Aging in Place With Change

People are generally surprised that SkyMall, the catalog, is going into bankruptcy. It seems like almost every passenger flips through the quirky ads at least once during a flight. They may flip, but they do not buy. A SkyMall head says they are succumbing to a “crowded, rapidly evolving, and intensely competitive retail environment” (WSJ, 1/24/2015).

SkyMall, a twenty five year old company, came of age with the Baby Boomers. Now it is going down with them. Massive changes in retailing are occurring. For those Baby Boomers who plan to age-in-place, the familiar stores and shopping haunts will be changing. And, ironically, the Baby Boomers are part of the demographic spearheading that change.
In shorter blogs, we have posted images of decaying mega malls, asphalted parking lots sprouting weeds through the pavement, and abandoned store-fronts. Are these just carefully selected photos, arranged to support a point of view, or are they indicative of a larger trend? And, even if real, does it matter to people who choose to age-in-place?

In “Aging in Suburbia” we make the point that aging Baby Boomers will find themselves growing old in suburbs that are greatly changed. This is aging in place with change. Some chains that were fixtures of malls and shopping centers are now defunct, or grappling to stay afloat: for example Borders, Barnes and Noble book sellers, electronic giants like Circuit City and Best Buy, and department store anchors, like JC Penney and Sears. Sears and JC Penny have been closing select sites, and ceased from building new ones.

Successful retailers who market to Millennials, like Ikea, have publicly stated that they plan to expand their online operations, rather than physical stores. Meanwhile, existing sites that close are repurposed. Malls that used to have big box stores are being repurposed, sometimes as data centers for massive banks of computer servers and network routers. As they do so, everything around them changes. One data farm might hire about 10 people to work in an 11,000 square foot space. A previous retail tenant might have employed about 90 full and part time employees.

For older people, the data farm nearby may not be so onerous, as long as home delivery continues to grow and prosper. Home delivery provides multiple benefits for a population that will be less able to drive. It provides shopping access, when people can drive, but choose not to, because it is hard to manage walking through football-field sized stores.

Online ordering is also a safe alternative, when the weather is poor and the roads are slippery. Even in the best weather, older drivers may weigh the risks of taking the car out, and getting into a fender-bender at the mall, vis a vis the convenience and ease of ordering online. And then, home delivery means you get to sidestep most of the heavy lifting – moving boxes or groceries from shopping cart to checkout, from checkout to car, from car to doorstep. If people get sick and have to stay at home- groceries and prescription drugs are as likely to show up at the doorstep, as flowers.

As in-store shopping gets “iffier” for an aging population, home delivery will be ramping up. Today, home shopping can compete with in store purchases in major cities, with the instant-gratification of same-day delivery. The logistics for making deliveries faster and more reliable are built on travel and scheduling algorithms. There are economies of scale as more users, i.e., homes, require home-delivery and integrate package drop-offs.

Looking into the future, Baby Boomers will order more online, because they need to. And, the Millenials will order more online, because they like to. When customers no longer buy from the SkyMall catalog, and find that they can browse better on electronic devices, brick and mortar stores will evolve into newer channels.

In an earlier time, Baby Boomers, particularly, Baby Boomer women, were proud to announce that they, and their offspring, were “Born to Shop.” Boomers are, and will continue to be, a major demographic and purchasing force. But, if they were born to shop, less of that will be in physical stores and airplane catalogs, and more of that will be online.

Gray Homes and Green Cars

Aging in Suburbia has a subtitle, “Gray Homes and Green Cars.” It is meant to be more than a colorful caption. The places we choose to live, our gray homes, and technology are not independent. Personal mobility is a fundamental technology that it is on the brink of epic change. Along these lines, a recent article by Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller speculates that cultural changes- like those brought by the Internet- could profoundly change where and how we want to live.

To put this in perspective, home builders are puzzled as young people are staying put in the biggest cities, instead of moving out to the suburbs. The financial industry is worried that Millennials favor renting over home ownership. Are these housing trends real, and, if so, do they stem from economics or sociology, as Shiller posits, and also from the advent of new technology?

Travel tech and housing are vitally linked. Before rail, most people lived on farms or in cities; it was difficult and time consuming to travel between them. With the technology of trams and rail, distances were compacted and streetcar suburbs prospered. Distance was best overcome by the last technology, the personal car. With cars access to the suburbs thrived and there was a full, consummated marriage between transportation (car) and house location (suburb). The Baby Boom generation, with its dual-working couples, accelerated two-car households. Some might argue that the technology of the car enabled Baby Boomers to become homeowners in the first place.

The reason is that Baby Boomers faced a formidable problems as first time home buyers. There was a general shortage of suitable properties, and for a period of time, young people could not qualify for new mortgages because of double-digit interest rates. Meanwhile, there was a widely held view that the cities were “decaying” – not desirable places to raise young families. Like the Millennials today, Boomers rejected the housing that their parents and grandparents had built, and struck out for something different.

Thanks to the expansion of the suburbs, and newly built roads, Boomers could afford to buy, provided they acquired farther-out properties. This was called the “drive to qualify.” Cars, which were relatively affordable, enabled the long drives.

The Baby Boomers, then young adults, willingly traded their time (often exceeding one hour a day) to reach their new properties. Fortunately for real-estate markets, interest rates receded to single digit numbers. But, with cheaper credit Baby Boomers continued to buy homes in far-flung suburbs, and supported the growth of mega-mansions.

Today, the “drive to qualify” is relegated to history. The youngest generation, the Digital Natives, prefer to “Click to Participate.” New technologies and mobility are eroding their reliance on solo, single-vehicle ownership. There is a growing recognition that long commutes from suburbia are costly, in multiple ways. And young adults, who have spent their youth being chauffeured around the Burbs, seem particularly keen to find a healthier way of commuting, like the bicycle or car.

Next, add to the equation a new technology called the Internet. As Robert Schiller speculated, the Internet could profoundly change how we interact with other people, and how we maintain our physical and social network. In future blogs, we will explore the implications for places we gather, like suburban shopping centers and Starbucks-like coffee shops. The physical landscape will not, and cannot stay the same. This leads to the somewhat gloomy observation that the suburbs may be no place for old men…or older women. The Baby Boom Generation built its lifestyle around the car, but as they age, they will necessarily become less safe and less capable drivers. Staying-in-place means confronting ones’ reduced mobility while putting others, the non-drivers, at risk.

Meanwhile, as technology marches forward, the new kids on the block, the Digital Natives, are re-evaluating what makes a physical neighborhood appealing. They are questioning whether it should be anchored by machinery that is not in-use, and parked, 95 percent of the day. We may look back in twenty years and see gray homes cast aside, as new transportation modes, the green cars, take root. Meanwhile, our green cars may not be physical vehicles and in some cases, just another acronym for a connected, mobile app.

Aging and Driving-One Card


When Baby Boomers hear  “One Card,”  they are likely to think “plastic,” like  MasterCard, or Discovery.  But, a  different type of  “One Card” is on the horizon and it could help Baby Boomers age-in-place. Most of our transportation choices are made on “automatic,” and it is hard to change engrained behaviors like driving.  A transportation “One Card”  holds new possibities.

Currently, some enlightened cities, like Seattle, Washinton are rethinking how to make travel trips seamless and easier. They are using  “One Card” systems.   Seattle has pioneered a universal travel card, called the Orca, which is valid on  public transportation and ferry service.  This year, the Seattle City Council will explore whether Car Share services could be added to the Orca card.

As Baby Boomers age and need to cut back their driving, “One Card” programs, like the Orca, could be transformative.  Most of us, even if we lived in Seattle, would not  remember that the  Car-Share could be a viable alternative when we take a trip. Right now, few of us track our full mobility. We would be hard pressed at the end of the month to report how many miles we have driven, and how many trips we took, whether by car or on public transportation.

Now imagine a different scenario. At the end of the month, you received an Orca like transportation summary, a statement that resembled your gas or electric bill. It would detail the number of trips you made, and include some basic maps. If you drove a car, the transportation summary might highlight  hidden costs, like  insurance and depreciation.

But, the transportation statement would provide more than retroactive reporting. If you lived in Seattle, the statement would remind you that a new Car-Share service was beginning, and  designate the neighborhoods where you could access it. The “One Card” could also use an algorithm to suggest whether the Car Service suited your individual travel.  Using recent travel data, it could recommend  “optimal” and “complementary” modes.   Suggested  modes might range from public transportation, to ITN, to paratransit, to elder taxi vouchers. The “One Card” statement might include a coupon or code to t ry a new mode. These ideas just begin to list the possibilities.

To bring the idea full circle…. Aging Baby Boomers are unlikely to imagine that they could give up their car.  Many of them have been driving since age 16 and reached  a state of total car-dependence.  An Orca like “One Card” is a new means to create awareness and nudge travel behaviors for this aging population.  The first step is to produce useful information, similar to the monthly utility bill that shows month-to-month usage. Individual travel trips would be compared to travel patterns for the larger community. And, this of course, would help planners anticipate new service demand.

“One Card”  is a big step along the path to reduce car-dependence and enhance mobility options for an aging population.  It  may be the tool that ultimately  helps the multi- car Boomer household downsize, and transform from   “One Car” to “One Card.”


Aging Suburbia- Car Driven

wachoviaAging Baby Boomers will remember the joys of banking…from their car. Banks had drive-through-teller service and customers could conduct their business with convenience and speed. Today, that type of banking has moved  mobile phones and out of aging suburbia. Finding younger Millennials would  be a rare siting in the drive-through-lines.

A recent  Boston Globe   article  explains that the drive-through-tellers, introduced in the 1930s, were a symbol of a nation that was getting behind the wheel. Banks prided themselves on their drive-through-teller services; some even built 10 to 15 bays at a branch.


Today, the drive-through banks are a throwback and they are being torn out. Other parts of our hardscape are also being torn out and changed, as the age of motoring is preempted by the Digital Age.

What does this have to do with housing? Quite a lot.  Modern suburbs were designed around the car….but the need for travel, the way of doing things, and our needs are changing.  See  the standalone chapter, Chapter Seven, in Aging (well) in Suburbia.

Note in the picture- Wachovia, the bank, is no longer in existence. Starbuck’s drive throughs next?

Aging Boomers, At Home

80scarWhen the Baby Boomers were the same age as the average Millennial (mid- twenties to thirties) their desire to be homeowners propelled  the housing market. The lack of housing inventory,  a recession in the 1980’s, and  double-digit interest rates did not deter the Boomers from house buying. They bought homes in spite of these circumstances.

Today, it’s quite different. Although the U.S. population has  about the same numbers of Boomers (75.2 million) as Millenials (74.7 million) the Millennial stance on housing is remarkably different. First time buyers dropped to a low not seen since 1987…a point at which many Boomers had already opted into the housing market. (data: National Association of Realtors).

Furthermore, U.S. homeownership rate has fallen to 64.4 percent, the lowest in almost two decades. However, the rate among people age 65 or older is aroundt 80 percent.

There are a couple of things that could explain the differences between Boomers and Millenials.

(1) The obvious is the level of indebtness among Millenials, as they struggle to find jobs and pay off tuition loans. Boomers  were relatively debt-free as young people (but not as older ones).

(2) Less obvious are demographic changes. Millenials are staying single longer if they marry at all, and plan to have smaller families. Boomers were far more likely to marry and start a family, although about 50% of these marriages later failed. (Chapter One and Two, Aging in Suburbia).

(3) Even less obvious are the social changes. Home is no longer where you spend your weekends (think D.I.Y) and backyard barbecues. Homes need to “do less” and be less entertaining when our phones and Internet are new gateways.  (If this seems hard to grasp, read Chapter Seven, a stand-alone chapter) in Aging in Suburbia .



Aging in Suburbia- Southern Style


Where Boomers live….and drive!

There’s a small table in Chapter 1 of Aging in Suburbia with the  dull title, “Baby Boomer Population by Region”.  The numbers  are from the 2006 US Census,  and would appear, at first glance, to be just another  compilation.

But what pops out is the percentage of Baby Boomers who have settled in the South- The Census counted nearly 37%, a far high percentage than in the Midwest, West, or Northeast. Even with Texas  included, 37% is a remarkably high rate.  Back in the 1990s when the Boomers were nesting (Chapter Two) house prices were lower in the South in the early 1990s than in much of California and the Northeast. Over time, that price gap has only widened.

This has implications down the line for Boomers who plan to retire, and for Millenials who may need to drive them too:

(1) Atlanta and other large Southern cities have fewer transportation options, and many residents in the South are more dependent on their cars.

(2) Neighborhoods in the South are newer and are more spread out, e.g., more suburban sprawl and less ability to walk or bike to the stores and for errands.

(3) If incomes are not growing, and the cost of living is cheaper in the South, staying put makes economic sense

…especially for retirees on fixed incomes.

Horace Greeley said “Go West, Young Man.” The new refrain, “Stay South, Southern Man?”