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PApril 11, 2013

Make Room for the Baby Boomers: They Are Coming Home.

The generation that bore our baby boomers celebrated a new type of housing in the 1950’s, it was called suburbia. They had returned home from the war and moved from the cities.  They had newfangled cars, financing supplied by the G.I. Bills and a brand new system of roads that allowed them to commute long distances to find their one acre lots.  It was nirvana.

And then they grew old.  Their kids put them into their newfangled cars and drove their parents away from their one acre lots, along the roads their generation built during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, into institutions that became surrogates for community, healthcare, and recreation.  And when the “Greatest Generation” died, the shift in housing and retirement that they created may have died with them. Their children, the baby boomers, are emerging as very different thinkers. Yes, the irony is that they could possibly be undoing everything their parents did, but wouldn’t that be appropriate for the Woodstock generation?

According to the Urban Land Institute, 40 million baby boomers turn 65 by the end of this decade. And they want something very different than their parents.  Maybe it’s because they didn’t really like where they drove their parents, maybe it’s because institutions can no longer afford the “be all and end all” delivery systems they produced, and maybe it is because the baby boomers are tired of being disconnected by suburbia and want to spend their second round of adulthood socializing.  It will be interesting to see how the market responds.

url-3Boomers want more intellectual stimulation:  In Delaware, we can look to the Roxanna Arscht facility created by the University of Delaware to see that boomers don’t want to stop learning.  The Kendal senior living organization, headquartered in Kennett Square, PA, is putting their Friends communities in college towns and Leisure Care Retirement Communities has created a Brain Fitness Center.  Something tells me that three bookshelves in the community center won’t be enough for these “new kids on the block”.  They’ll want an intellectual playground.

url-6Boomers want to age in their own home:  The Urban Land Institute study, Housing in America – The Baby Boomers Turn 65, surveyed seniors and found that they don’t want to live in institutions…period.  But this emotional response is at odds with the extraordinary reality that they may need to exchange their financial nest egg for the security of living in an institution. The markets are just beginning to adjust to this dichotomy.  Over time we will see more models where boomers will be able to purchase insurance and recreational/intellectual programs, while living at home.  Communities of the future will likely be planned with seniors in mind, whereby education, medical care, culture and socialization can be found within a short walk from the house or a short walk by a provider to respond to the needs of the senior.

url-4Boomers are facing the expense of living longer:  My mom used to respond to a request for her to spend money by saying, “no thank you, I’m on a fixed income!”  Well, that is becoming the focus of baby boomers as they need to spread their accumulated financial assets over a longer period of time (hopefully!)   What is interesting is that the median income of a 65 year old, which used to be twice that of a 35-year-old, is now approaching the same amount as their much younger cohort, $45,000. Therefore, we are likely to see similar buying habits from both groups.  They are likely to want smaller homes, they are likely to consider rental units, they are likely to want to reduce the expense of automotive transportation (replacing it with walking), and they are likely to get a job in their community to supplement their income.

url-5This shift in buying preference from this significantly growing population will likely result in a new generation of community emerging.  For existing communities, we are likely to see allowances made for co-housing and for the integration of community centers within traditionally housing only suburbs.  For planners of new communities, we should expect the emergence of mixed-use villages whereby seniors can be plugged in to their daily needs.  We are also likely to see physical changes in the way we design communities.  Don’t be surprised if pathway lighting, curb cuts, way finding, communication technologies and universal design (removal of physical barriers in a way that everyone can enjoy the space), are topics that communities will all be discussing soon. The funny thing is, if we examined the urban areas that the parents of the baby boomers fled, we would see many of these elements already existed.  The Woodstock generation, who packed up their guitars in their VW busses, the Vietnam generation who went off to war, and the generation of engineers who followed the Kennedy challenge and studied in far off communities, might actually be coming home after all.  Let’s build communities to welcome them back.

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