Boomers refuse to fade into the sunset

A generation begins to redefine

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 throwback."

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 computer clubs.

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 retirement home.

"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 will seek."

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 generations.

"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 easy time."

One group returning to the nest has been dubbed NIKEs - No-Income Kids with Education.

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 lightheartedly.

On March 1 he and his wife moved into an adult community called Winfield, with curved streets, a fitness center, tennis courts, pool, and single-story houses.

"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 cherished possessions.

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."

Home comforts

Cozy. Casual. Convenient. Those sum up the style many younger retirees want, according to Ava Carberry of Color Design Art in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

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 doorways.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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