It didn’t make headlines in the rest of the country, but it sure did here. On Monday of this past week, the local newspapers and TV stations all featured the results of a survey of Massachusetts baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. MassINC (The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth) commissioned the survey, and found, alongside the expected — too much debt, anxiety over retirement — that 35 percent of boomers planned to leave Massachusetts when they retired. The complete survey may be found on MassINC’s website at www.massinc.org.
A little calculation set the headline writers writing and the talk show hosts talking. Massachusetts is a boomer-heavy state, with 30 percent of the population and 45 percent of the workforce made up of the post-World War II generation. If 35 percent actually followed through and left the commonwealth on retirement, let’s see, that’d be about 650,000 people, or 10 percent of the population. This in the only state in the union actually to lose population already as of the last census.
As MassINC put it, “The sheer size of the generation makes this mass exodus problematic.”
That evening, drive time talk show host Howie Carr devoted two hours of his program to the subject. His callers’ near-universal declaration: “I’m outa here.” Carr himself, a Boston icon, said, not for the first time, that he’s leaving the state as soon as possible. The on-air complaints included bad weather, high housing costs, high insurance costs, regulation, and the overbearing climate of liberalism, including the gay marriage pronunciamento by the Supreme Judicial Court. The typical retirement destinations for Carr listeners? About 10 percent said New Hampshire or Maine, mainly for those who wanted to stay near their children. For the rest, the Carolinas, Florida, and a few votes for Utah. The next morning, host John Depetro took up the same question and got two hours of similar responses. Anecdotal stuff, certainly, but lots of it.
Political concern also overhangs the boomers’ planned escape. Carr expressed a near-universal worry that the only thing holding back the legislature from total collapse into Democrat-dominated corruption was Mitt Romney. We’ve had reasonably responsible Republican governors for a couple of decades now, but there is no likely candidate on the horizon to beat Attorney General Tom Reilly next time around. And he’s a big D.
“What’s that they say in French?” as Carr put it. “Apres moi, le deluge.”
THE WHOLE GRIPE TENDS TO FOCUS on housing and housing costs, unsurprisingly. On November 14, the Boston Business Journal reported the results of third quarter housing sales. Total volume was down a bit, but the prices were still going up.
“The median price for a single-family house in the quarter was $370,000, a 5.7 percent jump over last year,” the Journal reported. “Condominium sales went up 14 percent to 7,124 condominiums sold from July through September. The median price for a condominium was up 5.3 percent to $282,000.”
Add to that high property taxes, the cost of heating a home in the Northeast’s bitter winters, car insurance, the wear and tear on home and vehicle from bad weather, lots of clothes and dry cleaning, and a generationally typical mountain of debt (which the survey also reports), and it’s no wonder a big slice of the population wants out. It’s urgent, too. It takes very little calculation to realize that, just as boomers drove the housing price boom, a bunch of boomers trying to sell all at once could very well drive, if not a housing bust, at least a substantial turndown in home values.
Aside from talk radio, trade-specific blogs have all featured the MassINC survey: in human resources, in executive recruiting, and in real estate, too, of course. One executive recruiter speculated gloomily that, given rising business costs, there might be nothing to do to retain the boomers’ skills but first to offer them incentivized retirement, and then to hire them back. The real estate bloggers speak darkly of “developing neighborhood turnover.”
And they all wonder what they can do to counter the trend.
THE ANSWER IS: NOTHING. It’s not just economics, you see. It’s an affair of the heart.
I did not download the big .pdf file with the whole MassINC survey and pore through it line by line, but I’ve got a serious hunch about that impending booming diaspora segment: It is disproportionately married. In the seventies and eighties, we boomers, single or at least childless, would leave Eastern big city buildings in the late afternoon. It would be dark, and the urban canyons sparkled with pleasure and promise. We felt a feeling unlike any other, of life unfolding, of satisfaction in work accomplished and due to be accomplished at even higher levels, with no limit in sight.
But now we’ve grown up, even those of us most reluctant to do it, most devoted to Viagra and aerobics and antioxidants. Marriage, especially lasting marriage, and children change almost everything. Age does the rest. Instead of sparkling nighttime promise, we now feel a winter chill that goes right to the bone, and we dream not of moonlight romance, but of dewy dawns with a warm sunrise and not very much to worry about. Maybe a paid-for house, or one with at least a very low mortgage. Maybe a climate where the slush and salt and ice don’t eat up your car. Maybe even living in some sort of planned community where you don’t have to drive much at all, other than in a golf cart.
Finally, things do go wrong, especially with the aging body, whether your own or the one belonging to the one you love. For that, a gentler climate — economic and climatic — carries all sorts of benefits. There will be plenty of battles; no need to add snowstorms. Finally, it happens to all us just the way the Roche sisters sang it prophetically to their father in “Quitting Time”:
Money is not the problem
you have enough of that
now you must close your office
put on your coat and hat
put on your coat and hat
Now is the hour of quitting
twilight paints the town
Old industrial skyline
how does the sun go down?
how does the sun go down
You can go south in winter
be what you are a goose
you can live near the ocean
your clothes can fit you loose
Even as you are leaning
into that glass of wine
you and beloved business
have come to the end of a line
come to the end of a line
(Margaret Roche, c. 1979, DeShufflin, Inc. Listen here here.)
Amen. See you in North Carolina. Soon.
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