Will Baby Boomers Stay Put in the Suburbs or Flee to Retirement Communities?

This article in the Washington Post says that Baby Boomers are changing the face of suburbia and staying put, rather than retiring to the likes of Florida and Arizona, as their parents did, once they retire. The U.S. Census showed how rapidly America’s suburbs are growing — despite efforts to squeeze us into greener, urban multi-family residential cells and one family car — the Baby Boomers are staying put and, in some cases, buying vacation homes on the equity they’ve built in those suburban homes.

But all this is going to mean big changes for the suburbs. Can you imagine, for example, a group of militant citizens clamouring for convertion of pedestrian traffic signals to countdowns so people can gauge whether they have enough time to cross… in their walkers?

Fairfax County, VA now has forums on kitchen and bath remodeling designs that make the areas accessible for wheelchair users. It has collaborated with George Mason University, offering a course on coping during retirement. And a police unit has been formed to focus on financial fraud committed against the elderly. In suburban Washington, D.C., 27% or 1.5 million are Baby Boomers and no longer spring chickens. Can you imagine the shouting matches at civic meetings between parents demanding bigger classrooms and Boomers demanding bigger sidewalks for wheelchairs? The driving scares me the most: I remember how I worried about my mother driving and she drove until the day she died at age 88.

There were 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 — I was one. We were the very first generation to grow up in suburbia, because our parents settled the suburbs like good pilgrims post World War II. Maybe it just feels more comfortable, but the suburbs are where many of us chose to rear our children. It was unusual that we were able to live in the city of Dallas, not a suburb, but still have a suburban feel. That is because, north of Uptown, Dallas neighborhoods WERE the suburbs. 

And everyone was surprised when the 2010 Census showed how much faster the suburbs are growing with older populations when compared with the cities. Four in 10 suburban residents are 45 or older, up from 34 percent just a decade ago. Only 35% of city residents are 45 or older, an increase from 31 percent in the last census, and a clear indication that cities have become havens for the young offspring of the wealthy who can cram into small apartments, work at low-level creative jobs, and count on a check from mom and dad each month to help support them.

“During the past decade, the ranks of people who are middle-aged and older grew 18 times as fast as the population under 45, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who analyzed the 2010 Census data on age for his report, “The Uneven Aging and ‘Younging’ of America.” For the first time, they represent a majority of the nation’s voting-age population.”

This generation — my generation — will treat aging unlike our parents did. We will break the old people rules mold, and that will be reflected in our real estate buying as well. My guess: we stay in our homes as long as possible, make banks out of them if we can in the form of reverse mortgages, and travel travel travel. Once the tax bases get too painful, we will sell the family homes and by the way, there will be a sweet spot of when to do this so as to not flood the market. I think unusual, out-of-the box forms of home ownership and things like fractional home ownership are going to explode in the next decade for the upper middle class as will ownership of ranches and small beach houses, outright or shared. We are the Kumbaya generation and used to living in dorms. We are going to demand accommodations for our aching feet and backs, faltering eyes and ears.

But then, the final shelter: my son gave me a sign to hang in our hallway that reads, “Be nice to the kids: they select the nursing home!”