Aging Boomers 2017-09-14T19:41:32+00:00

Aging Boomers

PROBLEM

One of the greatest challenge facing America today is the growing decrepitude of American baby boomers. We baby boomers are now breaking both American pension and healthcare systems. With my sister I have written a book on this topic and its potential solution, All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Multigenerational Living. Topics covered include the financial and emotional benefits of living together; proximity and privacy; designing and remodeling your home to accommodate adult children or elderly parents; overcoming cultural stigmas about independent living; financial and legal planning; and making co-habitation agreements.

The Republicans are correct in saying Obama Care will fail. Few sitting politicians have the heart to address the failing Social Security system. Ten years from now we will have in the United States a universal-coverage healthcare system like most industrialized countries in the world. The clock is ticking loudly in Washington over the debt ceiling and long-term funding problems like Medicare and Social Security. Economists have blamed America’s current economic malaise on (take your pick): overspending, greed, government regulation, government deregulation, sub-prime home mortgages, executive incentives, efficient markets theory, the business cycle, the Chinese – the list goes on.

But what if the economists have it completely wrong? Suppose for a minute or 10 that the so-called economic decline is simply a severe symptom of a deeper disease, a cultural shift.

The longest view of the progress of humankind suggests that governments have always been unfaithful to humans. The current example, our crumbling Social Security system, has really only succeeded in dividing families. In 1940, over 60 percent of elderly widows lived with their children. By 1990, that number had dropped to less than 20 percent. Thankfully, this trend of loneliness appears to be finally reversing circa 2010.

Margaret Mead long ago pointed out that the family is the only institution that persistently supports us. What the economists are calling an economic problem is best understood as a cultural reversion to older living patterns. The reason? Our 20th century experiment with nuclear families has failed. That’s the problem.

AND?

Change zoning laws and architectural regulations to make is easier for Americans to rediscover the importance of the extended family.

Consider the phenomenon known as “boomerang kids.” Estimates vary, but according to the US Census Bureau, almost one-third of all Americans ages 18 to 34 are now living with their parents. That’s more than 21 million young adults.The Pew Research Center provides great insight to this phenomenon, a small portion of the data is shown in the accompanying figures. Ten years ago, popular culture in the form of newspaper headlines, book titles, movie titles (remember that awful 2006 movie, Failure to Launch?), and a minority of American parents of 20-somethings complained loudly. But, when you step back and look at the big picture and the moving picture, it’s clear that boomerang kids are just another symptom of the greater cultural change affecting American society as we enter the 21st century: that is, the reunification of the extended family.

Fundamentally, humans are psychologically and physiologically designed and have evolved to live this way. We’ve survived by living in such extended family arrangements. We are happiest in such groups. And, we are now quickly learning that other institutions (companies, unions, governments, religious organizations, etc.) ultimately cannot take care of us. Only our families can and will.

The single-family suburban home did work for a time, while mothers stayed at home to raise children and life spans were shorter. However, with the advent of extended life expectancy, and with both parents working, the single-family home for nuclear families is no longer meeting the needs of our changing population. It’s no wonder that the current so-called economic malaise began with housing in 2007. That’s about the time the economic system began to realize that the American housing stock is actually worth less because it doesn’t fit the coming needs of the marketplace.


America’s elderly population is now growing at a moderate rate. But soon into this century, the rate will accelerate. According to census projections, the elderly population will double between now and the year 2040, to over 80 million. By then, as many as 1 in 5 Americans will be elderly. And more than half of them will have at least one disability.

In order to adjust the housing stock of the country to reflect the baby boomers’ retirement and the associated growth in multi-generational living arrangements, changes will be required in long-existing and mostly local housing and building codes and associated ordinances. The main battle line in this political fight is over accessory dwellings, popularly called “granny flats.” Built adjacent to larger houses, they can provide living spaces for adult children or grandparents. They offer both proximity and privacy. Public debate and political battles are being fought, won, and lost around the country over making changes in codes that not only allow for, but actually promote, the construction of accessory apartments in existing neighborhoods and in new developments.

Accessory apartments produce two kinds of complaints. First, physical impacts, such as increased parking and traffic and architectural changes in buildings, are often seen as disruptive to neighborhoods. The second sort relates to social and cultural issues. That is, accessory apartments deviate from the traditional ways of looking at housing, family, and the neighborhood. It stands for a change in the way the single-family house is used, a departure from the conventional meanings connected to residential zoning categories. Despite such complaints, cities such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco are actually encouraging the building of dwellings by providing plans and instructions on government websites.

One of several options available in the Santa Cruz Accessory Dwelling Manual

Fast-rising life expectancies, the growing costs of elder care, the increasing need for child care, the frustrating lack of affordable housing, and the new disconnectedness – all are producing unfamiliar challenges for families all around America. Fortunately, our aforementioned 20th century dalliance with nuclear families and white-picket-fence suburbia is fast winding down. The “social avalanche” of elderly baby boomers will force Americans back to the familiar family form of multi-generational households.

America must spur the comeback of accessory apartments and the flexibility of mixed neighborhoods with respect to size, value, and use. It is time to reflect on the future and to design communities and homes that will accommodate a fast-graying America in innovative ways.

LEARN MORE