Rewriting Retirement Living

Those boomers! They’re doing it again! Just as it has been through every other stage of their lives, they are reinventing retirement and laying out a new paradigm for what they see for themselves in their 'retirement' years.

By By Myril Axelrod | April 27, 2000
Baby boomers demand individuality in their next stage homes, including specialty rooms like wine cellars, home offices, hobby rooms and inlaw or guest suites.


Those boomers! They’re doing it again! Just as it has been through every other stage of their lives, they are reinventing retirement and laying out a new paradigm for what they see for themselves in their "retirement" years. True to their reputation, they are going to do it their way.

When Professional Builder traveled the country, talking to leading edge baby boomers (now 45 to 54 ) about retirement, from one after another we heard:

"I will never retire." "I’m going to work till I die." "I like what I do, there’s no reason to retire." "When people say they retire, they mean they are quitting one job and going to another."


PB Focuses On Aging Boomers
To build on the data gathered in last year’s first-ever survey of the housing wants and needs of aging baby boomers, Professional Builder gathered together more than 100 participants in five different cities. Each participant of the target demographic group - baby boomers aged 45 to 54 - devoted two hours to answering questions about their visions of retirement and retirement living.

Facilitator Myril Axelrod, president of Marketing Directions Associates, traveled to five regions of the country - Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest and West - conducting two focus groups in each location. Participants were divided into two groups: higher-income professionals and middle-income workers. Their comments form the basis for this special report.

Whether the participants were men or women, in professional or middle level jobs, the spontaneous response, with very few exceptions, was that retirement - even from their present job - is a long way off.

That is only half of the story. This group says there are still many things they want to do with their lives - other jobs, new challenges, etc. Interestingly, women often had their own gender-related reason to resist even the thought of retirement: "I don’t like to think about retirement. I feel like I’ve just gotten started."

Some women reported they had dropped out of the work world for a number of years to raise their children, and are only now able to make up for that lost time. This, for instance, from a single woman in Austin: "Retirement to me is settling. When I was growing up, there were only three jobs for a woman - teacher, nurse, or secretary. Now there are so many possibilities." Furthermore, she has a very specific 10-year plan for herself as a consultant in specialized services that is anything but teacher, nurse, or secretary!

The focus groups revealed that leading edge baby boomers don’t see their future as trading in work for a life of relative leisure, as earlier generations have known it. Rather, their plan is to retire from their present job and then move on to another job which they repeatedly characterize as "something I want to do."

They are also looking at this second job (or, in some cases, even a third job) as something that will give them more freedom and more control over their own time. "I like the freedom of being self-employed." "I see retirement as an opportunity to focus more on the things I like to do." "I see a home business where I can work when I want to and not work when I don’t."

Not Quite Yet
For the baby boomers, true retirement from all work will likely come much later than in any prior generation - not just the 10 or 15 years until the traditional 62 or 65-year-old retirement - but whenever they wind down from their second or third job.

Only two, at the most three, participants in each of the groups talked about retiring from their present job within the next few years, and very rarely did anyone talk about putting their work life behind them to move into a world of leisure and relaxation. Rather, the largest number of these leading edge baby boomers see themselves, five or 10 years down the road, still working at their same job, living in their same home, with retirement way off.

Even the few who had already taken early retirement from a first job were heavily involved in a second job. One New Jersey man had been a high-level police officer and was able to take early retirement at 47. Before he retired, he landed a video production job he could manage out of his home. At 52, he is heavily into this new career.

A North Carolina woman will retire in four years, at 49, from a job at the Department of Motor Vehicles. She and her husband will have good pensions from their government jobs, yet her plan for the next stage is to go to barber school, because "I’ve always wanted to." An electrician, now 48, is preparing for a second career in the computer arena by studying for an associate degree in computer information systems. A corporate executive moonlights now as a radio announcer, because "that’s the work I want to do."

There are apparently a number of factors - some realistic and pragmatic, some more attitudinal - that drive the baby boomers’ projections of their retirement or, to put it in their terms, their "next stage" of life.

Attitudinally, it is clear these leading edge baby boomers see themselves in the context of "I may be older, but I’ll never be old." Or as another put it: "We’re the ‘forever young’ generation. We don’t think in terms of being old."

Some describe themselves as a driven generation and they can’t see changing now. Some had already bounced about from job to job and admit they were late in starting both their careers and their family life. Others admit that true "retirement" would be an anathema to them: "I’m worried about what I would do with my time. I need something to keep me busy other than swimming and bike riding." "I need more structure to my day. After three days of vacation, I’m ready to go again."

Generational Shift
Dealing with these deeply entrenched generational attitudes could be one of the most important challenges for builders. It might be necessary to avoid the whole concept of retirement housing and to talk, instead, about life-stage housing. This generation is clearly into experiences - something they haven’t tried before.

Even beyond the attitudinal issues, our focus groups make it clear that there are several realities which will affect both when and how the potential baby boom market will impact the housing industry:

Still A Family: One after another, in every session and in every area, a good number of boomers reported that they can go nowhere and do nothing about next stage plans right now. They are still very much in their family stage of life and committed to educating their children and getting them started in life. Even though the participants in the study were all technically in the leading-edge segment of what demographers call the baby boom generation, many talked about obligations to family for the next eight, 10, 15 or even 20 years.


Some Del Webb communities feature the newest of all challenges - a rock climbing wall - in the community center. Also gaining in popularity are rollerblading clubs.


Some reported they had married later, which means they still have young children at home. Others are on their second, or occasionally third marriages, and they too, often have young children. "I’ve got an 11-year-old and a 27 and a 25-year-old." "Child support stops in five years and then I’ll still have to deal with college."

Whether the participants are in blue or white collar jobs, or in professional or executive positions, these parents clearly put a great deal of importance on their children’s education and higher education. They see themselves as a well-educated generation and insist upon providing this advantage for their children too.

Not Financially Prepared: Boomers are realizing rather late that they have not adequately planned for retirement and the income cut-back involved.

Some respondents felt they should have enough money for their retirement through their investments in company savings plans and 401Ks. There were also a few in the various groups who claimed they had been savers all their lives and who felt they could be secure enough financially to retire.

In each of the groups, there were inevitable reminders that this is a generation of people who, for the most part, lived for the moment, and put primary emphasis on doing what they wanted to do. They often moved from job to job without the possibility of building up equity in a pension program and were frequently the happiest when they were working for themselves. There was even an amusing comment in the Raleigh sessions from a man who reported (with obvious embarrassment) that, unlike most of his generation, he has been putting money into savings for more than 20 years because that is what his accountant demanded. "But," he confessed, "I feel old-fashioned!"

This revelation was particularly apt since it seems that the bulk of the retirement planning for this generation is not in programmed savings, as it was with their parents’ generation, but rather in 401Ks and other investments. Some even acknowledge that if it weren’t for their company programs and promotion of the 401Ks, they would have nothing.

It is interesting, too, that, although the boomers realize their reliance on these kinds of investments could be risky, they are apparently crossing their fingers and trusting it will all work out. "I hope to make a lot of money in the stock market." "I’ll want to retire when my investments become profitable. A 401K has been wonderful - if things keep going well."

The message for builders and developers: Although this generation is profiled as big spenders with considerable discretionary income, it will be wise to consider carefully when and how financially prepared they will be for their next step move. Not all baby boomers are going to be able to "show you the money" for some time.

Active Adult? Not Me
The focus groups provide strong indications that, at this point, baby boomers don’t see today’s active adult communities as a place they want to live. They have real difficulty putting themselves in that picture, especially considering their picture of these communities.

In each of the sessions, a few people spoke favorably about some of the communities and told about relatives or older friends living there and loving it. However, even in these instances, it was clear that this was an option for their parents rather than for themselves.

This was confirmed, too, in conversations PB had with staff at several of the newest Del Webb communities. Baby boomers are coming to these new communities and checking them out. However, this is often either along with their parents or definitely in the context of looking for their parents.

Daniel Urben, senior sales manager at Del Webb’s Sun City Huntley near Chicago, believes "baby boomers have not come to terms with looking for themselves," and this clearly appeared to be the case throughout these focus groups. Comments from participants include: "Del Webb’s Georgetown has great characteristics for retirement, even though I don’t want to be there." "I’m not old enough to look there yet."

The fact is that new residents coming into the active adult communities are getting younger and younger each year, with an average age at many of the communities now at 61 and 62. And though there is vitality, activity and energy percolating at many of the communities, the "old" perception persists. Many of the familiar complaints were raised again: "I don’t want to be with only old people - all they do is sit around and talk about their aches and pains." "My notion of retirement communities is people vegetating. I want to be around active people." "I don’t want to be where everybody has a stick or cane."

Part of the problem may be confusion. Baby boomers hear "retirement community" and they think of the health-oriented communities where the residents are considerably older and where the emphasis is on health care and medical services. They don’t think of the amenity and activity-rich active adult communities, designed for empty nesters and younger retirees who are physically well and active. As vigorously as the active adult industry has tried to get its message out, confusion still remains.

As the earlier discussion suggests, it could be a turnoff for communities aiming at baby boomers to identify as a "retirement" anything.

It is encouraging that the boomers often warmed to the community concept - one that is maintenance-free; brings all the shopping conveniences, entertainment and restaurants into the area; and provides the warmth of a neighborhood. Some even wondered if there will be communities "for younger people" (presumably people of their age and generation) when they are ready for them.


While golf continues to be a draw with the baby boomers, other desired community features include walking trails in a natural environment and competitive amenities - basketball courts, running tracks, indoor lap pools and state-of-the-art exercise facilities.


However, in group after group, they insisted that the present retirement communities would not be for them, raising not only the "for older people" image, but also the aspects of the present communities which are in conflict with their own thinking:

Too Many Rules: This generation, above all else, likes to think they are individualists. They put big emphasis on doing their own thing and on being free to express their independence and individuality. They see themselves as leading the charge for freedom and individual expression with their revolts and protests during the sixties. "Our generation comes from the sixties. We want to go against the way we were brought up."

Again and again the issue of the "excessive rules and regulations" at the present communities was raised, with a number of the participants insisting they could never live with the kind of control they associate with those communities. Some even had the mistaken impression that the environment would be like a "camp" where a host of activities and programs are scheduled and everybody is pressured to attend.

"I would feel restricted in what I was doing. I don’t want to live with rules." "I want to be able to do my own things, change things, build walls, but I may not be able to do what I want." "I don’t mind building codes but I do mind lifestyle codes."

Clearly, it will always be necessary to have appropriate rules and regulations in order to maintain the integrity of a community. However, some builders of the newer active adult communities have heard the "I need choices" message. Anticipating the relevance that message has for the baby boomer residents they one day hope to attract, these builders are exploring ways to offer greater flexibility and help prospects feel they have more independence and freedom of choice.

At Del Webb’s Sun City Georgetown in Texas, vice president of sales and marketing Laurie Tarver describes their flexible approach to individual landscaping and wide choice of landscaping packages and options. She also says the community is dealing with regulations for visiting grandchildren and points out that special programs and features have been developed for the grandchildren.

Del Webb Georgetown even offers a two week summer camp program where residents and their grandchildren have the opportunity to share classes and activities together. The camp is a great favorite with the residents, Tarver reports, selling out almost immediately every year.


Baby boomers are willing to trade total square footage for a smaller overall space that features an open floor plan plus upgraded amenities, including appliances, cabinets, flooring, bathroom fixtures and wiring.


She also stresses the importance of how regulations are presented by the sales staff and how sensitive the sales people are to the residents’ point of view.

Committed to Diversity: In one group after another, in all income ranges and occupations, participants insisted they are against "any kind of discrimination" and very much for "diversity." Diversity applies to age and any age-restricted community is not for them.

Age restriction, they insist, is "not natural and contrived." A Raleigh woman, for instance, said, "I like a more natural neighborhood. Retirement communities don’t feel like home to me." Others said:



  • "I have a major problem with places that discriminate on age. I wonder when people begin to decide to separate from the rest of the people."



  • "I don’t want to live with people just my age. I want kids running around, not just a bunch of old folks."

    The diversity issue could be a big one to consider when building for this generation of buyers. It is something they have been championing all of their lives and if a community is marketed too blatantly as specifically for their age group, it could be a real turnoff. Some builders are approaching the issue by using Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND), looking to locate in in-town areas, or by exploring opportunities within a larger master planned development.

    Boomers will be looking for the ease of living, the conveniences and the access to amenities a planned community can give them. Placing them in a setting where they feel more in touch with the larger community could provide an environment keyed to them, yet also mindful of their issues.

    No Individuality in Design: Boomers balk at the sameness and lack of individuality in homes at today’s active adult communities. They complain about the cookie-cutter, regimented look of the homes and streetscapes. They feel there would be no opportunity to express individuality in one of these communities. This has been a long-standing complaint about the existing communities, and forward-looking builders are making huge strides in adding design variety.

    At Del Webb’s new community in Lincoln Hills, California, the product line includes a series of courtyard homes with each elevation so different that there is virtually no resemblance from one house to another. Some designs include a separate casita opening off the courtyard for a private office, extra space for guests, a playroom, or a mother-in-law suite. The courtyards can be gated or not. They can have wrought iron, stone or wood paneled gates. They can have columns or no columns, landscaping or no landscaping, casita or no casita. And the courtyard series is just one in a mix of 54 exterior designs.

    In the Georgetown, Texas Del Webb community, too, homes are anything but cookie-cutter. Each house is set on the lot wherever it can best take advantage of the mature oak trees throughout the community. Some are forward, some are further back, and each has its own oak tree and an owner specified landscaping package. Sometimes a lot will even be left empty so as not to disturb the natural location of a tree!


    Baby boomers want small, maintenance-free outdoor spaces that offer privacy as well as views of open, natural areas.


    Similarly, in a new section of homes being developed for baby boomers at Carolina Trace, a lakeside golf community in Sanford, NC, there are no traditional streetscapes. Rather, homes are positioned so that each will have its own view on the 325 mile sailing lake and lush woodland setting.

    At the Del Webb community outside of Chicago, the land plan takes advantages of the natural landscape. In fact, a creek running through the property was redirected to allow it to follow its original course and restore a natural breeding ground for a rare variety of fresh water mussels.

    The re-routing of the stream also reflects concern for the environment, which is yet another issue on the minds of the baby boomer generation. They will no doubt be raising it when they choose their next home.

    Selling to Baby Boomers
    As boomers wander into the active adult communities, sales people are getting their first clues on how to work with them as prospects. Knowing how much importance boomers place on individuality, Dan Urben at Del Webb’s Huntley community says he spends a great deal of time investigating how these buyers plan to live in the house and community.

    He encourages them to talk about how they will be using the house, which areas will be especially important to them, how the house should fit their self image, and about their preferences and interests. Boomers, he says, look at a home much more in terms of what it says about them and how it reflects on their image than do most other buyers.

    Before he even takes the boomer out to the model park, Urben zeroes in on the few models that speak most specifically to what he has learned about the prospects. Rather than show them everything available, he concentrates on matching the home to the individual. He spends time working with the prospect on how adaptable a home can be. They explore different configurations, expanding elevations, etc. Knowing their hobbies, he work with them to adjust space and apply some creativity in making the home work for that hobby.

    Even if the move is way down the line, Urben says, boomers respond because "they like to feel they’re using their time efficiently. They like that they are being treated as an individual, and they are willing to let me guide the project because I have demonstrated that I recognize them and what’s on their mind."

    At Huntley, the philosophy in dealing with the boomers is to provide them with a starting point and to "show them how to have fun with it." Designers encourage buyers to experiment with different flooring materials and different designs, showing them how they can do their own thing with tiles, woods, etc.

    "Boomers are more willing to go out on a limb than the older buyers," says Urben. "They are more adventurous, less committed to staying with what they have. They can be more willing to chuck everything out and start all over again.

    "They will be particularly exciting prospects to work with whenever they make their move."

    Also See:

    Sidebar: Coming Boomer-Friendly Communities

    Sidebar: Coming Boomer-Friendly Home

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