Baby boomers don’t see them-selves as old. Not yet, anyway. Certainly not in the way preceding generations accepted their senior citizen, cocoa-and-cardy status.
Some of this resistance to the dreary “grey tsunami” tag is justified. Born between 1946 and 1964, give or take a year at either end, baby boomers will work longer than any generation before them. It’s already showing up in statistics: in 1996 less than nine per cent of over-65s were employed; now it’s 20 per cent continuing to work and pay their taxes.
Along with their increased longevity – mass malingerers that they are – the boomers should also enjoy better health; in part through their determination to fend off the inevitable by continuing to exercise, eat healthily, challenge themselves mentally, and remain non-smokers.
A middle-class blip of silver cyclists and Sudoku solvers doesn’t solve the looming problem of healthcare for this burgeoning older population, however. There are hard decisions ahead for an already overburdened public health system; likewise around the age of eligibility for the pension, which will resurface for serious debate when John Key exits politics, along with his dogged commitment to holding the retirement age at 65.
It’s not as though there aren’t palatable alternatives: among them a flexible pension age, championed by United Future’s Peter Dunne, that would allow people to opt to retire from age 60, at a reduced pension rate, or hold out till as old as 70, in return for a bigger pension. A recent Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll showed nearly 50 per cent of people favoured the flexible pension system. And only 38 per cent of those respondents planned to retire at 65.
Economist Brian Easton has argued sanely for raising the age of eligibility – for equity reasons, which are based on our increased longevity, rather than fiscal responsibility reasons – although the outcome of his pension-package would actually contribute to financial sustainability.
His formula involves a gradual raise in eligibility age that doesn’t disadvantage those closest to retirement age, or people (for example, in physically demanding jobs) who can’t be expected to keep working into their late 60s. Easton also favours strengthening private provision for retirement by making KiwiSaver compulsory and increasing its contributions. Savings generated by his scheme would be channelled into better care for the very old.
Gordon McLauchlan says there’s a bigger picture we need to grapple with, beyond “blaming the old for getting old”. In his book Stop the Clock! (Four Star Books), he writes that every day, “the Western world struggles with high rates of youth unemployment, growing wealth inequality affecting the middle class as much as anyone, and insecure employment among the middle-aged – all seriously curtailing the ability of most people to save for what has become a kind of enforced retirement.”
He says it hasn’t occurred to our political leaders – “who have constructed for themselves an unbelievably generous superannuation scheme” – that the problem is “the entrenched unemployment and depressed income of most people that is built into their ideal socio-economic model; that and the lack of provision for lifelong education and the prolonged productive use of people through their 60s and 70s.
“For every person I know who is happy to retire, I know 10 who would rather be contributing their knowledge and experience productively to the community, even if part-time.”
Many baby boomers will head into retirement with substantial assets and investments, and their own ideas about how they want to be housed and cared for. They’ve influenced every other decade – why not their dotage?
The for-profit retirement village industry, essentially an extension of the property development business, would be wise to be surveying their next wave of customers, many of whom do not envisage their sunset years spent in a city-fringe retirement village with a bowling green and piano singalongs.
As adjunct professors at Auckland’s Unitec School of Architecture in 2012, directors of Scarlet Architects, Jane Aimer and Lindley Naismith, ran a design studio with Year 4 students titled “Aging (Dis)gracefully”. The students’ mission was to interview family, friends and other people in the baby boomer age group, and find out what kind of built/social environment they envisaged for their old age.
Aimer says there was a cultural divide: students of Asian and Indian descent who talked to people in their ethnic communities found their subjects wanted to live with their children, in the hopes of being of help, especially looking after grandchildren.
“The more stereotypical Pakeha, middle-class baby boomers mostly rejected the current retirement village model,” she says. “They don’t buy into its ‘retirement resort’ marketing pitch and capital-gains profit motive. They don’t want to be silo-ed on the outskirts of town with a bunch of other oldies. They do see themselves down-sizing from the family home, but to somewhere urban, glamorous, close to theatres and restaurants...
“The boomers don’t really want to confront the realities of serious ill health, but this could lead to an increase in private and public mobile services for the elderly – from meal deliveries to overnight nursing care. At the moment, you’ll find bespoke nursing and elder-care advertised discreetly in the likes of the St Cuthbert’s school magazine. It’s very expensive, but more affordable versions will emerge.”
Some of the students’ designs for the site they were given to work with in the central-city suburb of Newmarket were “a bit utopian”, Aimer says. But they signalled a change in thinking to urban, multi-level, mixed developments, equipped with lifts and accessible staircases and live-in arrangements for a nurse or hire-a-hubby. Some designs included studio flats for students, based on the idea the young people would pay peppercorn rents in return for a weekly work roster helping their elderly neighbours.
Another trend Aimer notes, which would find white middle-class boomers mirroring their Asian counterparts, is parents financially helping their young-adult children into homes with an attached flat or build-space for them, and the promise of some quid pro quo assistance in their infirm years.
Designer and residential property developer Neil McLachlan of Neil McLachlan Designs, meanwhile, enthuses about his “vertical” urban retirement village project. In late April, he met with Stefan Boeri Architects in Milan about a collaboration on an Auckland village based on the Italian firm’s Bosco Verticale residential towers in Milan, which are dramatically different because of the 900 trees they support on 8900sqm of terraces.
McLachlan says the potential for a different kind of retirement living is “huge and revolutionary”. He plans to start promoting and selling “units for the mature” this year in a city building inspired by Bosco Verticale; his tower would include an in-house hospital, gym and swimming pool, restaurant and bar, a rooftop communal vegetable garden and fully charged electric vehicles that residents could book.
The cost for all this later-life luxury and downtown architectural excitement? McLachlan says it’s not so different from being stuck out in the ’burbs.
“There will be no minimum buyer age and there will be two options for purchasers: either a freehold title to apartments with a monthly fee based on a normal body corporate structure plus services, or a buy-back scheme at a lower buy-in price, similar to existing retirement village practices, for those with less capital.”
Most apartments will be around 80 to 90sqm, or what used to constitute a standard three-bedroom Kiwi house, says McLachlan. And for those not selling and buying in Auckland’s overheated market, there’s always Kuala Lumpur.
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