PICKLES WAS THE NAME OF A FAMILY DOG, living on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride from Seattle, in the mid-1960s, as the last of 76 million people we call baby boomers came to be. In the summer of ‘65, Pickles liked to race across court and nab a wiffle ball in the middle of a game his owners were busy inventing the rules of, and then dash off pell-mell to hide in the bushes with his prize. They named the game—What else?—Pickle's ball. All it takes to play is an oversized ping-pong paddle and a standard-issue wiffle ball of the type you're still apt to see being pitched—during breaks in the flow of cars—across a narrow Brooklyn, N.Y., street—by a dad to his young son or daughter brandishing a big red plastic bat. Singles or doubles, Pickle-ball players oppose one another across a net on a badminton-size hard top court.

Forty years later, the game—somewhere in that anaerobic nether-world between sport, enthusiasm, and past-time—has become an integral part of a coed phenomenon we just have to make note of as we focus on the passions of active adult living today.

A whole new ball game, you might say.

That's just what those 76 million folks born between the years 1946 and 1964—the baby boom—represent for big builders trying today to ready their stock for home buyers that society and the industry have already gone some distance to accommodate by changing terminology from “seniors” to “active adults.” But whether the 28 percent of today's U.S. population, moving as of midnight, Dec. 31 of this year into their 60s, will accept that verbiage, or anything else about what has hitherto served aging Americans' living needs, is the cause of no little concern.

Consider this quotation from the CEO of one of America's top 50 home building companies. “The idea of retiring to an age-restricted place, two to three hours from where I live now, and away from the rest of the family, where I'd have to go to cocktails every day at 4 p.m., and talk about a crack running down the length of one of my stucco columns, and then head off to a 5 o'clock special dinner… It's enough to send shivers up my spine!”

Lest we need reminding, the last Oldsmobile General Motors manufactured, a cherry red Alero, rolled off the production line in Lansing, Mich., on April 29, 2004. Olds executives just over a decade ago might likely have been salivating at the promise the baby boom represented as it aged into the grown up, well-heeled life stage the cohort would reach by the late 1990s and beyond. Demographic destiny perfectly positioned their division for an onslaught of new customers. They thought.

Instead, the Olds brand is dead at age 106.

Yes, today's baby boom generation spans the ages 41 to 59, people in the sweet spot of their careers, many of them either newly enjoying, or so close to “empty nest-hood” they can almost taste it. Yes, they account for half of all the money American consumers spend in a year, and they're good and ready to be good and done with the self-appointed task of going down as the planet's best bunch of parents there ever were or will be.

So what's the likelihood the term “active adult” will hold up? What are the odds that people who grew up exhibiting a voracious need to be proximate to both older and younger generations—if only to make damn sure that they have more than any generation ever had or ever will have—are suddenly going to think it's a terrific idea to move away and congregrate in age-restricted projects or communities?

We feel your “Boomerangst”, and feel it's right to focus on people and projects aiming at tomorrow's aging home buyer. They're offering distinct departures from neighborhoods—like The Villages—that thrive, thanks to the people who made Oldsmobile the powerful brand it once was. For the record, the new ball game will involve a greater oxygen deficit level than Pickle-ball.

John McManus, Editor
e-mail: jmcmanus@hanleywood.com