Is the Future Going Down the Drain? Baby Boomers
By Alexander Zaitchik, AlterNet
Posted on March 6, 2009, Printed on March 6, 2009
It all happened faster than you can say "senior discount, puhleeze."
Millions of baby boomers born into the dawn of the most spectacular
economic expansion in history are being forced to re-imagine their
retirement futures. Few news outlets have failed to seize upon the
low-hanging pun: the boomers have gone bust.
Among the adjustments forced by the new circumstances, perhaps the
cruelest twist for many boomers is the need to join younger generations
in the roommate queue. The housing crash has forced record numbers of
late-middle age homeowners to take in boarders or risk becoming boarders
themselves. From California to Vermont, home-share organizations founded
to assist the elderly are scrambling to meet the demands of newly bust
In the last few months we've experienced explosive growth in
interest by homeowners age 50-plus to find rooms and roommates,
says Jacqueline Grossmann, Chicago coordinator for the National Shared
Housing Resource Center. The trend now is getting younger and
younger. People in their 50s and 60s are losing their nest eggs and
increasingly willing to give up their privacy in exchange for rents of
$500, $600 a month.
We've seen a 400 percent increase over the last few months of
people nearing retirement age, says Rita Zadoff, director of
Housemate Match, a shared-housing program serving the Atlanta area.
We haven't been this busy since we helped Katrina victims find
Kirby Dunn of Home Share Vermont reports a huge increase
of boomers seeking roommates in the last six months. There has
been a dramatic shift from elderly clients seeking a 'protective
presence' to younger people with 'too much house' seeking financial help
to make mortgage and utility payments, she says.
Most of the nation's home-share organizations were set up with the
disabled and seniors in mind. They now appeal to bust boomers because
they are generally free services that screen potential housemates
carefully. Older people aren't comfortable finding roommates
through Craigslist, says Zadoff. They aren't as used to
the idea of letting strangers into their homes.
Boomers are maximizing room occupancy for the same reason that their
kids in their 20s and 30s are still competing for the best group rentals
on Craigslist: they're broke.
The extent to which boomer wealth was based on home values is
highlighted by a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy
Research, entitled "The Wealth of the Baby Boom Cohorts After the
Collapse of the Housing Bubble." The report details how the collapse has
left the majority of those around retirement-age almost completely
reliant on entitlements. The net worth of median households in the 45 to
54 age bracket has dropped by more than 45 percent since 2004, to just
over $80,000. Households headed by those aged 55 to 64, meanwhile, have
lost 38 percent of net wealth.
The collapse of the housing bubble has already destroyed almost
$6 trillion dollars in housing wealth for homeowners," says report
co-author Dean Baker, who testified last month before the Senate Special
Committee on Aging. This is compounded by the recent collapse of
the stock market. The result is that many baby boomers will only have
entitlements to rely on in their retirement.
Make that entitlements, roommates, and each other.
As more and more boomers scale down their retirement plans and consider
alternative living arrangements, it's worth asking: Is shared housing
such a bad thing for aging boomers? Does a return to the Communal idea,
borne of economic necessity, also have emotional, social, and
environmental benefits? Why wait for the retirement home or hospice to
live with other people? With the nation full of worthless, ridiculously
large, and mostly empty houses, why not fill them with the newly
penurious and like-minded boomers in need of housing?
Better yet: why not abandon these suburban houses altogether, and find
more appropriate housing arrangements closer to urban cores, or build
tightly knit communities on cheap rural land?
Cooperation is the watershed in grappling with this economic
downturn, says Charles Durrett, of McCamant & Durrett, a
pioneering architectural firm that specializes in ecologically sensitive
shared housing projects for seniors and low-income people. It
doesn't make any sense&mdasheconomically, emotionally,
environmentally&mdashfor retired people to be living in these isolated
homes and ranchettes, making thousands of individual trips to the
grocery store and pharmacy.
Terry S., a 62-year-old self-employed divorced psychologist in
Pittsburgh, is one boomer considering the cooperative housing route.
Until the crisis hit last year, Terry planned to spend her retirement
between Europe and New York City, living off her IRA and savings. But
the crash saw her wealth plummet by 60 percent. My friends and I
feel betrayed because we are now in the same or worse position than
those who never saved their money, but may have a pension, she
says. The crisis forced her to rethink retirement, and now plans to buy
a house with her friends. She explains the logic:
Some of my friends and I shared a communal house in the 70s. We first
came up with this idea [of doing it again] when we were talking about
the possibility of having to live in assisted living or nursing homes,
and we decided it would be far better to all live together in a big
house with friends we knew and loved and hire a nurse and a cook. One of
my friends owns a construction firm and he says he can put an elevator
in any home for less than $100,000. We have looked at several homes. One
was a beautiful house that backed onto a huge city park and had a pool
decks all around and could easily be converted into four private
residences. It was $600,000, which would only be $150,000 per unit. Much
less than the $4,000 a month to have half of a dingy room in a nursing
home that smells like urine.
For those who can't afford to buy a comfortable retirement home with
friends, there is a proliferating number of larger, shared-income
communities with low financial thresholds. Known as Intentional
Communities these small village-like settlements allow
like-minded retirees to pool their economic resources and support each
other during their second journey. While historically
there has been no direct correlation between economic conditions and
growth in America's commune movement-the greatest spike occurring during
the boom decade between 1965 and 1975-the current economic downturn is
dovetailing with a rise in the number of such communities around the
We are in a period of elevated interest in intentional
communities, says Laird Schaub, executive director of the
Fellowship for Intentional Communities. There is no statistically
meaningful data since the crisis began, but the after a lull in the 80s
and 90s, the last decade has seen growing numbers of people in their 50s
interested in this way of life.
Tony Sirna, a veteran of communes and the Fellowship's web manager, says
that while many people are currently drawn to income-sharing communities
because of financial straights, he suspects many will stay on because of
the social and cultural benefits of living with others and sharing
As a generation, boomers have a unique relationship to the idea
of Community, says Sirna. Partly because of the
Counterculture, many retirees are choosing to create non-corporate
senior cohousing, as opposed to traditional senior communities in which
they feel institutionalized. Sirna says many shared-income
communities are now at maximum capacity for the first time in decades,
with waiting lists full of retirees eager to live the shared,
If the deepening economic crisis does lead the boomers back to Countercultural
values, a generation will have come full circle. Whether
they end up living in a group house, a shared apartment, or a full-on
hippie-style commune, studies show that they will live longer and more
fulfilling later lives. The results here are truly amazing, says Kirby Dunn,
pointing to studies that gauge the effects of shared housing.
Across all programs and age-brackets, people say they feel safer,
are less lonely, are much happier, and sleep better.
They also call their children less often for help.
This last item is of particular interest to the boomers' kids. They may
not have made it to the mortgage stage of the game before the crisis
hit, but that doesn't mean they don't have their own problems at the
WOW! In that case, SENIORS? Let's bone up on the ART OF THE COMMUNE.
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