Baby Boomers Get on With Life on Their Terms

After taking a big recession hit, many older adults are moving ahead with revised retirement plans.

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Many people nearing retirement age have decided to end the pity party over how badly the recession, stock-market decline, and housing bust combined to batter, if not ruin, their retirement dreams. According to research sponsored by PulteGroup, most working Americans who are 55 and older are looking forward to successful retirements—although retirements that will be different than they may have envisioned five years earlier.

[See 10 Ways Baby Boomers Will Reinvent Retirement.]

PulteGroup is a home-building company whose holdings include Del Webb, which invented the concept of senior housing communities in 1960 when it opened Sun City in Arizona. It regularly polls older Americans about their future retirement and housing plans.

After the recession, according to Deborah Meyer, the company's chief marketing officer, "We saw a lot of decisions being put off." People had taken an economic hit on the chin and were stunned and uncertain about how to proceed. Current research shows that they have decided to move on.

"People are taking control of their lives again," says Meyer. "They're saying, 'We actually have things in place. We can do this. This [economic hit] is not a complete reversal of our life as we may have thought it would be.'"

Roughly 60 percent of working people age 55 and older who were surveyed said they did not plan to delay their retirement and planned to retire in 10 years or sooner. Nearly a third said they would retire in five years or less.

Money concerns still exist, particularly for lower-income Americans. Less than a third of those in households making less than $50,000 a year expect to be financially prepared for retirement in the next 10 years, and half said they will never be ready. Among households earning more than $50,000 a year, two-thirds said they will be financially ready for retirement within 10 years; only 22 percent said they doubted ever being prepared.

[See Making the Most of a Disappointing Retirement Nest Egg.]

Among all income groups, of those who said they eventually would have the financial means to retire successfully, only 14 percent expect it will take them more than 10 years to be ready. In a similar survey in 2010, PulteGroup found that triple that number, or 42 percent, expected to need more than 10 years to acquire the money to be prepared for retirement.

While older Americans may have turned the corner, PulteGroup found, it's a different corner than it was before the recession. In particular, continued employment is a fixture in the plans of more and more residents of Del Webb's active adult communities.

Another major shift is that more people are looking to retire in or near where they now live. As a result, Del Webb has been building new communities outside its traditional Sun Belt locales, with an emphasis on being near big employment centers.

"The big change I'm seeing, and that I see whenever I visit our communities, is that this is not the full-time retirement of the past," Meyer says. "And while a lot of people are moving [for retirement], they're moving for different reasons."

[See 8 Retirement Realities for a Stumbling Economy.]

Based on the company's research over the past 20 years, Meyer provided five leading characteristics of retirement today versus 1992:

Now: Retirement is a lifestyle, not a work choice

1. People are working longer, taking on new careers or working part time (technology allows people to work and consult remotely).

2. People are not delaying retirement.

3. More spouses each have full-time careers.

4. Consumers are doing extensive online research to determine what to do in the next stage of their lives. More people are retiring closer to home, and the choices for retirement living closer to home are expanding.

5. Diverse lifestyles abound, including a focus on lifelong learning, travel, volunteerism, personal health and fitness, and extensive social networks.

Then: Retirement means not working

1. People retired from work by age 65.

2. People retired when they stopped working.

3. Many couples had only one full-time career person.

4. It was common to have a destination approach to retirement in Sunbelt states.

5. The dominant leisure-time focus was on golf, tennis, and other "social" sports.

Meyer says it's instructive to recognize that baby boomers are an enormous demographic group that includes very large segments with differing economic conditions and lifestyle aspirations. It's a mistake to treat them as a single group or to assume common attitudes and needs among nearly 80 million people born within a big time span of nearly 20 years (1946 to 1964).