The seniors’ housing markets are in for surprising and unsettling changes. Looking only to the past to predict the future markets will be a mistake.

The population of seniors in the United States is rising at a rate without precedent. At the same time, the character of the population is changing in new and unexpected ways. This is bringing both challenges and opportunities to the seniors’ housing market.

There are, in reality, several senior populations. One way to better understand them is to divide them into three groups.

  • Traditionals—those at least 80 years old who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s and reflect the past traditions and patterns of the senior population. They are a largely conservative group that is becoming less mobile and more in need of health care each year, and they are going to live far longer than their predecessors.
  • Transitionals—those who today are between 66 and 80 years old. This is a transitional group more active than people previously in this age group but still following many of the choices of the past. Many have moved to retirement communities in the South and Southwest, though there is now a trend of living in the north among this group as well. More so than in the past, they are working—starting new businesses and new careers both for financial reasons and to have a sense of fulfillment and making a contribution. Many, however, have retired to a life of leisure, as seniors in the past have done.
  • Trendsetters—the new seniors just now turning 65. They are the leading edge of the baby boomers who have broken the mold each decade since the 1960s. They represent a wild card, an unknown force that is likely to re­­define what growing old is and what the seniors’ housing market looks like for decades to come.

The largest growth in the senior population in the decade ahead will be in the group from age 65 to 80 as the Trendsetters enter this set. There are over 28 million Transitionals today; over the coming decade, they will move into the 80-plus age group to be replaced by 42 million Trendsetters.

The Trendsetters

The Trendsetters think and act unlike any group of seniors before them. This is the group that in the late 1960s and the 1970s fought the Vietnam War and protested against it as well, all the while taking drugs and listening to rock ’n’ roll regardless of which side they were on. Then from the 1980s through the 1990s, they moved to the suburbs while creating revolutions in women’s rights, technology, the environment, and other areas as well.

Despite their good health, they will demand high-quality health care to replace knees, hips, and other body parts so they can continue to go biking, ski, climb mountains, and carry the grandkids.

They will continue to work long into their 70s to rebuild their retirement accounts and to continue to contribute to society.

Many will move from their existing homes, but it will be hard to predict just where they will go:

  • Some will move to central cities for the vitality and to be close to challenging jobs.
  • Some will move to suburban town centers to have a more urban lifestyle in an easier-to-maintain condo while being near friends and family.
  • Some will move to a new city for a new job or to move back home or close to grandkids.
  • Some will opt to age in place in large suburban homes either because of community ties or because they are “underwater,” owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth.

What is predictable is that Trendsetters will not move to traditional retirement housing anytime soon. They may have retired from a career, but not from an active, engaged life. It will be 15 years at the earliest before most Trendsetters give serious consideration to moving into a life care community and 20 years or more before they are ready for nursing care.

That said, they might be open to a new style of life care community if it were located in an urban setting, were fully wired, and supported entrepreneurs, small business owners, writers, and filmmakers. The range of activities would have to reflect current trends like yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices, along with more traditional religious activity. This presents an opportunity for a creative new approach to senior living.

The Traditionals

The population 80 years old and older also will grow over the coming decade. Today there are 11.4 million in this group; it will grow by 20 to 40 percent by 2020, adding 2.4 million to 5 million people, depending on how much the average lifespan in the United States has been ex­­tended. This represents a dramatic and demanding change in the U.S. population. This is a critical group to plan for as it becomes less independent and more in need of services and support each year.

The challenge of the Traditionals will be most acute in the suburbs—communities designed around the automobile for young families and kids, not as places for aging and in­­creasingly frail seniors. As the suburban Traditionals age and their mobility declines, services and a sense of community will need to be brought to them lest they become isolated in their large homes.

Traditionals living in urban settings, however, will be better off. They will be closer to high-quality health care, will find it easier to get around using transit, and will walk more and have more human interaction to keep them active and healthy. As well, it is easier and more economical to deliver services in an urban setting.

The Traditionals are much like the elderly generations that preceded them. But watch what happens around 2025 when the Trendsetters begin to turn 80. Then, once again, all bets will be off, and the traditional seniors’ housing markets that serve this older population will be faced with the restless and iconoclastic attitudes of this boomer group.

The Transitionals

This group of “midseniors” is an im­­portant group to study. While many—and perhaps most—reflect the trends of the past like the Traditionals, a small but growing number are beginning to plow the new ground and plant the seeds that the Trendsetters will harvest.

New ideas of how and where to retire are emerging and being acted on by the Transitionals, such as relocation north out of Florida to Georgia, the Carolinas, and other southern states; the emergence of a new multigenerational cohousing movement; and the move to smaller towns with universities, including the relocation by some to their alma mater in housing designed and built by the college for them. Studying these new trends will give important clues as to what the large wave of Trendsetters may be looking for as it chooses where and how to live in the years ahead.