The retiring of the vast sect of the population collectively known as Baby Boomers has several economic alarms going off. Due largely to this phenomena, by the year 2030, the number of people in the U.S. age 65 and above will double in size.
Concerns abound about whether there will be enough Social Security funds to cover retirement and what the impacts on the economy will be with this large group leaving the workforce. While these concerns are real, making an accurate assessment of the future requires going beyond analyzing demographic data by also taking into consideration cultural tendencies.
The Baby Boomer generation covers an immense swath of the population making it difficult to generalize much about them. If one is to look at the 1960s and ‘70s, the social movements reflected an earnest attempt to manipulate the future into one where peace would be king. The optimistic spirit of the time led a small but influential group of Boomers to join communes and relinquish traditional American values altogether.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, many Boomers had no problem reneging their oft-stated egalitarian values. Conspicuous consumption became the order of the day and newly christened Boomer parents became preoccupied with gaining an advantage over one another by vicariously living through the achievements of their young children --- a notion parodied in the 1989 Ron Howard directed movie ‘Parenthood.’
Yet, ironically, Boomers still often clung to the values and culture of their youth. Even Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs, who created a technological empire based on marketing of the idea of individuality, cites the use of the hallucinogenic drug LSD as ‘one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life.’
So now, we have the ultimate irony. Boomers have tended to think of themselves as ‘forever young,’ either in spirit or by heading down to the local Botox clinic, but they are becoming as elderly population. Of course, many will put off the acknowledgement of aging. Often self-defined by their work, many will retire much later or not at all. In addition, with concerns about Social Security, some will continue working in order to support their accustomed lifestyle.
Not surprisingly, real estate speculators and developers are taking aim at predicting where Baby Boomers will retire. Much has been talked about a mass ‘return to the city’ by empty nesters. The amenities that are offered by a cosmopolitan lifestyle will most likely appeal to some, but the fast-paced nature of the big city --- and high prices in the most attractive urban cores --- will probably keep the majority seniors out in the suburbs or moving to the countryside.
Similarly, Boomers generally will avoid living in an ‘old-folks’ home --- unless totally necessary. The idea of not being self-sufficient, even in old age, contradicts core Boomer values. Many hope, rather, that their children will reciprocate the years of generous financial support and let them live with them.
The previous generation has shown that if indeed retirees are to move away from where they have spent the previous years of their lives, there is a propensity to go to where the climate is warm. This leads me to believe that, although both Florida and Arizona, are suffering from the mortgage crisis, these and other warm-weather states will retain their attractiveness. Indeed, the lower prices now offered could spark a resurgence of retirees in the coming years.
But the main place for aging boomers will be precisely whey are now: the suburbs. While the suburbs are definitely not the same place characterized by Ozzie and Harriet, Baby Boomers show a preference for places where neighborhood and community are of high importance. This would partly explain why suburban college towns, even in states with dwindling real estate values, are showing strong resilience. College towns, despite their transient student populations, have a tendency to foster communities based around the functions and cultural amenities offered by a University. College towns also tend to have ‘traditional’ downtowns that remind Boomers of the kinds of places where they grew up.
The only sure thing about the Boomers is they are a generation rife with contradictions. They can be seen as the beginning of the postmodern era, where America began the descent from its cultural apex in history. To Boomers, hard work and manufacturing was passé. Largely because their parents had come out victorious in World War II, they started in their early years to think it was party time. Even as Boomers got older and started having children, ridding themselves of platform shoes and polyester suits, they carried on some of their social values. As Boomers enter the next phase of their life, retirement, values --- like a quest for independence and a search for authenticity --- will continue to inform their choices.