Demographers are fond of likening the baby boom generation -- those Americans born between 1946 and 1964 -- to the pig swallowed by the python. The first members of this 76 million-strong bulge in the population crossed the demographic Rubicon of 50 six years ago, and many of the storied Me Generation are now being forced to consider the prospect of retirement. Members of earlier generations hit 65, collected their gold watches, and headed for Florida or Arizona to shoot golf or play tennis. Either that or they sold their homes and moved into childless retirement communities. Experts predict that sudden shift from work and child-raising to total leisure is not the way it's going to go for the baby boomers.
San Diego marketing consultant Phil Goodman, operator of Boomer Marketing and author of Boomers, The Ageless Generation, predicts that for baby boomers, retirement in the conventional sense is "not an option." He also suggests that unlike their parents, many boomers won't end up as empty-nesters. Goodman cites the "highest divorce rates and the highest rates of second and third marriages" as drivers of a trend that will leave middle-aged boomers with kids in their teens or even younger. Goodman points to Census figures suggesting that by 2006, there will be eight times as many households headed by peoplebetween 55 and 64 with children between 12 and 27 as there are today.
The "R" word
Baby boomers are an odd lot. Goodman calls them ageless, chronic teenagers, because having undergone the experience of the '60s and '70s Youth Culture, they've retained their sense of themselves as youthful, no matter what age they happen to reach.
How might all these factors affect boomer retirement plans?
Previous generations stopped working at 65. Don't expect to see that happen with baby boomers, who eschew the "R" word. Many wouldn't know what to do if they did retire. And a large number, it seems, won't have the resources to retire because they will be relying on 401(k) plans for income rather than the rock-solid pensions their parents had. A 1998 AARP survey found 8 of 10 baby boomers expect to be working at least part-time during their retirement. Roughly a quarter of those will do it for the most basic of reasons: because they need the money.
Unlike their parents, baby boomers will largely stay put after 65. The same survey by the AARP found only 2 in 10 boomers interviewed plan to move to a new geographic area when they retire.
Those with money, at least some of them, are not inclined to follow their parents into retirement communities. "It would really violate their sense of themselves as youthful," says Susan Mitchell, author of American Generations and an authority on the baby boom generation. "The whole notion of a retirement community has 'my parents' written all over it." Instead, many boomers are buying vacation homes within driving distance of where they now live, remodeling them into year-round residences, and planning to spend their later years there. For example, remodeler Craig Smyth, owner of Clemledy Construction in Hawley, Pa., has built an excellent niche business converting vacation homes in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania into primary residences for boomers in Philadelphia and Long Island, New York. And if boomers aren't purchasing vacation homes, they're inheriting homes from their parents. Many of these smaller-than-average homes will need remodeling, because many boomers in their 60s will still be parents of children under 20.
Wants and needs
These predictions are already starting to pan out. Seven years ago, remodeler Cindy Knutson-Lycholat of Knutson Bros. II, was getting so many calls from the Walworth County area south of Milwaukee that she moved her business there. Her client base now consists of people spending between $75,000 and $250,000 to convert one-season vacation homes in the lake area between Milwaukee and Chicago into their future retirement residence.
Her clients, people in their 50s and early 60s, are "just hitting their stride," Knutson-Lycholat says. "They're not like the people in their 50s and 60s I knew when I grew up. I was planning to be buried by 60," she jokes.
And what happens when baby boomers move into Mom and Dad's old house, instead of heading for Florida? Susan Mitchell says remodelers can expect baby boomers in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s to turn their homes into multi-purpose buildings.
"Other generations were happy to have a guest room," Mitchell says. Boomers, she says, will have far more specific home needs. "They'll want the home office, the home theater, an area dedicated to whatever it is their hobbies are."
National senior housing consultant Bill Becker points out that boomers "live a more casual lifestyle," and that casualness is likely to be translated into whatever remodeling they plan to do. The fact that they have no need nor desire for a formal dining room, he says, has found its way into design plans for new home construction. If boomers need a dining room, they plop down a table somewhere.
Baby boomers, mostly without time or home repair skills of any sophistication, are going to be a major market for handyman and home maintenance services, predicts industry consultant and Remodeling columnist Walt Stoeppelwerth. "They don't want to do anything, and they can't do very much," he says. "A good portion of them just don't have a clue."
All this presumes that boomers will have the funds to retire, or semi-retire. And that presumption, according to some experts, is iffy. Recent research by the Washington, D.C. based Employee Benefit Research Institute points to boomer retirement income being far less certain because of the move away from pensions toward 401(k) plans. Results of the EBRI Retirement Income Projection Model show an "appreciable drop in the percentage of private retirement income that will be paid as an annuity." Private retirement income is now the major source of revenue for retirees.
Combine that cloud over retirement funding with increased life expectancy and it is likely, the report concludes, that many boomers may find themselves outliving their retirement income.
Of course that conclusion assumes that boomers are one homogeneous mass, which is, says Goodman, hardly the case. It's the upscale boomers who will be looking for remodeling services. Some will have the money to stop working, he says. For others, retirement will depend on the health of their 401(k) and other pension plans and, to some extent, on the financial health of the country at the time.