Initial insights: what the baby boomers told us

Housing is the third of five key themes that emerged during the time we spent with baby boomers in relation to five overarching areas that are often discussed in reports about ageing – and which we wanted to explore with baby boomers to find out what they mean in people’s lives:

We linked what we learnt from the baby boomers we spent time with to what we have found out from a range of the reports and research that has also explored these issues, and analysis of statistics about baby boomers. Read more background on our method in the introduction to the first theme, Participation, here, and on the Innovation Age work here.

What Baby Boomers Told Us About Housing


As with the financial stereotypes of baby boomers, many of the images we are presented with of this generation depict couples who fully own large, and predominantly empty houses. While almost 40% of baby boomers own their homes outright, almost a third are still paying off mortgages, and a fifth are renting (Hordacre and Barbaro, 2015).

Housing represented a big stressor for many of the baby boomers we spent time with – for different reasons.

Life can throw obstacles in the way of home ownership, but it’s still a dream we hope to realise

Changes in circumstances, such as divorce or unemployment can mean that people lose their homes or have to find cheaper alternatives. A number of the baby boomers we spent time with had experienced the aftereffects of relationship or employment breakdown, with housing becoming a stressor as a result.

Peter identified housing as his biggest stress:

“My number one stressor is housing. I lost my home when I got divorced. I’m still trying to live out that dream of owning my own home, but can’t get into the market, especially as I am currently ‘unemployed’. There is this implicit expectation that you should be a homeowner. I still kick myself sometimes that I lost the house and didn’t buy one again when housing prices weren’t so high. I did try, but I was running my own business and even Homestart wouldn’t give me a loan.”

Like Peter, Dean lost his home through divorce. He expressed a deep pain about not owning a house, and the pressures this puts on him financially and personally as a carer for his elderly father. He feels that his hard work has only resulted in:

“debt going down the line”.

Penelope managed to buy a house following a divorce, but now has little money to maintain or renovate it, meaning it has depreciated in value over time, leaving her with only the land as an asset:

“My house is falling apart around me. But it is the place I could afford after my divorce. I know the house isn’t worth anything, but the land has value. My dad says to me, ‘you are still camping out in that house’. I know housing should be a stressor but I don’t have the energy to put into worrying about it, there are more important things”.

Other people were determined to do whatever it took to get into the housing market before it was too late. Jayne is 60 and has decided to build her own house and start a new business simultaneously. This has been a stressful decision, and she is currently living in a share house to reduce costs and afford the build. She is currently reconsidering selfemployment as the two stresses together are becoming difficult to manage.

Affordable private rentals are getting harder to find in places where we want to live

According to researchers, the number of people over the age of 55 who are renting is increasing (see for example, Petersen and Parsell, 2014). Further, the decline of affordable private rental accommodation means that housing stress amongst people over the age of 65 is also increasing, with the number of people aged 65 and over in low-income rental households expected to increase 115% by 2026 (ACSA in AHURI, 2010; p.6).

The people we spent time with who were renting were often resigned to continuing to rent into their older age, and were concerned that what they could afford was increasingly sparse or unsuitable housing.

Wendy worried that she would not be able to afford a place on her own and this was one of the reasons she stayed in a defacto relationship and commuted between Melbourne and Geelong each day to work.

Peter said renting means constantly worrying about where you will be living, and where your place is:

“The neighbourhoods I would want to live in with my family are just not affordable, so I also worry about where we will be living. Housing is also stressful because when you rent, like we are, you are living in someone else’s home and there are inspections, which really kills any sense of a place being your home”.

Homelessness is a real prospect when we have no assets or family to fall back on

Homelessness amongst older people in Australia is increasing – and this is reflected in the number of homeless people who are from the baby boomer population – which has increased over the past decade (see for example, Petersen et al, 2013; Petersen and Parsell, 2014).

Some say that, though data is sparse, it seems that homelessness too is at a “demographic crossroads” (Petersen and Parsell, 2014;p.18) with most homeless older people having previously had ‘conventional housing histories’ rather than having ongoing housing disruption throughout their lives (Petersen et al, 2013).

The baby boomers we spent time with who were at risk of homelessness, came from various backgrounds in terms of their housing history.

In the weeks before we met with Charity, she had left an abusive relationship, lived in her car for a few nights, and since then in emergency accommodation. She had been approved for private rental accommodation, but was concerned that this may not be affordable and that she may need to return to the relationship, despite the dangers:

“I realise in retrospect that the only reason I stayed in two marriages is because I had nowhere to go. I don’t know what the future holds now, but I do know I am strong enough to help myself.”

Steve ended up on the streets after a dispute with the Housing Department when they wanted him to clean up the things he had collected on his property. Steve has an attention disorder and when the Housing Department changed its policy from long-term case management he lost the worker who understood his condition and with whom he had a long-term relationship, and he was forced to tell his story over and over again to a stream of workers:

“I felt like I was the one cranking the machine to turn the cogs and make things happen. Isn’t that their job? Isn’t that what they are paid for? I fought the fight and I lost. I don’t want more hand to mouth services! I want some social engineering to start happening.”

On the day we met Lana her house was set for repossession. Prior to becoming unemployed she had been paying off a mortgage on a house, and had a loan for a car. She has tried to negotiate with the bank, but without success:

“Today I learnt they have slapped a notice on the window saying, ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’. I had to ring the bank and say I am a responsible person. I’ve tried really hard over the last five years. I can’t help having illness, I’m helping my father-in-law, I’ve served in this community for 45 years teaching”.

As a result of the repossession she and her relatively new husband will be forced to continue to live with her elderly father-in-law. This creates both financial and relationship stresses for her:

“We won’t have our own space or home. We live under the auspices of a European strong male, came out post war, very independent, dominating at times, soft and insecure at times. For my husband and I to have the relationship we really want, it’s definitely on hold and it has been for five years. And that has been painful for me and him too. But it’s the way it is and we make the best of it.”

Surprisingly, Lana is philosophical about losing the house, and feels that losing the house will relieve some stress in terms of her financial problems:

“Financially losing the house will simplify my life. At least I don’t need to pay council tax. Some stresses will be dropping off me. I have to trust that God will keep me safe and provide a roof over my head. A lot of older people don’t have the means anymore to own a house or apartment. We’re becoming more third world”.

Ideally we’d like to grow old in a place we know and where we have connections…but that may not always work out

According to both Australian and international research, place is an important part of ageing well. Kendig and Phillipson (2014; p.104) argue that:

“The physical environment may itself assist in ensuring positive physical and mental health, especially for those experiencing chronic ill health, cognitive frailties, or feelings of loneliness resulting from the loss of partners and friends”.

Further, researchers have also suggested that home ownership is an important determinant of whether people are able to move through choice, and whether they are anxious or fearful of having to move out of their neighbourhoods. For example, Olsberg and Winters (in Dufty-Jones, 2012; p.6) found that:

“Home ownership gave individuals the financial capacity to plan whether and under what circumstances they would move in the future…In the case of private renters…individuals in this type of tenure were ‘most anxious about moving in the future’. In particular, many private renters were ‘fearful that they would be forced to move because of financial difficulties as they grew older”.

Most of the home owner baby boomers we spent time with had intentions to grow older in their place rather than moving or seeking out specific housing for older people.

For Albert and Jan, who live on a 4 acre block in the hills of Adelaide, there was a strong sense that their future lay in that home and community. However, there was also a sense of realism that this depended on remaining fit and healthy, and a need to make alternative plans in case they did not.

Amongst the baby boomers we spoke with, the newer trend of ‘Active Adult Lifestyle Communities’ (AALCs) were not a realistic option, or they were seen as something to make fun of – as Carmen said, she dreamed about “the masseuse, the chef and cocktails at 5 on the deck”, but recognised that while this was not likely to be an option, if she did have to consider assisted living, she would like it not to be separated from broader society:

“What I would like from aged care is to have activities, parlour games, performances, but not all coming to me – me going to see them in the world.”

Some people, however, were forced because of circumstances to consider age-specific residential options.

Dianne is in her late sixties, but five years ago she made a decision to move to a residential facility where most people are aged over 85 years. Dianne considered that she had few options because of a lack of savings or superannuation, and finding herself in a large house with a large mortgage and no employment, she decided to sell the house, and sought assistance from her adult children to raise the money needed to pay for the unit in the residential facility. She has found another younger resident with whom she socialises.

Connection to place, was, however, also cultural. Roy, a Maori man who has moved from New Zealand, jokes about where he might end up living, before getting serious:

“I hope it’s not an old peoples home, but you never know. A fortune teller told me I’d live to 88 (laughing) it cost me five bucks to know that. Maori don’t go to rest homes they are looked after in a family environment. My family is already asking ‘when are you moving back?”

By Ingrid Burkett, Project Director and Kerry Jones, Project Lead, The Innovation Age.

Find out more about The Innovation Age.

This is the fifth of seven excerpts we’ll be sharing from the Starting the Innovation Age Report: Boomer’s perspectives on what it takes to age well. This is the first report in a series as we open an invitation to be part of this movement towards what we are terming ‘The Innovation Age’. You can also download the report in its entirety here.