If you consider that Americans aged 50 and older control 80 percent of the country’s personal financial assets and 50 percent of the discretionary income, it’s easy to understand the growing attention being paid to the boomer market.
As remodelers, you probably already know this key fact: boomers prize independence and won’t relinquish it readily. Understanding this is crucial to your future success. You’re going to have a lot of business in coming years from the boomer market. They are redefining the notion of home sweet home, and it’s important to be prepared.
Boomers are very different consumers from those in previous generations. And that’s because the life experiences that shaped them led to different preferences and behaviors. They never lived through the Great Depression and were shaped more by the Vietnam War than World War II. They grew up during a time of unprecedented prosperity and economic opportunity. A result of all that prosperity is a sense of expectation, a belief in tomorrow, and a greater appetite for risk than for caution.
We know that boomers prefer to make decisions—in their own time, at their own pace. They also like to access information in many ways, from various people with various views, rather than from a single, authoritative source.
Boomers are impatient. They want what they want—that goes for information—when they want it. "Immediate gratification isn’t fast enough," as Meryl Streep says in the movie, "Postcards from the Edge."
The New Longevity
Increased longevity has also led to changing values and beliefs. In 1900, the average American lifespan only was 47. Today it’s 77 for men and 80 for women. That’s a gain of 30 years in one century. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) refers to these extra 30 years as the "longevity bonus." It’s a long time to plan.
AARP studies show that during their 50s, people experience more life events than in any other decade: serving as parents for first and second families, caring for parents, remarrying, grandparenting, losing or changing jobs. It’s a time of tremendous change. As people adjust to change, their behavior and spending patterns adjust, too.
Boomers work to maintain a youthful appearance and keep healthy and fit. They don’t want to be stigmatized by images of aging that imply frailty or vulnerability. They are also planning for their 30-year longevity bonus. They’re remodeling and buying homes. They are already making choices about the kind of house they want to live in as they age. It’s no surprise that they want homes that make them feel comfortable and safe. They don’t believe it’s unreasonable to expect their home to contribute to prolonging independence.
Changing Housing Needs
For the most part, houses were not made for the new longevity, or for a person’s changing health needs. Many homes are full of accidents waiting to happen. It’s easy to slip on carpets, trip over extension cords, or fall down the stairs. AARP projects that by the end of this year, close to 2 million injuries will result from falls among people age 65 and older. They often will occur during common, everyday activities. Injuries from falls can lead to dire consequences and loss of independence. The estimated costs of treating these injuries will exceed $17 billion.
Members of the huge baby boomer generation don’t want their homes to become obstacle courses should they develop a disability. However, many homes are obstacle courses, and boomers know this all too well. They’ve seen it in their parents’ homes. This has helped drive the remodeling business, as boomers and their parents remodel to increase safety and accessibility. Low-tech, low-cost modifications such as grab bars in the bathroom, no skid treads on the stairs and light bulbs with extra wattage in the halls go a long way in making a home safer.
Accommodation and Response
These homes are called "transgenerational" for exactly that reason: They offer something to every generation. They appeal because they are sensible and attractive and are good for today and tomorrow. We could say that these design features make homes smarter. Smart houses are becoming the way of the world.
According to the AARP study, "Fixing to Stay: A National Survey on Housing and Home Modification Issues," people aged 45 to 60 want to stay in their homes for as long as possible and retain independence. This is no great surprise. But homes will need to be modified to be more "age friendly" or rather, "generation friendly," with features that add safety and comfort. That way aging boomers can stay in their homes longer.
Advances in health care and technology are already transforming home design. That’s a good thing because more older people will choose to "age in place." It certainly won’t be business as usual when all 75.8 million boomers arrive on the scene.
William D. Novelli is the AARP’s Associate Director for Public Affairs. Excerpts are from his presentation at AARP’s Housing for the Age Boom Symposium, Rochester, N.Y.