Baby Boomers, Veterans, and Changing Attitudes Toward Aging

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When Ashley Selkirk began her first externship as a counseling psychology doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education, she noticed distinct generational differences among the veterans she worked with at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Northport, New York.

Unlike men who’d fought in World War II, baby boomers came of age in an era that was more global. They engaged more with the world outside of themselves and their families. They were less insular, but they experienced late onset PTSD symptoms. And they reacted differently to retirement.

“I thought the different attitudes were fascinating, so I put it in the back of my head, thinking I might want to look at it later,” she said.

Aware that there was very little research on baby boomer retirement, Selkirk, a native of Brandywine, Maryland, undertook a dissertation, “A Longitudinal Study Of Retirement Satisfaction In Baby Boomers And Vietnam-Era Veterans.”

Using data from a longitudinal study conducted by the University of Michigan, Selkirk attempted to measure the predictors of retirement satisfaction for veterans and civilians of the baby-boom generation.

Among civilians, she found that having financial security and physical health before retirement were the best predictors of post-retirement satisfaction. She also found that physical health, emotional health, and retirement choice were predictive of retiree satisfaction.

However, Selkirk found that none of those predictors had any effect on retired Vietnam-era veterans. In fact, she realized that variables such as marital status, which had had an effect on World War II veterans, had less impact on Vietnam-era veterans, while issues such as peer support, which was important to them, were never explored.

She said the subject of retirement satisfaction and baby-boom veterans is still relatively new. Now that she knows which variables are inapplicable, she can focus on other more poignant variables in future studies.

“This tells us that there needs to be further investigation into how being a veteran uniquely impacts not just somebody’s retirement, but their whole life trajectory,” she said.

It is important to undertake these studies now, she said, because veterans of recent conflicts in the Middle East have a lot in common with vets from the baby-boomer generation. Finding new ways to treat today’s returning vets could help.

Selkirk interns at the VA hospital in Manhattan. Upon graduation, she’ll stay on as a postdoctoral fellow in geropsychology. Enthusiastic about working with older patients, she calls it “an honor” to work with veterans who were drafted against their will and witnessed unspeakable violence, and yet persisted upon their return to America.

“For some of them, that has meant shoving their military experience into a deep, dark place in their brain, and then as they get toward their advancing years, finding the strength and courage to face it, be curious about it, and explore it,” she said.

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