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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Boomers turning 60 often celebrate with experiences

The year leading up to Molly Huss’ 60th birthday was terrific.

She was physically stronger than she’d ever been, and she was working on a master’s degree at Eastern Washington University in preparation for her encore career as a mental health counselor.

The two daughters she and her husband, Richard Huss, raised together were grown and successfully launched.

How to celebrate this milestone?

She emailed dozens of women friends and invited them to join her in a dragon boat race along the Spokane River, a fundraiser for the Spokane Parks Foundation in 2007.

Her River Sisters crew, made up of 20 women and one man, came in last, but no one cared.

Huss’ mother died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism at 57, so every year Huss lives beyond that?

“It’s a bonus,” Huss, now 65, said.

As the United States prepares to celebrate its July 4 birthday Thursday, we’re in birthday mode at Boomer U, looking at the ways boomers mark the age-60 milestone.

“Sixty is really a pivotal age,” said Kathy Merlock Jackson in a recent phone interview. The 57-year-old boomer and Virginia Wesleyan College professor is the author of “Rituals and Patterns in Children’s Lives.”

“You’re becoming a senior citizen. It’s the last really big bash before retirement. Parties are celebrations of growing older and what you can still do.”

Pin the tail on the memory

When you search “1950s/1960s children’s birthday parties” on YouTube, you’ll find home movies posted there, converted to digital files from family movies shot long ago with 8 mm cameras and film.

It doesn’t matter where in the United States the home movies originated, the same birthday staples appear in the movies.

Coned hats with strings that left marks under the kids’ necks. Homemade cake or homemade cupcakes, ice cream cones. No goody bags.

Games included red rover, tag and pin the tail on the donkey.

The gifts? Modest.

Al Kiefer, 59, grew up in north Spokane. His birthday is June 8, so the parties were held outside or in the garage to make it easy to sweep up afterward.

“One time, I was probably 5 or 6 years old, and I was waiting for people to show up. I was with my mom on the front porch, and I said ‘I wonder what kind of presents I’ll get this year.’

“My mom just exploded and said ‘This is not about presents. I don’t care if someone gives you a piece of gum. You’ll acknowledge that person as much as anybody else.’ ”

These 1950s-’60s boomer parties, as modest as they were, still represented a major cultural shift in attitudes toward children.

“The post-war period was the high water period of childhood,” Jackson said. “During the Depression, you had tough economic times. The preoccupation was in other places. The ’40s were the war years. By the ’50s, the preoccupation was in raising families. There was more money and more attention paid to kids. Having kids was the thing to do.”

Birthday parties evolved into a birthright for most boomers.

As for 60th birthdays, there is a sense of back to the future. The parties tend to be about people not things.

“When you’re turning 60, for most people, there’s nothing you want. You don’t need gifts. What you really value are experiences,” Jackson said.

“We’re losing our parents, and our children are on their own. We find comfort in reconnecting with old friends, who know our histories, and enjoying the company of those currently in our inner circles. Meaningful experiences trump material gifts.”

The party pig in the python

The baby boomer generation spans 1946 to 1964, but boomers born in the 1950s are considered “the pig in the python” because there were so many of them, compared with the boomers born in the 1940s and 1960s.

The 1950s-born boomers create an unavoidable bulge in the middle.

These 1950s-born boomers started turning 60 three years ago, when the economy was still deep in the blues, so event planners can’t yet see any discernible trends in how boomers will celebrate turning 60.

Megan Kasper, special events sales manager at The Davenport Hotel, hasn’t yet noticed an uptick in birthday parties celebrating 60, though last February one man hired his wife’s favorite band, Huey Lewis and the News, to perform for her 60th birthday at the Davenport Hotel in a friends-and-family concert.

You read it right. Huey Lewis and the News, in Spokane, playing a concert at a 60th birthday party.

Well-known musicians often play at private parties in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but will more and more boomers, even in smaller cities, spring for private concerts, too?

Likely, 60th celebrations will celebrate survival, especially among boomers whose parents died before age 60.

“My mother died of a heart attack at 64,” Jackson said. “My husband’s father died of a heart attack at 64. I don’t think it was unusual for baby boomers to see parents die at (those) ages.”

Likely, 1950s-born boomers will celebrate their physical and emotional fitness at age 60. Boomers grew up listening to the 1967 Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four” which painted life at 64 as a mellow time of knitting, taking car rides, bouncing grandchildren on the knees, scrimping and saving and sometimes feeling unneeded and ignored.

Likely, 1950s-born boomers will value more than ever being remembered on their birthdays – not necessarily by presents, but by phone calls, emails, texts or old-fashioned greeting cards.

Each year, Al Kiefer sends out more than 200 birthday cards to friends and family members, always with a New Yorker cartoon Scotch-taped to the back of the envelope.

He carefully chooses the cards – and the cartoons – to match the birthday recipient’s personality and interests.

He receives about 100 cards when his June birthday comes along. And one friend even found a cartoon that read: “My other car is a bookmobile.”

Kiefer is a mobile library technical assistant for Spokane Public Library, aka the bookmobile guy.

Why does he send so many cards?

“I do it for the joy of doing it,” he said. “And it acknowledges – in writing – my friends and our friendships at one golden time of year.”