With 76 million baby boomers hitting their 60s over the next two decades, it's hard to fault builders for rushing headlong to expand the number of active-adult communities in their development portfolios. There is no doubt that millions of baby boomers will move to a new or different home as they retire. What is in question, however, is what baby boomers really want out of their retirement years; and whether builders may be applying outdated notions of retirement to a generation that has a long history of turning traditional lifestyle patterns inside out.
A new assessment by three veteran demographic analysts, in fact, published in March's Harvard Business Review, adds weight to that concern. The authors—Ken Dychtwald, Tamara Erickson, and Bob Morison—conclude that the whole notion of retirement as we've come to know it “should be put out to pasture.” Their conclusion is part of broader concern about the looming impact retiring baby boomers will have on America's workforce. Their concerns bear important implications not only for U.S. home builders as marketers, but also as employers.
Their primary warning focuses on the dramatic decline in available workers that will occur over the next decade, noting that by pushing out aging boomers, “many managers may be marching their companies straight off a demographic cliff.” The fact is, the number of baby boomer offspring (ages 16 to 24) and workers ages 25 to 44 simply are not growing fast enough to replace the droves of baby boomers beginning to exit the workforce. That's not to mention the skills and experience boomers are taking with them. While Americans are fixated on anemic job growth and the off-shoring of jobs these days, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2010, the shortfall in workers in the U.S. will reach 10 million.
The good news, the trio says, is that most baby boomers would prefer to work—or fear they must work—during their retirement years. They just want to do so on more flexible terms. The study delves into the need for employers, as well as tax code, pension, and benefit regulators, to overhaul decades of policies in order to close the looming gap.
The message for home builders, however, is this: The concept of active-adult communities as havens of health clubs and leisure activities appears to be missing the emerging need and desire among most baby boomers to stay flexibly employed.
That's not to suggest that builders abandon their state-of-the-art fitness centers and pilates classes. What would seem to matter more to retiring boomers, though, are communities distinctly geared for part-time consultants, project managers, mentors, telecommuters, and contract workers who want to work when they choose so they have the time and resources to pursue their other interests, including leisure activities.
Why not, for instance, have community executive suites? Or perhaps job-share or telecommuting centers? Imagine creating a new kind of Kinko's next door to the fitness center, with work stations and supplies, but also with shared tech support and business services where resident-workers can network as well as socialize. And while we're at it, how about a resource center to help boomers cope with the challenges of caring for their aging parents? In essence, expand the whole concept of active-adult communities.
Preparing to employ those same flexible-retirement boomers may also begin to make sense for builders. Big builders depend on good managers and mature customer service people as much as any other business. Wouldn't retiring boomers shopping for a new community rather deal with an intelligent peer than some sales star fresh out of college? The real challenge: Will boomers even want to work for you? The Home Depot's recent partnership with the AARP, to reach out to the group's vast ranks of members age 50 and older, may well be a sign of the times to come for growing companies competing for talent.
Big builders are enjoying a golden era right now. In the future, savvy builders may well consider developing communities that not only attract new-age retirees as customers, but which also creatively harvest their experience and talent.