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to baby boomers returning to school. Baby boomers are Americans born between 1946
and 1964. Soldiers returning from WWII caused a rise in the birth rate of the United
States, creating a “boom” which is where the term “baby boom” comes from. There were
approximately 76 million baby boomers born during that 18 year span. The baby boomer
generation is now creating a “boom” in the field of adult education.
Enrollment in college programs by baby boomers has risen substantially. In 2001
the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that more than 20 percent
of United States college students are above the age of 30. (qtd. in CNN 1). The National
Center for Education Statistics also reported that enrollment of students aged 40 and
older has increased by 48 percent from the early 1970’s. (1). The baby boomer
generation has become the driving force behind the growth of adult education.
The benefits of higher education for the boomers have been greater than that
of their parents. Baby boomer parents are from the Great Depression generation. These
Great Depression era parents were immigrants who believed that hard work was the way
to succeed in life. Upon arriving in America, the immigrants needed skills to help them
live in their new homeland. They learned a new language, to read and that education
was necessary to secure their future. These parents raised their children with the belief
that education would open many doors for their children’s futures.
The effects of education for the baby boomers was stronger than for their parents
of the Great Depression generation. “Both baby boomers and their parents enjoyed a
positive association between net worth and education.” (Keister 5). According to
National Center for Educational Statistics the boomers have acquired more wealth by
the age of 30 than their immigrant parents had acquired by that same age. The boomers
have enjoyed a higher income than their parents substantiating the theory that higher
education is the key to success. Educated boomers were enjoying the reward of a
higher lifestyle than that of their uneducated immigrant parents.
The baby boomer students have proven themselves to be the fastest growing
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educational demographic. Record breaking boomer enrollment in part-time adult
education programs has been reported throughout the country. Baby boomer enrollments
are increasing proportionately faster than enrollment of younger students.
Today the baby boomers have reached middle age and expect to remain
physically active for most of their life. Career changes, corporate downsizing and the
wave of new technology requires that baby boomers return to the classroom to update
their skills. “Labor forces of the future will see dramatic changes as the baby boomer
generation reaches retirement age.” (Niznik 1). The boomer labor force age group
of 45-64 will grow at a fast pace due to baby boomers not retiring. The growth of
enrollment of baby boomers in the professional degree programs has been substantial.
More than half of the enrollment for the managerial degrees are baby boomer students.
Having a college degree affords baby boomers great opportunities for their future.
As Knable pointed out, “Without having the proper credentials baby boomers feel they
may not have the qualifications required for the position they desire.” (Knable 3). Baby
boomers want careers that give them energy, a sense of self determination and the
opportunity to make meaningful contributions to their world.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that “Jobs requiring a bachelor
degree are expected to grow the most quickly in the 21st Century, nearly twice as fast as
the average for all occupations.” (Knable 2). These jobs will require higher skills in
math and language along with better reasoning capabilities. (3). The Bureau of Labor
Statistics report that there will be fewer jobs for the unskilled and under educated
employee in the future.
J. Steven Niznik feels that, “Baby boomers are taking control of the labor force in
the new millennium.” (Niznik 1). However, baby boomers know that they must keep
their skills updated and fresh to compete with the younger work force. Successfully
maintaining a career is an ongoing process that involves the development of new skills
and includes exploring new learning opportunities. Baby boomers believe that a quality
education is all that is required to keep up with the changes in the world.
The colleges today are tailoring their programs for the baby boomer, they are
looking at boomers as lifelong learners who will be needing programs to fit their
retirement lifestyles. Ed Shanahan, editor for My Generation magazine reasons, “When
you get to the age of 45, 50, 55, this is one of your last good chances to tackle something
you always wanted to do but put off for several reasons.” (qtd. in CNN 1). Baby
boomers are not looking at retirement as a way to live out their later days. At the
University of Pennsylvania, about 58 percent of students taking noncredit courses are
baby boomers over the age of 50. (qtd. in CNN 2). Courses offered range from wine
tasting to making oriental rugs to impressionist painting. The colleges offering the
noncredit courses are helping baby boomers secure a higher quality of life in their senior
years and a longer period of independence for the retirement years.
An AARP study (qtd. in Trachtenberg 2) showed that over 73 percent of baby
boomers said that baby boomers will be involved with hobbies or special interests during
their retirement. Baby boomers are experiencing a different type of retirement needs than
any other generation. Colleges and activity centers now offer activities to please
everyone, from flower arranging to ball room dancing to auto mechanics.
The decades-long trend of early retirement does not appeal to baby boomers.
Economic factors will play a role in baby boomers working beyond the age of 50. Due
to the loss of investment in their 401(k) their nest egg is probably gone. As a result of
this loss, boomers will need to work longer than they had planned. Medical
projections for the baby boomer generation is that they are expected to remain actively fit
well into their 80’s. (Knable 2).
Our aging population of baby boomers will bring many changes to our society.
“The increasing presence of senior citizens may present a windfall of sorts for colleges
and universities that are alert to the possibilities.” (Trachtenberg 1,2). Retiring baby
boomers will carry great influence over how the government handles funding to the
colleges in the future. Stephen Trachtenberg envisions a bright future for colleges:
“At a time when the relationship between America and
its colleges and universities has never seemed more troubled
and uncertain, the potential arrival of baby boomers at our
gates raises a remarkable possibility. Our institutions may
once again find themselves at the very core of American
culture and of what will be seen, in retrospect, as the new
American life style-one in which those rich in years keep
themselves in optimum shape through a combination of
physical and intellectual activity, in a setting uniquely
suited to their maturity.”
(Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, “Preparing For “Baby Boomers,” Older Students Will Bring New Opportunities
Achieving meaningful life work is an ongoing process that involves developing
skills and exploring new learning opportunities. Baby boomers understand that higher
education helps individuals to discover their needs, interests and values. Higher
education gives boomers insight into the nature of work and labor versus highly
skilled career choices and then assists in bringing the two areas together.
Growth of the enrollment trend of baby boomers at the secondary education level
reflects not only their attitude or drive to attain higher education, it also represents their
response to the changing social and economic conditions of the baby boomers retirement
years. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the secondary education
level of enrollment rose dramatically throughout the 1970’s. (NCES 1,2). The 70’s were
the college years for the baby boomer generation searching to define their future, and
again colleges are seeing a surge in enrollment of adult education degreed programs due
to boomers searching for education to guide them with their retirement future.
Why are baby boomers are the driving force in adult education today? Thomas
Knable describes the baby boomers need for education in this way, “Many baby boomers
feel that ongoing education enhances opportunities, provides a good insurance policy
against obsolescence, and is one of the most positive ways to increase job security and
achieve promotions.” (Knable 4). Baby boomers agree that it is never too late to go back
to school whether you return to update your skills or you wish to launch a new business
or career. Lifelong learning has become more important than ever in today’s ever-
changing job market. Colleges and universities are recognizing the need for continuing
adult education programs and are working to provide a format to meet the baby boomer
needs of the future.