Boomers in Paradise

By Brad Edmondson Photography by Limbert Fabian March 1, 2011

Have you noticed that the people in the ads for Florida retirement communities are usually just goofing off? Sure, they’re having a good time—shopping, sailing, sunset-watching, whatever—but what does it all amount to? A nonstop schedule of fun and games will turn your brain into oatmeal after a while, and that is a terrible waste. Florida retirees are among the most talented people in America. They have money, brains, good health and time. They should be doing something more worthwhile than riding around in golf carts.

Fortunately, few of the actual people who retire to Sarasota fit into the marketing stereotype. More are like Mike Mahon, 65, who was an oil company executive in Singapore when he and his wife went looking for a retirement destination. “We made a list of all the things we wanted—warm winters, water, good healthcare, no big-city hassles, and an airport,” he says. “Being near a university was also a big deal for us. We visited a lot of places, and Sarasota did these things better than anywhere else.”

Mahon tried to goof off when he moved to Sarasota, but he failed. A friend invited him to check out the Lifelong Learning Academy at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, and one thing led to another. Now he has spent six years on the academy’s board, the last two as its president. The academy itself has grown from offering two classes in 1995 to 180 in 2010-11. It has a few paid staffers, but volunteers do the teaching and planning. “Our teachers are retired executives and Ph.D.s,” says Mahon. “Many of the students are, too. The depth of experience in this organization just knocks me out. And everyone really wants to learn.”

Sarasota’s Lifelong Learning community is going to get a lot bigger, because it is an early ripple in a new wave of Florida retirees. People who will move to Sarasota in the next decade will be more educated and healthier than previous generations were. They will be more focused on realizing specific, personal goals, and they will usually succeed by relying on a lifetime of good habits—things like networking, flexibility and an eagerness to embrace new ideas. They’re baby boomers.

The baby-boom generation happened when births in the United States rose sharply at the end of World War II and stayed high until 1964. As a result, one-quarter of the U.S. population in 2011 is packed into the ages of 47 to 65.

Boomers are exceptional for their numbers, but also for their training. Most of them attended college, making them the most educated generation in American history. They have been creating consumer markets and redefining every stage of life they pass through since 1947, the year they made Howdy Doody a star. Their next act will be to retire the idea of retirement.

Fortunately for Sarasota, boomers share one important thing with previous generations. They still dream of taking it easy in places that are warm, sunny and near open water. Some boomers will happily buy into the golf-and-cocktails lifestyle, too. After all, there are 77 million of them, so a few should be interested in just about anything you could name. But most boomers will never see themselves in the current crop of retirement ads. There are two reasons why.  

The first is the Great Recession. When the bottom dropped out of the U.S. economy in 2007, millions of middle-aged Americans were knocked off the path to retirement. Most working-age families in the United States are no longer on track to retire at age 65, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research—a big change from a few years ago. Even among high-income households, 42 percent were falling short in 2009. And most households that do have enough assets to retire will not be able to move until they sell their houses. So even though home prices are low in Sarasota, don’t expect too many people to move here in the next few years from New York City, Denver, St. Louis, or other markets where houses aren’t selling.

Most baby boomers will need to stick to a tight budget to make it to retirement. And once they do achieve it, their lives as retirees will be very simple. Forty years ago, Sarasota County was home to thousands of retired factory workers who used Social Security checks, Medicare coverage and small nest eggs to buy a single-wide, a lemon tree, a big American car and not much else. Substitute a two-bedroom apartment for the trailer and shrink the car, and you’ve got a rough idea of the average baby boomer’s retirement. And hey, it won’t be that bad—as long as the government continues to pay for healthcare.

The other thing that makes boomers different from those chuckleheads in the retirement ads is their brains. If the world doesn’t offer them what they want, they will figure out a new way to get there. They started doing this in the 1960s, and they’re still doing it. So look for growth in cooperative ventures like home sharing, cohousing, buying clubs and barter; inexpensive forms of recreation that also promote health, like bicycling and yoga; and anything else that uses creativity and community to attain a fun, fulfilling retirement without spending a lot.

The biggest trade-off is that many boomers will never completely retire. About 1.6 million people aged 51 to 65 have postponed their retirement as a result of the bust, according to economists Eric French and David Benson of Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank. That’s bad news, but boomers are already finding the workaround. Many of those who are compelled to work past the age of 65 will find ways to merge their paid activity with their personal interests, so their days can be relaxing and enjoyable even though they’re still earning money. This often means starting a business or being self-employed.

“I was going to be a marketing executive,” says Diane Lane, 48. “I was going to climb the corporate ladder to the corner office. If you had told me that I would end up as a massage therapist, and I would love it, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Lane got off the fast track when she had children. Her massage license and small office on Second Street, next to Whole Foods, give her a flexible, portable source of income. “I am so glad to be working for myself,” she says. “When my daughters visit, I can arrange my schedule so I can spend all my time with them. I have an apartment with a view of the bay. I am committed to my business, and it’s growing. When I go to work, I don’t have to play office games. And my work makes people happy. It’s an amazing life.”

Self-employment is hardly a new idea here. About two-thirds of businesses in Sarasota County have one to four employees. The smallest ones are concentrated in real estate, construction, professional services and, of course, healthcare. Lane should have lots of opportunities to grow her income; Medicare benefits are almost certain to be cut (just look at the math), and this will give boomers a compelling reason to manage their chronic health problems affordably. This means massage therapy instead of an orthopedist for back pain, and weight loss, careful attention to diet, meditation and exercise for almost everything else. Most self-employed Sarasotans will just be trying to make ends meet, but a few of them will strike gold. Promoting wellness is one of the ways they will do that.

So what will retired boomers do for fun? Talk about Charlemagne, of course. If you don’t believe that, just

visit the bagel shop at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus for lunch on Monday. That’s when the Lifelong Learning Academy’s class on European History lets out. The 40 students in that sold-out class usually keep talking to each other after the period ends. “Our students do not just sit there like zombies,” says Axel Lohrisch, 73, the teacher. “They want to share their perspectives, and history is of great interest to them. Older people get interested in where they come from.”

Lohrisch isn’t a professor. He’s a retired corporate executive who spent much of his career in Europe and read lots of history, literature and philosophy in his spare time. He and his wife shipped his books to their new home in Harbor Acres when he retired in 1986; he started taking classes at the Lifelong Learning Academy about a decade ago. Now he’s on the board of directors.

Education is like eating Cracker Jacks. The more you have, the more you want. The Mahons and Lohrisches wanted access to a university in retirement because college was a happy time for them, and they want more of it. “You get major college flashbacks here,” says Mahon. “People are smiling, talking and going out for coffee. I take the classes because it’s such a great scene.” And when he’s not going to class, Mahon gets to use the expertise he acquired as a corporate manager, because the academy’s board has a lot to do.

Learning for fun has been going on in Sarasota at least since the early 1970s, when the Sarasota Institute for Lifetime Learning (SILL) began a lecture program that’s still going strong today. The Sarasota County School District offers a full slate of re-training and enrichment classes for adults at the Technical Institute on Beneva Road, and 18 percent of students enrolled at USF’s Sarasota campus are over 40. Most other local colleges and schools also offer adult education classes.

The Lifelong Learning Academy is different. It operates in the style boomers prefer. It’s a private school that rents its classroom space from USF, and it keeps costs low because almost no one gets paid. It succeeds by harnessing an undervalued resource, which is the expertise and curiosity of educated retirees. Baby boomers will see it as one of Sarasota’s biggest assets.

Arts and cultural institutions have been luring well-heeled retirees to Sarasota for decades, but people like that don’t move here just because they’re rich. Mostly, they come because they’re educated. College graduates are more likely to understand that having four huge Rubens canvases in one room at the Ringling Museum is something really special.

Sarasota’s biggest edge comes because education goes with income the way wine goes with cheese. Now that 8,500 boomers a day are passing the age of 65, and half of them are college-educated, Sarasota’s artistic strength should be a stronger draw than ever.

But the arts depend on patrons. Many wealthy Sarasotans who have supported local music, theater and the visual arts are passing on, and as we’ve seen, most boomers will be strapped for cash. Who will write the checks?

Fortunately for Sarasota, there is still a colossal amount of wealth in the United States. Boomers already control a fair amount of it, and they are in line to get it all. There are about 7,200 households in Sarasota County with annual incomes of $200,000 or more, and people between the ages of 45 and 64 head up about half of those households.

So even if the average boomer will be retiring on a budget, there are still plenty who can plunk down a million or two for a hot square of Siesta Key sand in the next few years. Researchers at Boston College estimate that the wealthiest one-tenth of U.S. households can expect to receive an average inheritance of about $1.5 million when their parents pass on. It’s good to be king.

Finding the next generation of donors is the goal of the Sarasota Arts Discovery Tour, a five-day, $3,500-a-head event catered in the lavish style wealthy tourists expect when they tour European capitals. The tour, which is planned for 2012, will put guests up at the Ritz-Carlton and give them VIP treatment at the Sarasota Opera, the Sarasota Orchestra, the Asolo Rep and other cultural crown jewels. The committee planning the tour is doing the marketing by word of mouth; they have identified high-worth Sarasota residents and asked them to serve as “brand ambassadors” to their wealthy friends.

“There is a group of wealthy people who really like culture and art,” says Philip Kotler, a longtime marketing professor at Northwestern University and a winter resident of Sarasota. Kotler helped plan the arts tour and

is a brand ambassador to Chicago. “Places that are centers of arts and culture are going to be increasingly attractive as baby boomers retire,” he says. “But first, boomers have to know that these places exist.”

Arts, culture, and education will attract retirees who want to remain engaged, active, and moving ahead.

“I want to live in a place that’s edgy—where there’s a lot of ferment,” says Tim Dutton, executive director of Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence (SCOPE), which is launching a think tank called the Institute for the Ages. “Sarasota’s older demographic profile gives it an edge as the rest of the country ages. We think that Sarasota is a great place to try out new products and new ideas. We want it to be part of what’s new.”

Demographic expert Brad Edmondson, a frequent contributor to such national magazines as Modern Maturity, wrote “The New Abnormal” in our January issue.

Those Brainy Boomers

50 percent of boomers obtained some form of higher education—the highest percentage in U.S. history.

Boomer households spend 21 percent more on reading and 43 percent more on education than the average U.S. household.

Boomers seek meaningful, memorable travel experiences, including educational and eco-travel.

Boomers and seniors are the fastest-growing Internet users.

20 percent of part-time college students are 50 or older.

Life Expectancy for Americans at age 65

Boomers expect to live longer than any previous generation.

Source: CBO, Baby Boomers’ Retirement Prospects, Nov. 2003.

U.S. Population Change 2005-2025

By 2025, the number of Americans over 60 will increase by 70 percent.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


Second Time Around

Web-savvy boomers are looking online for love.

Social circles tend to diminish after people retire or relocate, which means many of Sarasota’s tech-savvy baby boomers are using the Web to find new partners. Gian Gonzaga, senior director of research and development for online dating service eHarmony, says that 25 percent of their over 20 million users are baby boomers.

And what they’re looking for now is different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. As people mature, “Personality becomes more crystallized and less likely to change,” according to the eHarmony book Dating the Second Time Around, meaning people “tend to have a clearer picture of themselves” and what they are looking for. Instant compatibility becomes important. Boomers tend to emphasize personality and shared interests, having learned that the passion of physical attraction can fade.

Dede Kendrick, a Sarasota hairdresser, started dating again in July 2009. She had previously been married for 28 years, but she says at her current stage in life, “You’re more clear on who you are and what your interests are.” When Kendrick, 61, stepped into online dating, she was comforted by the ability to protect personal information as long as necessary. She admits that there can be “a lot of fudging” on the dating sites—for example, people may fib about their age or appearance. “You have to keep your sense of humor,” she says.

Kendrick often advises friends and clients who are nervous about dating again, or “afraid they’ll meet a wacko,” she says. She tells them about how much fun she has meeting new people. Then she points to Bill Caldwell, the marine contractor she met on the dating site Plenty of Fish. “We never would’ve crossed paths” without online dating, she says. Now they’re going on a year and a half together. —Beau Denton

Projected Population 85+

Boomers will eventually swell the ranks of the very old—those 85 and older.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


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