Will the Real Senior Housing Trendsetter Generation Please Stand Up?

The so-called Silent Generation won’t be quite as passive as some may expect when it comes to senior housing accommodations, even when compared to the up-and-coming Baby Boomer population, according to an Urban Land Institute webinar on housing in America as boomers hit retirement age.

It mostly centers around aging in place, and the Silent Generation is starting a revolution that the Boomers are likely to continue.

While it’s broadly expected that baby boomers won’t abandon their revolutionary ways just because they’re getting older, it’s the preceding generation that is setting the course for the future of senior housing—and the industry should watch them for new trends, says John K. McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at Urban Land Institute and J. Ronald Terwilliger Chair for Housing, who presented the institute’s recent report on the 65+ housing landscape.


The boomers are the fastest growing demographic right now, and will continue to be for the rest of this decade. But they’re only recently turning 65, whereas the previous generation—the approximately 66-85 age group—are the current targets for senior housing. 

Because of “radical change” in lifespan, energy, culture, and demographic numbers, says McIlwain, the nation is entering a time of significant change—including the housing market.

“The future of 65+ housing will not be like the past,” he says.


On the bright side, the 65+ age group has been much less affected by the Great Recession than any other age group, McIlwain says. This population still has an approximately 80% homeownership rate that was virtually unaffected by the recession, and the 55+ age group has by-and-large been untouched by unemployment issues. The age demographic has, in fact, seen an increase in employment, he says, partially due to the longer time period those age 65+ are now working. 

Additionally, those aged 65 and older have seen their net worth climb 42% from 1984 to 2009—a much higher increase than other age groups—and have “significantly” lower poverty rates.

Despite these positive aspects, the older population is still feeling the effects of the recession and poor housing market. For the Silent Generation, “many don’t want to move, and can’t sell their homes,” says McIlwain.

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Instead, they’re largely aging in place in their suburban communities. Industrywide, seniors are waiting longer to enter retirement communities, with the average age to move climbing to about 85. It’s causing a crisis for housing communities, he says, as they’re facing unexpectedly high vacancy rates and are struggling to replace those who leave.

Cost may be an important reason for delaying the move, according to McIlwain, but there’s another factor to consider: a growing disaffection with institutional living.

“This will become only more acute as the Leading Edge Boomers move into their late 70s—it’s not a generation that looks forward to moving back into a dormitory [setting] or some other institutional setting,” he says. “Many more people are choosing to live alone, and it will impact senior housing.” 

What that means for the industry, according to McIlwain, is that it’ll need to find new ways to attract a wider range of people.

Make the communities “stylish and green,” he advised, located in walkable urban communities that are multigenerational. Design them for people who are likely to remain actively engaged in the world, and incorporate state of the art technology, from wireless and broadband functions to more complex medical technology and healthcare applications.

Above all, McIlwain emphasized, watch the Silent Generation for new trends.

“The trends they’re likely to explore are likely to be explored in greater numbers by the Leading Edge Boomers,” he says. “The Leading Edge Boomers are the future of the 65+ population, and they never acted like anyone ever expected them to act. They have been a disruptive group and will continue to [be that way.]”

Written by Alyssa Gerace