Why Baby Boomers are ageing disgracefully

Centenarians running marathons and touring with rock bands? Baby Boomers are changing the way people age and the retirement living sector must adapt to survive, says social researcher Neer Korn.

Korn (pictured) has spent more than two decades studying the attitudes of Australians, tracking people at all stages of life.

He says one of the biggest shifts in thinking is found in our attitude to ageing.

“Older Australians, especially those that lived through the Great Depression and war years, expected to grow old gracefully, shut away from society. But Baby Boomers have always had a different attitude. They intend to age disgracefully,” he says.

And as they do, they’ll reinvent the concept of retirement.

When the newly formed Commonwealth Parliament introduced Australia's first old age pension in 1908, the average life expectancy of men was 55 years, and women not much better at 59 years. Just four per cent of the population was aged over the age of 65, making the cost of the scheme very small in comparison to today, when 14 per cent of the population is over 65 and both sexes can expect to live well into their eighties.

“Retirement is a terrible word to use to engage Baby Boomers. This is a group that isn’t retiring from society – they are determined to live life to the max, and are not planning to leave their inheritance to the kids.”

Korn says this group is entering a life stage that has more in common with their Generation Y counterparts than it does with the stable, middle aged Generation X.

“Gen Y and Baby Boomers share similar attitudes – they want to live for today, spend more on themselves and focus on their own needs,” he says.

There is one significant difference, however.

“This is a loud group that is determined to have their voices heard, but they feel ignored. We are talking about four million people who are cashed up and wondering why they don’t see any older people in advertising.

“Baby Boomers are going to challenge our perception of what it means to age in a society that is obsessed with youth.”

Older Australians are looking to “scale down” their work activities, rather than retire altogether, and this may mean “working part time, consulting, starting a new business, volunteering or finding a new passion”, all of which has implications for their housing choices.

They are interested in maintaining their independence in their own communities, Korn says, whether that’s “staying put in their own home or downsizing”. Living on the city’s fringes, with “green grass and sunshine” holds little sway when compared with urban life of café culture and nearby friends and family.

“They want to make their own homes age-friendly rather than move into a retirement home which feels to them like one foot in the grave.”

They also want “generational blending”, Korn explains, and “don’t want to spend all their time with old people”.

Korn predicts a “revolution in retirement villages” which will mean reimagining bricks-and-mortar buildings, and how they are marketed.

Think networks of apartments where people can live as independently as they choose. “If you couldn’t make your own dinner, there would be a dining room, and nursing staff available at the press of a button, but these things wouldn’t define the place. Instead, the place would be defined by independence,” he says.

Korn says this requires a shift in thinking “because most people planning and marketing retirement living villages are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and it’s hard for them to imagine what a person in their 70s or 80s wants”.

Korn cautions against retirement village advertising that emphasises “bingo, bowls and couples holding hands on the beach”.

“The average person would say old people like caravans and cruises. They do. But they also like adventure and culture,” and are likely to be scaling Machu Picchu or visiting the Taj Mahal as they are haunting the bowling green or knitting circle.

“This group will change society by changing the social norms. They are tossing aside the expectations of what it means to be old,” he says.

We instinctively understand this, Korn says, but getting industries and businesses to respond accordingly is fraught with resistance. Why is that?

“Because old people fall into a stereotype, and when they have been ageing in a certain way for generations it’s hard to challenge the stereotype. What we are seeing is a revolution.”

This revolution will bring with it 100-year-olds running marathons, climbing Mt Everest and touring with rock bands. While this may seem surprising at first, meeting this market is where the future of retirement living will be found.

The National Retirement Living Summit will be held from 27-28 November on the Gold Coast. Don’t miss your last chance to score the super early bird discount of $300, available to members who register before 30 June.