising good things, as did all the decades leading to it.
"I have found that each one of these milestones is kind of like reading a good novel," she said. "You don't know what's coming, but you keep wanting to read."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@ gvillesun.com.
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