At Large: Boomers consider their futures

We worry about young Islanders who need houses they can afford to buy or rent. We fret about clean ponds, open space, pollution-free ground water, unspoiled views, traffic jams and insufficient parking. All important, but let’s talk about what lies ahead for Vineyard boomers.

Apparently, what lies ahead is more work and dramatic change in many Massachusetts communities, the Vineyard not excepted. Boomers are at retirement age. Many of them are leaving careers that have formed the foundations of their lives. But, for many others, retirement may be delayed, because of the Great Recession and its lingering diminishment of economic possibilities and because they are livelier, healthier, and inured to their working lives. In turn, the extension of boomer working lives will affect the prospects for following generations trying to rise. Still, like the Greatest Generation in its time, the boomers have dominated, often callously, the national life, and in unanticipated ways, they will continue to do so.

“Boomers appear ready to redefine retirement by delaying their retirement past the current norm and to work at least part-time even after they retire. They will reverse a trend of many decades toward earlier and earlier retirement. The change in their views on retirement seems to be rippling through the generation, with younger boomers expecting to retire later and to work after retiring in greater numbers. For at least 39 percent, the expectation that they will work is not a choice but a financial necessity.”

This sketch of the future course of so many of our lives appeared in MassINC, a journal whose mission is “to develop a public agenda for Massachusetts that promotes the growth and vitality of the middle class. We envision a growing, dynamic middle class as the cornerstone of a new Commonwealth in which every citizen can live the American Dream. Our governing philosophy is rooted in the ideals embodied by the American Dream: equality of opportunity, personal responsibility, and a strong Commonwealth. MassINC is a non-partisan, evidence-based organization. We reject rigid ideologies that are out of touch with the times, and we deplore the too-common practice of partisanship for its own sake. We follow the facts wherever they lead us.”

MassINC surveyed baby boomers in a project conducted in cooperation with Princeton Survey Research Associates International, with funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Obviously, Blue Cross and other insurers and health care providers are interested in the future of the huge boomer segment of the population.

For those of us in that aging, accomplished, and demanding demographic, the survey describes an uncertain and even anxiety-ridden final few decades for many boomers who hoped for more, and more delicious, rewards. For the Vineyard, it suggests that cold weather, the high cost of living, and especially of housing, and inadequate savings during the boomer boom times, when we were spending rather than saving, may lead to a transformation of the Island demographic.

“As boomers age, they also face a number of decisions about where to live. If their future unfolds as they expect, Massachusetts stands to lose a lot of boomers to other states. More than one-third of boomers (35 percent) say they want to leave the state for their retirement years. This translates roughly to 650,000 people, or 10 percent of the state’s population. While some degree of retirement migration is to be expected, the sheer size of this generation makes their exodus worrisome.”

This prospective trend may be mitigated somewhat here because of the decades-old habit of seasonal homeowners choosing to make their retirement lives in their summer houses — perhaps not through the first quarter of the year but certainly during the other nine months Still, many Island boomers have significant financial resources, mostly in Vineyard real estate. To realize the value of those assets, they’ll have to sell. Then, the question will be, where to go.

“Clearly, some factors — notably, the weather — are beyond any policymaker’s control,” MassINC’s survey observes. “Traditionally, retirees have moved from colder to warmer climates. While some states have launched campaigns to attract retirees, it would be a stretch to imagine Massachusetts as a magnet for retirees from other states. But the state’s civic, political, and business leaders should think about ways to make the Bay State more retiree-friendly, especially in regions of the state that are more affordable, so that Massachusetts boomers do not feel compelled to leave. Efforts to make Massachusetts more affordable, not only for boomers themselves but also for their children, must be part of a strategy to keep boomers, since proximity to family and friends is a key attraction. Making housing more affordable, however, raises a thorny issue. The typical amount of money that boomers have saved for retirement is modest. At the same time, more than three-quarters of boomers are homeowners, and most have owned their homes for some time. Given the steep increases in housing prices, many boomers have accumulated a significant amount of equity in their homes, and it follows that they are counting on this equity for their retirement nest eggs. Is it possible to make neighborhoods affordable so that the children who grew up in them can afford to live there as adults, without disturbing the nest eggs of their boomer parents.”

That accumulated equity has taken a post-recession hit, but prices here and elsewhere in Massachusetts have begun to regain lost ground in the past two years. The need many boomers have to see that equity recapture levels it had achieved six years ago contributes significantly to their persistence in the labor force, reduced though it may be.

MassINC’s survey is a timely alarm for Massachusetts leaders, and it is familiar stuff to Vineyarders. But, familiarity aside, efforts to address these looming issues require a more broad-based search for solutions than Islanders, well-trained in the protection of the natural environment but unenthusiastic about economics, jobs, and cost-saving strategies, have been prepared to undertake.