Several studies, including a recent AARP study found that more 60-plus adults said they were happy than those between 18 and 39. We wanted to better understand what areas of life are most satisfying for older adults and how those things compared to how they imagined aging as youths. With Generation X officially joining the 55 and older crowd, we also wanted to understand what younger generations think they might have in store as they grow older.
More than 800 adults who self-reported which generation they belonged to (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials or Generation Z; we used the generally accepted years of those generations) provided us detailed information about aging. Here's what we found:
- A majority of older adults believe aging is pretty good. Fifty-seven percent of the Silent Generation and 49 percent of Boomers said aging was better or much better than expected. An additional one in three said aging was about what they expected. Baby Boomers were far more likely than Silents to say their lives were “worse” or “much worse” than they expected — a combined 24 percent vs. 9 percent.
- Older women were more optimistic than older men, with 20 percent of older men, Silents, and Boomers combined, saying their lives are “worse” or “much worse” than they were expecting. That compares to just over 14 percent of women in the age group.
- Spending time kicking back is the best aspect of getting older for our survey respondents, though generational differences are major. While 36 percent of all 55+ respondents rated more time for leisure as one of the best parts of being their age, the generation split was 48 percent for Silents and 25 percent for Boomers.
- Retirement from professional life was the most commonly cited positive aspect of aging among Baby Boomers, with about 27 percent pegging it as one of the top three things.
- Older adults consistently indicated that the expectations of their younger selves haven't quite played out in their lives. About 52 percent of seniors said that when they were younger, they expected travel to be one of the best things about getting older, but around 22 percent of the group rated travel as one of their favorite things about their age.
- History seems to repeat itself. Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z all list travel as the things they look forward to most with age.
We asked seniors to rate their life satisfaction compared to their expectations at youth. For the purposes of this study, we define seniors as 55 or older; which encompasses two distinct generational groups — the Silent Generation, those who were born before 1945, and Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. (On the heels of Baby Boomers are members of Generation X, the oldest of whom will be turning 55 this year.)
Few older adults said their lives were worse than they expected when they were younger. More than one in two said their lives were either “better” or “much better” than they expected, while just over two percent said their lives were “much worse” than they were expecting.
For about 30 percent of those 55 and older, their lives have turned out about as they expected when they were younger, but generational differences are stark when separating members of the Silent Generation from Baby Boomers.
Almost one in four Boomers rated their current life satisfaction as “worse” or “much worse” compared to their expectations vs. less than 10 percent of Silents. In both cases, “much worse” was the least common answer, but Boomers were about twice as likely to rate their lives that way than Silents.
Conversely, members of the Silent Generation rated their lives as “better” or “much better” at about a 57 percent rate compared to about 49 percent of Baby Boomers.
Differences along gender lines were less pronounced than when considering the generation older adults belong to, but there are a few clear distinctions. About one in five men rated their lives as “worse” or “much worse” relative to their expectations vs. about one in seven women.
Female survey respondents were equally as likely to rate their lives as “about the same” as to say they were “better” than expected. In each case, about one in three women chose that rating level when thinking about their plus-55 lives compared to what they expected when they were younger.
Though it's perhaps not surprising, the biggest predictive factor in current life satisfaction was income. The bracket most likely to rate their lives as worse than they expected were those with household income below $50,000. In that group, more than one in four said that compared to their expectations, their lives at 55 and older were “much worse” or “worse.” No other group broke a combined 20 percent for those two ratings.
On the other hand, about one in three of the poorest older adults in our survey said their lives were “about the same” as expected, which is similar to what other income brackets reported.
Interestingly, the middle-income group, those with household income between $100,000 and $149,999, were the most likely to say their lives were better than they'd expected. Just over seven in 10 members of this group rated their lives at “better” or “much better” than expectations, though more than half of every group except those earning less than $50,000 said the same.
What's Best About Getting Older?
If the majority of seniors are happy, and more than half of those 55 and older say their lives are better today than they expected when they were younger, what makes getting older so great? We asked respondents to tell us their three favorites from a list of factors that can make a person's golden years especially sweet.
Some reasons relate to no longer being part of the workforce, while some are a bit more ethereal. More than one in three older adults said having more leisure time is the best aspect of being their age, followed by retirement (27 percent) and financial stability (about 25 percent).
Interestingly, older adults are more excited about spending time with their grandchildren than with their children (about 22 percent vs. just over 15 percent), while few seniors in our survey were excited about having second careers or taking on additional responsibility. Travel was relatively popular, though it's outside of the overall top three, while the wisdom that allegedly comes with age was a top selection for about 21 percent of respondents.
As with overall satisfaction and expectations, major differences were noted on a generational level.
While both Silent Generation members and Boomers were equally as uninterested as second careers and more responsibility, they differed considerably in several notable areas, including:
- More time for leisure: Just over 48 percent of Silents rated this in their top three compared to about 25 percent of Boomers. This may be related to the fact that not all Baby Boomers have reached the magical age of retirement yet. But the oldest Boomers are well into their 70s, so one might expect that number to be higher.
- Spending time with children/grandchildren: Both groups were similarly happy to have time to spend with their grandchildren, but about 20 percent of Baby Boomers rated spending time with children in their top three compared to just over 10 percent of Silents.
- Financial stability: Secure fiscal status was the second-rated positive aspect by members of the Silent Generation (about 30 percent), while just over 20 percent of Baby Boomers put this in their top three, which may speak further to the fact that millions of Boomers are worried they might not be prepared for full retirement.
- Inner peace: Baby Boomers appear to be more connected to personal growth, as they were much more positive about having greater self-awareness (19 percent vs. 10 percent) and gaining wisdom (25 percent vs. 15 percent). This is perhaps not surprising for the Woodstock generation.
In most cases, male and female respondents didn't differ wildly in their estimation about which aspects of aging were the best, though there were some notable exceptions. For example, while few older adults are excited about the prospects of a second career, men were much more likely than women to put that in their top three.
Men and women were about equally as likely to list having less responsibility, more leisure time, and spending time with grandchildren among their top three, but in a handful of other ways, they diverged.
For example, in rating greater self-awareness and personal/spiritual growth or wisdom, women were several percentage points more likely to put these aspects in their top three. About one in four women said personal/spiritual growth or wisdom was one of the three best things about their age, while only about 12 percent of men said greater self-awareness was a favorite aspect of aging.
Across generational and gender groups, having more time for leisure was the highest-rated positive aspect about aging, and for all four groups, that was in the top five most commonly cited positive aspects.
A few other notable findings across gender and generation for older adults:
- Silent Generation women did not list spending time with children, grandchildren or friends and family among the best things about being their age, and they were the only group to list travel as a top benefit of aging.
- Leisure time was popular among all four groups, but more than one in two Silent Generation men said it was among the very best things about their age.
- Baby Boomer men rated retirement from professional life as the best thing about their age, with nearly 29 percent of the group placing that aspect at the top of their list. By the exact same percentage, their female counterparts rated personal/spiritual growth as one of their favorite features of aging.
Expectation vs. Reality
We've explored a bit about how older adults think of their lives compared to how they expected to feel at this age, but we also asked respondents to rate a handful of positive aspects about aging from the perspective of their younger selves. To be exact, we asked “When you were younger, what did you most look forward to in becoming an older adult?”
As with previous questions, respondents could select up to three aspects of aging that applied most to them. By far, the three features respondents said they were most expecting to enjoy once they reached this age were travel, financial stability, and having more time for leisure.
All three of those answers were among the most commonly cited aspects of what is best about aging, but in every case, the expectation didn't exactly come true. For example, nearly 52 percent of older adults said that travel was among the things their younger selves most looked forward to, but only about 22 percent of seniors said travel was one of the best things about aging.
Of course, we're living in the time of COVID-19, so perhaps the pandemic is cramping seniors' travel style. Let's take the second most common answer, financial stability. Just under 51 percent of older adults said their younger selves expected financial stability to be among the best things about getting older, but in reality, that was the case for less than half that number (just under 25 percent).
In all cases, respondents said their younger selves overrated these select aspects of aging, though some answers were pretty close to reality. For example, just over 23 percent said they'd looked forward to spending time with grandchildren, and just under 22 percent of older adults listed that as one of the favorite features of their lives today.
Respondents varied about what they expected to be the best aspects of getting older along both gender and generational lines. For example, Silent Generation men were most likely to say financial stability was one of the things they were most looking forward to, while Silent Generation women rated travel and leisure time as a tie for what they thought would be best about aging.
Financial stability was what Baby Boomer men most looked forward to, while leisure time was No. 1 for their female counterparts.
How did their predictions stack up to reality? As with the group overall, seniors tended to overrate positive aspects of aging when compared to reality. Some of the differences were stark, including:
- About nine percent of Silent Generation men said they looked forward to a second career when they were younger, but just over five percent rated that as one of the best parts of their lives today. And 59 percent of these men said they had been most looking forward to financial stability, while just under 31 percent rated it as one of the biggest aspects of getting older.
- The biggest expectation-reality gaps for Silent Generation women were in financial stability (about 45 percent were looking forward to experiencing that but only about 28 percent rate it highly) and travel (more than 58 percent had high travel expectations, while only about 32 percent put it among their favorite aspects of life).
- Both male and female Baby Boomers were pretty accurate in their predictions of their enjoyment of a second career and spending time with children and grandchildren, but both groups vastly overrated their expectations of travel, financial stability, and added leisure time, though, as we've already mentioned, many Boomers haven't yet reached full retirement age. Nearly half of Boomer men and women (46.7 percent and 49.4 percent, respectively) said they expected leisure time to be one of their favorite aspects. However, only about a quarter said that was one of the best features of their current lives (25.6 percent for men and 24.1 percent for women).
Hopes & Fears for Younger Adults
About 4 million members of Generation X, the oft-overlooked, disaffected MTV generation, will turn 55 years old in 2020, so they're right on the edge of being older adults. But for the purposes of our survey, we've grouped Gen-X'ers, Millennials and Gen-Z'ers in one group of younger adults — people between the ages of 18 and 54.
Younger adults, as their Silent Generation and Boomer counterparts, rate travel as the aspect of aging they're most looking forward to, though the gap between travel and financial stability, which also ranked second for older adults, is much more pronounced. But notably, all respondents were fairly well-aligned in rating financial stability and leisure time as positive aspects of getting older (around 47-50 percent in both groups listed them among the things they were looking forward to about being in the older-adult age bracket).
Another notable difference: Just over 12 percent of older adults said that when they were younger, one of the aspects of aging they most looked forward to was spending time with their children; nearly 28 percent of younger adults said that's one of their most anticipated activities. This is perhaps a product of many respondents in the younger age group not yet having children, though the two groups had similar expectations about spending time with grandchildren.
For all but one gender/generational slice, travel is the aspect of aging that was most often cited as one respondents were looking forward to, with Generation Z women being most likely to say they were looking forward to travel when they get older.
Men in Generation Z, often referred to as Zoomers (a play on Baby Boomers), were the only gender/generational group among younger adults that didn't rate travel as the top thing they were looking forward to as they grow older, though their answers generally were spread more evenly than any other group. It's also worth noting that Zoomers were the least represented generation group in our survey.
Nearly three in four female Zoomers said travel was something they were looking forward to when they get older, which was the highest percentage, followed by Millennial women, about 62 percent of whom said the same.
Financial stability is in the top three answers for every group (and No. 1 for Gen Z men), while the lowest-rated aspect of aging is the prospect of a second career. This is probably because few of these people are even halfway done with their first career, but it's notable that the group rating a second career highest are those closest to retirement — 10 percent of Gen X men and nearly 9 percent of Gen X women.
Both Gen X and Millennial women were more likely than their male counterparts to say spending time with grandchildren was something they most looked forward to when they get older, while Gen Z men were several percentage points more likely than their female counterparts to say the same.
The quality of one's life is intensely personal, and it can change depending on the day. Studies have shown there's a serious happiness shortage in the U.S. (and it's getting worse because of the pandemic), but if the respondents in our survey are any indication, the best years may still be ahead.
We surveyed nearly 800 Americans about their attitudes toward aging, including asking those whose generations aren't yet retirement age about what they're most and least looking forward to as they age, as well as asking older adults what's best about being the age they are.
Here are the generational definitions we used:
- The Silent Generation, born before 1945
- Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964
- Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980
- Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996
- Generation Z, born in 1997 and beyond
Our survey was conducted online in September 2020.