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New documentary spotlights ‘The Boomer Century’

The first thing we noticed is that it’s going against “American Idol.” But that’s what video recorders are for. Go ahead and record “American Idol” if you must, but don’t miss the first airing of “The Boomer Century,” a two-hour documentary Wednesday night, March 28, on PBS (9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, check local listings).

Entertaining and upbeat but also sobering and movingly poignant at times, “The Boomer Century” is both a retrospective and visionary look at the 78-million Baby Boom generation that has transformed American society and is set to redefine retirement and old age.

And the documentary’s music, a veritable soundtrack of Boomer history including the songs of liberation and protest of the 1960s, beats anything “American Idol” has to offer.

Technically, we don’t qualify as Boomers - the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, plus another 2 million immigrants the same age. (I was born in 1945 and Georgina in 1944.)

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But having come to this country as teen-agers seeking freedom from Communist Cuba, we identify closely with the idealism, anti-authoritarianism, openness to change and sense of self-empowerment that have characterized the Baby Boom generation, one that was reared to believe we can pursue and achieve our dreams, and make our own choices.

“I think viewers will learn to understand the personality of the Boomer generation from the inside out,” said gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, the documentary’s host and a Boomer himself.

“They’ll see what unique historical forces have shaped their views, values, ambitions - and neuroses,” Dychtwald said. They will also learn about the future, “how we might live, work or retire, love, play, grieve, how we’ll spend, save, play and how, hopefully, we might even give back,” he said.

We have long been fans of Dychtwald, the author of 14 books on aging-related issues and founder of Age Wave, a San Francisco-based think tank. Having watched a preview DVD of the documentary, showcasing Dychtwald’s infectious energy and thoughtful insights, this latest effort does not disappoint.

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Interpersed throughout the documentary, which was produced and directed by Emmy-award winner Joel Westbrook and Neil Steinberg, are interviews with dozens of prominent voices of their generation, including filmmakers Oliver Stone and Rob Reiner; civil rights pioneer Julian Bond; author Erica Jong; futurist Alvin Toffler, healthy aging doctor Andrew Weil and playwright Eve Ensler.

One major theme: Boomers’ lifetime frustration with the “status quo” and their desire for continued personal re-invention means they are often searching for new careers, new travel and leisure experiences and new ways to love, learn and to enjoy life. Some are moving back to cities instead of heading to isolated retirement communities, and many plan to do everything possible to postpone physical aging.

“The point is,” Dychtwald said of Boomers’ way of life and mentality, “I can do anything I want.”

But when the documentary looks to the future, it’s clear this next stage of life will be the Boomers’ greatest challenge. Lengthening life spans will overtax the nation’s health care and Social Security systems, with the burden possibly falling on younger generations, and many Boomers will have to work longer due to lack of savings.

And beyond the Botox and adventure vacations, Boomers must try to find purpose and meaning in the last third of their lives - something millions of them already do by volunteering at a greater rate than any other age group in the United States. “We now have more time, money and, hopefully, wisdom to contribute than any generation before us,” Dychtwald says toward the end of the documentary. The question is whether future generations will suffer from the world Boomers leave behind, or whether, by the time the first Boomer reaches 100 in 2046, the “Boomer Century” will be remembered as a “golden era of new freedoms, new ideas and new beginnings.”

“The choice,” Dychtwald tells Boomers to close the show, “is ours.”

Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.