Are we ready for the baby boomers?

Couple on a beach taking a photo

Baby boomers are a generation used to freedom, to having it all and not settling for second best. Photo: iStock

Members of the baby boomer generation are beginning to enter, or plan for, retirement. A generation whose adult lives have been centred around the car and the freedom and status it afforded.

According to Department for Transport statistics, in 2012 some 86% of the baby boomer generation lived in households with a car or van. As they age, many will find they can no longer driver, either through choice or necessity. By the age of 70, the proportion of households with a vehicle drops by 20%. Are the baby boomers ready to make this transition? What will they expect from public transport? How can we meet these expectations?

The needs and expectations of today’s – and tomorrow’s – older people were the subject of an Age UK/International Longevity Centre seminar I attended earlier this week, hearing from a range of academics and researchers on ageing. The seminar is one of a series called ‘Community Matters’ exploring how communities need to adapt to an ageing society.

Suburban dreams, rural retreats

A UK suburban street

Suburban life tends to be centred around the car. Photo: Alan Murray-Rust

Facilitated by the car, many baby boomers moved to the suburbs to raise their families and will have aspirations to stay in those areas, or move to the country, to enjoy their retirement.

As Dr Kit Mitchell pointed out at the seminar, these areas suit a car-centred lifestyle but can leave people isolated once they leave their cars behind, or feel less able to use them. He asked how we can encourage people to consider this and to settle in areas where they will not be wholly car dependent, particularly as they near retirement. This is not an easy task, particularly as many of us do not like to think too far into the future, and if we do, find it hard to imagine how different our lives and needs might be.

Urban living provides shops and services on the doorstep, as well as good public transport links, but does not fit with many people’s current aspirations for retirement. Sophie Handler, of Age Friendly Manchester, suggested that cities may want to look at their image and branding. Do they present themselves as places where older people are included and valued or do images of young, working people dominate? Are the needs of older people considered in the design of public places and the delivery of services?

A hierarchy of transport needs

Wherever people choose to settle, Dr Charles Musselwhite argued that the provision of public transport tends to be focused on utility – getting people as quickly as possible from A to B, during hours that fit around traditional 9 to 5 working patterns.

Older people on a station platform with their Grandchildren

Many baby boomers will have caring responsibilities that require travel outside of ‘normal’ commuting patterns

This model does not necessarily work for older people. They may wish to travel outside these hours or to travel from suburb to suburb to visit friends or fulfill caring responsibilities, rather than travel from suburb to centre to get to work.

Older people are not the only group that this model does not work for. Part-time or shift workers and people with caring responsibilities (often requiring suburb to suburb trips) are also disadvantaged.

Dr Musselwhite divided transport needs into three levels, applying to all age groups:

  • Primary needs: the need to get from A to B.
  • Secondary needs: the need for transport to confer status and a feeling of being ‘normal’.
  • Tertiary needs: the enjoyment and value of the journey in itself (rather than getting from A to B in the shortest time).

When people give up driving, he found that primary needs generally tend to be met but that secondary and tertiary needs are often neglected.

These are needs that are well fulfilled by the car – the car is traditionally seen as a status object and something that enables people to feel that they are like everyone else (although evidence suggests these norms are changing for today’s ‘Generation Y’). Car journeys also afford enjoyment and value in themselves – you can take a drive just for the sake of it and enjoy a scenic, rather than a direct route. Car journeys can uncover unexpected places and sights and enable exploration.

Enjoy the ride

Bench and artwork on a Sustrans walking route

Walking routes, like this one designed by Sustrans, should offer places to linger and discover. Photo: Dean Smith

How can we design public transport, walking and cycling provision so that it meets more of these secondary and tertiary needs that baby boomers are used to being met?

Here are some ideas from the seminar and elsewhere:

The baby boomers are a generation used to freedom, to having it all and not settling for second best – they are likely to be a strong force for positive change in the public services they come to use. Transport providers and planners need to get ready.

Rebecca Fuller

2 thoughts on “Are we ready for the baby boomers?

  1. Sorry, not all baby boomers are car-bound. Please let go of the stereotype. I’m serious…I know a lot of women cycling regularily from their mid-40’s and more 50’s+.

    Our circle of friends are cycling oriented –all over 50. I also quite a number who rely heavily on public transit.

    • Agreed – DfT stats show that the younger end of the baby boomer generation (50-59) are actually slightly more likely than the general population to cycle. This is from a very low base though. On average, women aged 50-69 make just 9 cycle trips a year

      Whilst 86% of baby boomers have a car at home, that’s not to say they are not using other modes to travel. However, with the exception of 40-49 year olds, 50-59s make more trips by car than any other age group.

      We still need to understand what would encourage people to transfer more of these journeys to walking, cycling and public transport.

      https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/nts06-age-gender-and-modal-breakdown

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