No dynamic has shaped America's residential landscape more than the post-war baby boom. Huge numbers of the cohort emerged from vast tracts of affordable housing built to accommodate the GI Bill-bolstered middle class in the 1950s. Little coincidence, then, that as they took to settling down in the 1980s and 1990s, builders followed them back to the suburbs, igniting a 15-year building boom.
As 76 million boomers reach a new life-stage, retirement over the next two decades or so, builders might well anticipate a similarly profound impact on their business. It just may not be what they expect.
As much as the nation's economy turned on the predilections of baby boomers through the years, the group constantly defied convention and altered the status quo at nearly every turn. A generation that brought rock & roll from upstart trend to mainstream culture, it has often been characterized by shrugging at its own mortality, a mass Peter Pan complex that, if played out even by a plurality of the group, will redefine what “retirement” in fact means. So if the home-building business banks too heavily on a coming windfall for the now standardized warm-latitude “sunset” communities and age-restricted, it may be in for a rude awakening.
“Builders need to understand that what happened before may not happen again,” says Leonard Steinhorn, professor of journalism at American University and author of the book The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. “It's a different kind of generation, a generation that's going to want to remain engaged for much of their lives. You'll see boomers wanting to continue working beyond retirement, part time perhaps, but staying youthful, staying relevant. Builders have to be very careful about creating out-of-the-way communities in which assumption is boomers will be happy just hanging out among themselves playing golf.”
To be sure, the baby boomers' next stage portends a sea change in American communities. Pulte, with its Del Webb brand keyed to “Active Adult lifestyle communities,” has attempted to stay atop the coming age wave with its annual Baby Boomer Report in partnership with Harris Interactive, the most-recent version of which (2005) found that 50 percent of the near-retirement boomers (age 50-59) and 59 percent of younger boomers (41-49) say they'll purchase a new home in retirement. Two-thirds of older boomers with such intentions said they would move in search of a “better community lifestyle,” while 54 percent said they would seek warmer climes.
Whether that translates to standard senior migratory patterns of the past generation, however, remains in question. Del Webb's report finds that 35 percent of boomers would not or would be unlikely to consider an Active Adult community, versus 44 percent who would or were likely to consider it. A pivotal 19 percent say they're yet to think about it. Del Webb finds 39 percent of younger boomers and 46 percent of their older counterparts wishing to stay in their current homes throughout their retirement. Parent Pulte has to some degree anticipated the “aging in place” trend, the desire of a substantial plurality of boomers to stand fast in their communities, if not their current homes. Tracking this, it has brought Del Webb community developments northward to such states as Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio.
TAKE TWO Another block of research, by Doran Levy and Carol Morgan, principals of Strategic Directions Group of St. Paul, Minn., and authors of 2004's exhaustive study Marketing to the Mindset of Boomers and Their Elders, finds that for the near term, the next 10 years, 70 percent of the cohort intending to buy a home expect it to be in the same state. Even its most well-off subsets, whom their book terms “Financial Positives” and “Upbeat Enjoyers,” intend to do so at 74 percent and 59 percent rates respectively. The aggregate, they say, portends a much smaller market in the near term than some might expect.
Curiously, Levy and Morgan found that only 12 percent want it to be in communities for “adults over a certain age.” Pivotal in how baby boomers make their home-buying decisions may be the very notion of “retirement” and all the rhetorical baggage that goes along with it. “There's a certain negativism about moving to retirement communities,” Levy says.
“This is a group that's not going to tolerate being warehoused,” says American University's Steinhorn. “No one's under illusion they're going to stay forever young, but youthful, what does ‘youthful' mean? It means to adapt to change, to adjust and not be stuck in what's old. They grew up in an economy based on a manufacturing and industrial base, and they shifted when it did, to one based on information. Boomers understand that change is one of few constants in life. They saw in their parents generation people who seemed to think you had to play a certain role and fully accept ‘adult' responsibilities, work and family. This is one of hardest working generations around, but they've always said, ‘I'm gonna have some fun too.' They may've been in a little bit of hibernation, because they had kids later in life, but they're becoming reengaged, and it's hard to be reengaged if you're miles away from all the activity.”