Couple on motor cycleWill the world be ready if or when aging boomers [born between 1946 and 1964] hang up their car keys? Most plan to stay in their suburban house even though their home may become unsuitable. It’s surprising that this huge generation is not being addressed by the housing industry.

Thoughtfully designed housing for older adults is not being created on a scale commensurate with the growing need. It’s not a market many architects or developers have embraced. Conversely, a disproportionate amount of attention has been focused on the presumed desires of millennials. We hear all the time that it’s this group craving walkability, good transit and everything-at-their-doorstep amenities — and that it can only be provided by cities.

There are a number of reasons for this: most of the people who do marketing are young. Doing stuff for old people is not fun. One marketing consultant who founded the Boomer Project noted:

It’s as if marketers all wear the same blinders. Because so many marketing executives are under 40 — or even under 30 — many presume most consumers not only think like them, but want to be like them. Most marketing that targets Boomers presumes there is something wrong with them that needs fixing, such as age spots or wrinkles. It’s malady-based. And, for the most part, it’s not accurate.

Sure, things will go wrong, but not in the order one would think

So when the companies do think about designing for those growing older, their thinking is malady-based too; by considering malady-based design issues like “step-free entrances, single-floor living, under-counter appliances, and halls and doorways that accommodate wheelchairs.”

But, by not really knowing for sure what kind of housing aging boomers need, these mobility-based problems are the last to consider; the first are household-based activities like driving, food shopping, taking medication and meal preparation. These start hitting in significant numbers in the mid 70s, and the boomers are not there yet.

These are also problems that are solved by community — being able to walk to shop, moderately priced restaurants where one can get prepared food, neighbors who might look in and check if a person is taking their medication.

Right now, boomers feel pretty good

The fact is that right now, most of the baby boomer cohort is still pretty healthy. According to a Del Webb study, they all feel a lot younger than they are, and until any health problems start hitting them, they will think they are much younger. So it should be no surprise that there are not too many of them worrying right now about giving up their cars; they all think they are fine.

Every day for the next 12 years, 10,000 people will reach age 65. That companies are not scrambling to exploit this market is not only unfortunate for their bottom line, but almost certainly treacherous, eventually, for everyone.

The power of boomers

Baby boomers buy 60 percent of packaged goods, spend 75 percent more on vacations, and buy half of all new cars. They own a third of all the iPhones and half of the Macs. Baby boomers, because they get out and vote in higher numbers, just elected the new American government and pretty much control it. President Trump is 70, Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, is 79, and the average age of the cabinet is 62. The baby boomers own America, and now they rule it.

There is an importance of living in walkable communities, those things that the millennials want, such as good transit and everything-at-their-doorstep amenities. People have to start thinking seriously about these issues, but most baby boomers simply haven’t yet. Most who have decent jobs or own businesses are not seeing any retirement barrier at age 65 either.

Technology can be part of the solution, with Uber, home delivery, apps and wearables. Summoning these cars is a no-brainer for heavy users of smartphones, but for older people with declining vision and motor skills, it’s a puzzle. But not for the baby boomers; they just upgrade to the iPhone 7 Plus and get a bigger screen. Again, conflating seniors with tech-savvy boomers who have fine, well-practiced index finger skills, along with Siri and Alexa.

In fact,  the biggest problem for boomers might well be over-reliance on technology. Most older seniors could easily park themselves in front of the television with only the 50 channels the cable company gave them. Now we can get endless streaming of Netflix and every other service to fill our time. Soon we all might be wearing Oculus headsets and never leaving our chairs.

Perhaps that is what happens when people are trapped in their homes, or when they lose their car keys. Which is maybe why we have to think community first, interior design second. And in the end, we’re talking about timing. The baby boomer demographic bulge is just getting into its senior years. As one senior living expert, Bob Kramer notes:

“Some of this is like surfing — you have to time the wave,” Kramer says. “You paddle too soon, and you wipe out spectacularly.”

The oldest boomers are just 70 or 71 now. But they are the leading edge with many, many millions to follow. We are 10 years away from the real crisis here. The question is, do we fix our cities and towns now so that they are ready for this wave, or will it drown us all?