WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, 2001
Boomers refuse to fade into the sunset
A generation begins to redefine "golden years" and retirement
housing on its own terms.
By Marilyn Gardner
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Late on a cloudless spring morning, the sound of hammers echoes through the
100-degree heat at Springfield Lakes, a new "active adult" community
southeast of Phoenix.
Rising on land where alfalfa and potatoes once grew is a $3-million,
24,000-square-foot recreation center that developers hope will be the crown
jewel for residents.
With its state-of-the-art fitness center, resort-style pool, spa, computer
learning center, and library, the center will be the perfect place, a sales
brochure promises, to "exercise your mind as well as your body."
Call it the good life, baby-boomer retirement style.
As the first boomers turn 55 this year, making them eligible to live in
age-restricted, 55-and-over communities, developers and builders around the
country are scrambling to find the right combination of
architecture and amenities like these to attract the biggest generation in
American history. Already at Springfield Lakes, spokesman Bruce Stokes
finds "a much younger, leading-edge baby-boom customer"
among early buyers. Their average age is "just a hair" under 60.
"We're [at the beginning] of a dramatic sea change in the way we live,"
says Barbara Caplan, a partner in Yankelovich Partners consulting firm in
New York. "Boomers are busting out all over. Boomers are not redefining
aging. What they are doing is redefining youth."
She notes that 58 percent of baby boomers like the idea of a new career if
and when they retire.
Two-thirds want more novelty and change in their lives.
So active is this group, in fact, that Del Webb Corp., developer of Sun
City, has dubbed boomers "Zoomers," anticipating that they will zoom into
their own version of "un-retirement" centered around work, learning, and play.
"Retirement is their fast lane," says LeRoy Hanneman, Jr., president of Del
Webb, adding, "In many ways they may never be seniors." Noting that 20
years from now, there will be a huge increase in the number of people aged
55 to 74, he calls Zoomers "a force to be reckoned with."
So great a force, in fact, that nearly 400 architects, developers,
builders, and interior-design specialists gathered in Phoenix last month to
consider ways to appeal to a generation that promises to redefine
retirement and reshape retirement housing. Their three-day symposium,
"Building for Boomers and Beyond," was sponsored by the National
Association of Home Builders.
It has been 41 years since Del Webb, a high school dropout turned carpenter
and developer, transformed 20,000 acres of cotton fields west of Phoenix
into the first Sun City. He offered a new vision for a stage of life then
considered the rocking-chair years. "Active" was the operative word.
Original brochures promoted "an active way of life," "paradise found,"
"activities unlimited" and "a bit of farming, too."
The first modest homes in this desert "paradise" ranged from 950 square
feet to 1,600 square feet. Prices started at $8,500 and went to $11,300.
Closets were small. Air conditioning was optional.
"It's almost like the Jetsons," says Paula Jennings, a spokeswoman for Del
Webb, referring to that early design. "It has the sense of being unreal, a
Today the best-selling model at Sun City Grand, the newest Del Webb
community in Phoenix, features 1,800 square feet and costs $180,000.
Residents' average age is 62. Amenities abound in the $7-million Adobe Spa
and Fitness Center. Forget shuffleboard courts. Think tennis courts,
softball leagues, and
Sociologists divide retirement-age Americans into two groups. The first,
dubbed the "Matures," now 55 and over, were born between 1909 and 1945.
They number 68 million. The second, the "Boomers," range in age from 36 to
55 and number nearly 78 million.
"We're selling homes to the Eisenhower generation now," says Mark Hughes of
Hughes Development in Mesa, Ariz., referring to a subgroup born between
1930 and 1945. "It's a piece of cake.
Boomers will be much more difficult." Eighty percent of his buyers are
retired, with 20 percent still employed.
Differences between these generations can be profound.
"Today's elder generation is very much anchored in their housing," says Ken
Dychtwald, author of "Age Power." "They're more inclined to have one
marriage, one career, one home. Boomers have changed
majors, careers, lifestyles, clothes, marriages. They don't want to move
into one place and stay there."
In one survey, Del Webb Corp. found that 43 percent of baby boomers said
they would consider moving in retirement.
For those who do move, Mr. Hughes says, "You sell 'lifestyle' - everything
but the house - and then you get to the house. First you sell the
clubhouse, the golf course."
Builders are also selling dreams and a sense of entitlement. They talk
about "creating a sense of resort-at-home living" and urge boomers to get
"the lifestyle you deserve."
Marketers see them as a generation that defines itself not through
sacrifice, as their parents did, but through indulgence.
Because of their parents' savings and sacrifice, in fact, boomers will be
recipients of the biggest-ever
transfer of wealth from one generation to another. They stand to inherit in
excess of $10 trillion from the World War II generation, financial analysts
say - money that could help some to buy a second home or a bigger
"They feel entitled," says Ms. Caplan. "Entitlement was not in the
vocabulary of the previous generation. It's a major word in baby boomers'
vocabulary." Control, she adds, is another big word.
Baby-boomer values take altruistic forms as well, of course. "Active adults
are not just looking for a new home," says Polly Webb, marketing manager of
K. Hovnanian Companies in Calverton, Md.
"They want to engage themselves in a community."
But what kind of community? Opinions vary.
"There's no question that these retirement communities that are removed
from the field of work and learning are very desirable for a segment of the
population," says Mr. Dychtwald. "But I don't think that's what the masses
Instead, Dychtwald thinks many boomers will retire to college towns.
"Rather than get away from the action, they're going to want to be in the
middle of it. They want bookstores and movies."
And instead of moving into age-segregated housing, he adds, some might move
into communities that focus on specific interests.
"Many older people really love gardening," Dychtwald says. "You're going to
see communities with a horticultural focus, with acres of gardens that
residents themselves will grow."
Fitness buffs, he projects, might move into a community resembling an
Olympic Village. "Or say you're spiritually inclined. Why not have a whole
community oriented toward that?"
Regardless of location, boomers' housing choices must sometimes consider
their children and their retired parents. Some will need homes flexible
enough and large enough to accommodate one or both
"People in their 20s continue to live with their parents," says Michael
Carliner of the National Association of Home Builders. "You haven't heard
anybody talk in recent years about a generation gap. Parents give them an
One group returning to the nest has been dubbed NIKEs - No-Income Kids with
Other buyers want a second master suite to accommodate parents.
One recent home buyer is Peter Carpenter of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Eighteen months ago, at the age of 61, he retired from a career in the
trust and investment field. "Working is very overrated," Mr. Carpenter says
On March 1 he and his wife moved into an adult community called Winfield,
with curved streets, a fitness center, tennis courts, pool, and
"We wanted updated features and design," Carpenter says, noting that they
looked at developments in the area for four years. "Our last house was
high-maintenance and had high utility costs." They also wanted room for
No longer is the Sun Belt the only magnet for those seeking a new life.
Because 80 percent of older adults do not want to leave their families, the
active-adult concept is marching northward and eastward. Del Webb has
already built its first four-season Sun City in Huntley, Ill. Other sites
will follow in months to come. Smaller developers around the country are
joining the increasingly competitive market too.
Yet even with all their sophisticated research about the need for
state-of-the-art recreation centers and other amenities, builders remain
suitably skeptical about the generation facing them.
Baby boomers, they concede, could have the last word.
"Communication should say 'energy,' not 'elderly,' " Caplan warns
developers. "Imply decrepitude, and you're toast."
Adds Mr. Kramer, "We're just seeing the first wave. We really don't know
how they're going to behave."
Cozy. Casual. Convenient. Those sum up the style many younger retirees
want, according to Ava Carberry of Color Design Art in Pacific Palisades,
They want spacious kitchens, walk-in closets, double sinks, bedrooms that
can be converted to other uses, and storage. They like family rooms. "They
don't want ... grandchildren on the living room furniture," quips John
Schleimer of Market Perspectives in Roseville, Calif.
Baby boomers, says Barbara Caplan of Yankelovich Partners, "once snubbed
home and family for the full rich life away from home. Now they're leading
the rediscovery of home as a place of self-expression."
Some builders are also endorsing an "aging-in-place" concept of design so
seniors won't have to move, "future-proofing" houses with wider halls and
For further information:
Del Webb Corporation developer of the first Sun City in Arizona, 1960
A new generation of seniors is changing the notions behind retirement
housing Seattle Times (1999)
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