Older Australians are increasingly looking for flexibility rather than stability in their housing options, writes Diana Olsberg
AUSTRALIA’s population is ageing because of the combined effects of increased longevity and decreased fertility. These demographic changes are producing entirely unprecedented economic, social and political challenges for Australian society, for politicians and for governments and for Australian men and women and their families. Among the most dramatic changes that accompany the present demographic shifts are the far-reaching transformations in the meaning of home, family and place for older Australians in the new millennium, at a time when retirement lifestyles, residential intentions and reciprocal obligations are now subject to contestation and debate within the public discourses of government policy, the law, education and the media. In Australia today we are experiencing broad cultural shifts in family values, personal self-identities and material aspirations. And these changes are most manifest in the attitudes and intentions of older Australians with regard to their future housing intentions and their financial expectations for future lifestyles.
On behalf of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, I have just completed a major national research project to examine these issues. The focus of my research has been an exploration of the experiences of mid-life and later-age Australian men and women regarding present housing tenure and future housing intentions. My hypothesis was that there may be pressure on housing tenure and attachment to the family home and upon intergenerational relationships as assets of older people, particularly housing assets, may be required by older people to finance their needs for accommodation, residential care, health and other services and for their enhanced expectations for retirement lifestyles.
Data collection in the national project focused primarily upon home-owners aged over 50 years for the following reasons. First, they are already concerned with these issues, many of them facing decisions concerning their future residential plans, many of them having already retired from the full-time paid workforce and some having already made decisions to downsize from their long-term family residence either shifting location or into smaller accommodation. Second, the decisions made by these older Australians are indicative of changing priorities and expectations and relations among kinship systems which inform our understanding of social change within the context of Australia’s ageing population. For these behavioural and attitudinal shifts are very much a function of a transformation in personal identities of older Australians and the values which underpin them.
The project allowed me to access the experiences, attitudes and intentions of a broad ranging sample of more than 7000 men and women aged over 50 years from all over Australia in a national quantitative and qualitative empirical research project. The majority were home-owners, most owning their home outright, although a quarter of the those aged between 50 and 59 still have a home mortgage. One third of the respondents were aged between 50 and 59, the first cohort of Australia’s Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1955.
As reflected in the findings of this study, the patterns of housing tenure, lifestyle and family relationships of older Australians are changing. There is a significant shift in the priorities and values of older Australians. Overall, the most significant feature of the responses of older Australians was their desire to have a sense of flexibility with regard to their lifestyle intentions during the last years of their life. Whereas previously one could argue that stability was the defining factor in old age identity, the majority of respondents said that a sense of flexibility and fluidity was important, and that home ownership was the central factor underpinning the possibility of their now having a choice as to how to spend their remaining years., with an almost uniform definition of the home as a conduit to a person’s future lifestyle choices.
The symbolic dimension of the home as the foundation for personal identity is now somewhat blurred as the values of consumption and lifestyle begin to take precedence. Home-owners spoke of their home offering them a diversity of choices for the future. Widespread commonsense perceptions that all older people are resistant to change and residential mobility are not borne out. One in three respondents had moved in the previous five years, with the largest proportion moving location. And one in three said they expect to move in the foreseeable future. Many commented the past or future shift represented a lifestyle decision, moving as some said to ‘a better place’ or to ‘warmer weather’ or to ‘access better recreational facilities’. Many respondents now living in country or coastal towns had moved to those areas (particularly to coastal areas) in the past five years - the well-known ‘sea change’ and ‘tree change’ phenomena. Whether the choice was to sell and spend, or sell and move to a location which provided access to better lifestyle opportunities, the prevailing attitude was the same; that after years of hard work they have earned the right to enjoy the fruits of their labours in any way they choose, regardless of the well-worn tradition of ageing in place with the sole aim of providing security for the next generation.
More than one third of respondents lived alone, and increasingly as people age they live alone. Women in particular were living alone, and were twice as likely to be living alone than were men. Indeed, among those in this sample aged over 50 years, almost half the women were living alone, while three quarters of the men were living with a spouse or partner.
Baby Boomers (respondents between 50 and 59 years of age) were lowest in every category of wishing to remain living in their present home, indicating that they are comfortable with moving for lifestyle reasons as opposed to wanting to stay for whatever reason. Indeed, for them the notion of ageing in place is likely to conjure up images of immobility and old age, something to which they express hostility.
The most successful moves were by respondents who had formed ‘intentional communities’, either moving to a location or a retirement village where they already had friends. The importance of friends nearby was a frequent narrative. Ironically, this phenomenon can also be seen as a return to community but of a different sort. This is not the traditional family-based neighbourhood community; rather it is a set of emerging consumer classes, groups of people who find commonality in lifestyle and consumption patterns. Those new consumers pride themselves on their cultural literacy, as it were, as to the choices they make about where to live and what to buy. It is here that the foundations of traditional family obligations are being seriously tested, because the evidence suggests that in many cases people are prepared to use their greatest asset, the family home, to achieve those desires.
The problems of house and garden maintenance, particularly on the death of a spouse or problems of declining health, loom as the reasons which would most precipitate a move for respondents in the future as they age. Many respondents caution that people should make their move to downsize, to move to a new location or into a retirement village while they are still active enough to establish new activities and new relationships. Women, people living in rural areas, and pensioners were more likely to state that they were unable to afford to move from their present home.
WE CANNOT understand the nature of these new choices, these behavioural and attitudinal shifts unless we understand the transformations in personal identities of older Australians and the values which underpin them.
Up until the mid to late twentieth century most people derived their identities from their lived experiences within well-defined types of communities into which they were born and continued to live. These identities could be described as ‘roots-based’, with their foundations in social class, voting allegiance, religion and church, neighbourhood, community organisations, local pubs and clubs. Increasingly, however, identity values are now derived from virtual sources - representations from an ever expanding media industry - print media, film, television (where the defining feature has been the continuing blurring of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction), radio, the Internet and other electronic communications. All of these expanding sources of representation are driven by the advertising and marketing industries which, of course, propagate and promote the consumption lifestyle. In particular, home ownership and housing tenure are at the centre of this nexus of consumption.
The family home has long been important because it was the material manifestation of the long held Australian sense of egalitarianism - the home on the quarter acre block was the symbolic object which could be analysed, measured, spoken about by politicians, economists, community and cultural leaders and most of all by ordinary men and women. It was the egalitarian myth made manifest for all to see. The post-war rise of a home-owning middle class and the concomitant growth of the suburbs was not only important because it showed, from lived experience, our national myth to be true. The function of that home, with its backyard rendering it a safe, self-contained space, balancing nature and culture, was the reproduction of the family unit, the most important of all social institutions. The home during this period provided the necessary stability and security for reproduction, was backed by the promise of government support through the welfare state, and most importantly, was the living symbol which brought our national myth to fruition.
From the late twentieth century, the influence of globalisation has brought about profound shifts in the way people born after the war formed their social identities. From the late sixties and early seventies in Australia, their attitudes and values were formed more through the social changes in Western societies (feminism, civil rights, environmentalism, the sexual revolution, consumer based individualism), which were given mass exposure through a rapidly expanding media, than by the types of lived community experiences of their parents.
Many of the older generation have taken on the new values, priorities and experiences of their Baby Boomer children. This has transformed the self-identities and the types of cultural narratives through which both groups now find meaning and legitimacy in their lives. Within those frameworks, lifestyle emerges as the dominant cultural narrative, replacing production and reproduction. Witness the change in attitudes to beachfront real estate around the country. Previous generations did not value the beachfront because of property erosion. Now it is the site of the country’s biggest real estate boom, despite the foreknowledge of risk of future rising sea levels due to global warming. The shift here is from the material importance of assets to cultural assets like a view and access to lifestyle.
The home itself has been replaced as the dominant symbol of personal identification and the foundation for family and kinship. Location is now the primary symbol of identification because it provides access to those cultural sites where lifestyles can be enjoyed and displayed and cultural capital can be accumulated. And in the overwhelming acceptance of those cultural mores, property assets with lifestyle benefits have indeed become the essence of material success and aspiration. •
Diana Olsberg is director of the UNSW Research Centre on Ageing & Retirement. This paper was presented at the National Speaker Series, ‘A Community for All Ages - Building the Future’, in Sydney on 27 September 2005. These are preliminary findings of the national project. The full report of the project will be finalised and released at the National Housing Conference in Perth on 27 October.
Photo: Andrew Jeffrey