UNION COUNTY — Although some 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age every day, a recent poll showed 52 percent are leaving the state.
Last week a roundtable of political leaders, academics and public servants gathered at Kean University to discuss this New Jersey retiree crisis and what can be done to reverse the trend.
The term “baby boomer” was coined for the 76 million children born between 1946 and 1964. This 18-year period following World War II is unique in American history, but the uniqueness of these “baby boomers” is not only found in the numbers but also the values and life choices this particular generation made.
It should be noted that baby boomers, the first generation to be raised on television and known to question authority, is the most affluent consumer group. In fact, baby boomers own 78 percent of America’s financial assets, 80 percent of all money in savings accounts, and have amassed $41.5 trillion in wealth, according to Stephen F. Barnes, PhD of the Institute for Applied Critical thinking, whose article “Baby Boomers – Just Another Generation?” focused on this issue.
While considerable diversity can be found within this generation, when it comes to deciding where to spend their golden years, baby boomers are emptying their savings and investment accounts, packing their bags and leaving the state in droves, according to a recent poll taken by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Minds.
The poll found only 32 percent of retirees intend to remain in the state and a startling 52 percent have every intention of moving elsewhere.
Interestingly, this particular poll also revealed the length of time a baby-boomer has lived in the state has nothing to do with retirement plans. In addition, those who have lived in the garden state 20 or more years are just as apt to leave as those with shorter ties to the area.
Across the board, affordability and taxes were the most common reasons cited by those surveyed, followed by the second highest reason of seeking a warmer climate.
However, only 15 percent mentioned this as the primary reason for wanting to leave New Jersey.
“People are living longer and need their retirement savings to last beyond what previous generations expected. Future retirees are obviously looking for places where they can stretch their dollars, and New Jersey isn’t looking too affordable these days,” said Krista Jenkins, director of Public Mind and professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Dr. Terry Golway, director for Kean University’s Center for History, Politics and Policy, was charged with the task of looking into this growing trend, explaining in an interview with LocalSource how this came about and the mechanics of putting together the roundtable.
“This all came about because Kean President Dawood Farahi was aware of the issue and wanted us to become involved because the topic involves public policy,” he said, adding it was a coincidence that Fairleigh Dickinson University came out with their poll on the issue around the same time.
When it came to hosting a roundtable discussion, Golway began to focus on experts from the Stockton Center on Successful Aging, which he said all have their finger on the pulse of the state’s aging population. He also invited the New Jersey AARP, Union County Director of Human Services Frank Guzzo, Denise Lowe, supervisor of the Elizabeth Office on aging and elected officials such as Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, Chris Hudak, chairman of the Union County Freeholders and Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley among others.
Last week when the roundtable took place, more than 20 people gathered in the Green Lane Academic Building conference center, eager to spend two-hours brainstorming how to keep retiring baby boomers from looking for a more inviting home outside the state.
It did not take long before all the participants were engaged in deep conversation about this critical topic, with everyone adding suggestions that could possibly change this statistic that represents 27 percent of the U.S. population.
Half of this population, though, lives in only nine states, including New Jersey. Interestingly, while the lifespan of generations before the baby boom were shorter, baby boomers continue to be the mainstream of American life.
According to a New Jersey Spotlight article in June, baby boomers, with their “generational gift” of longevity or living two or three decades beyond the arbitrary retirement age of 60, continue to remain a powerful source well into the 21st century.
“Twenty-five years from now, when the oldest boomers reach 85 years in age and the youngest are 65, there will still be 61.4 million residents in the U.S. who identify themselves as baby boomers,” said Coleen O’Dea, author of an NJ Spotlight article entitled “NJ’s Graying Population Moves a Bit Closer to Golden Years, Census Shows.”
In fact, in 2013, those 65 and older made up 14.4 percent of the state’s total population, compared with 13.5 percent in 2012, while those aged 85 and older rose by 7 percent, or 192,000, according to data obtained from the latest census.
In 2011, LocalSource found that a Kean University/New Jersey Speaks poll of baby boomers revealed some interesting results.
It showed that the number of retiring New Jersey boomers leaving the state had topped 45 percent due to the high cost of living here.
It also showed, according to data obtained by LocalSource, boomers felt they did not have the financial resources to subsidize their golden years, with many saying they planned to work until they were 80.
For more evidence that this is not just a blip on the retirement radar for the state retirees, LocalSource found yet another survey taken by Monmouth University and Gannet Newspapers in 2007 that showed 49 percent of those polled in the state would rather live somewhere else.
Residents cited high property taxes, the cost of living and housing costs as the main reasons they wanted to leave.
“If you have the ability to leave and you don’t see any possibility for change with the way the state is run – and that’s the number one issue here – you have to vote with your feet,” said Patrick Murray, the Director of the Monmouth Polling Institute.
During the same time period a Rutgers University report found that New Jersey, with nearly nine million people, was experiencing a population loss.
The report pointed out that the number of residents leaving the state tripled from 2002 to 2006, with 231,565 people deciding to move elsewhere. Not all were retirees, but a significant number were, the poll noted.
The Rutgers regional report, which examined U.S. Census and Internal Revenue Service data, felt the problem was not easily solved.
“This really illustrates, among other things, that the public has thrown up its hands,” Murray said, adding that residents do not feel they can do anything about the state’s financial landscape.
“One can only hope that the pendulum will stop swinging this way and start moving back the other way,” he said, adding “or you’re going to see the last person over the Delaware turn out the lights.”
Participants attending the Kean roundtable discussed this and other issues, including the challenges facing all seniors in New Jersey. Most felt that high taxes were the major concern of retirees but also that municipalities could be more senior friendly.
But Golway said that despite the negatives, there also was good news to share as well, from the high quality of healthcare offered to seniors to creative partnering between service providers and higher education.
Golway said while many retirees definitely are leaving the state, others, such as those in Roselle, are not. In fact, they want to stay in their hometown, but they are finding it hard to maintain their homes as they age.
Roselle’s Mayor Jamel Holley explained that this is a major issue in his town.
“I have a very large senior population that are homeowners but the majority no longer want the responsibility of being a homeowner,” Holley said, explaining while these seniors may want to move into affordable senior housing, there is a 3 to 4 year waiting list.
“I have a really big need for senior housing,” Holley said, mentioning that Roselle has two senior housing developments planned, but there is a great need for more.
Holley said he is especially concerned about Roselle seniors because they want to remain in the community and considering so many baby boomers want to leave the state, there is an obligation to help those who are not headed in that direction.
“We have a responsibility to care for our senior population and ensure they enjoy the same comforts and quality of life that they provided for our generation,” said the mayor, adding it is important that communities make the improvements that allow seniors to “age in place.”
“That includes easily accessible transportation options, market rate, quality housing for residents looking to downsize, safe decent affordable housing for low and fixed income seniors, as well as adequate social services,” Holley said, pointing out these are not just benefits for the senior population.
“Providing greater access to more constituents improves the social and economic fabric of our towns,” the mayor said.
Golway said that in every community retirees face similar problems but housing issues in urban areas differ from those in suburbs.
“I think we all grasped that urban areas face serious affordable housing issues, while in the suburbs senior homeowners are on fixed incomes and being able to afford property taxes on a home they have owned for decades often becomes a major problem,” he said.
“It’s a point – counterpoint on suburbs vs. urban area issues,” Golway said, adding another component of this is doing all that a municipality can do to be a service oriented community.
“There are well meaning service providers who want to get seniors to local facilities but not all seniors want these services,” he said, admitting this is a very real problem in many communities.
Hudak found the roundtable discussions very informative, but felt this was not specifically a Union County problem.
“Union County is not losing people at a high rate. In fact our annual rate has hovered around the same number,” the freeholder chairman said, but he felt many of the reasons retirees are moving out of state were cost driven.
“Let’s face it. Things are expensive here, and retirees are flocking to North Carolina and Florida where the tax is minimal. I get that but on the other hand there is a significant difference in the services we provide,” said the freeholder chairman.
“Even though some seniors are leaving, there are others who are headstrong and don’t want to leave their homes,” he added, noting that for these citizens the county offers a rides program and other services geared toward this generation of citizens.
“As a policy maker, the freeholder board is always trying to maintain and improve services,” Hudak added.
Golway explained that everyone at the roundtable presented a different perspective on how to keep retirees from moving out of state and many had very simple solutions to everyday problems.
“I was impressed by the sheer amount of knowledge these folks had,” he said, but noted it was important that counties and towns talked to one another to solve the issues facing retirees.
“Bottom line: New Jersey is always going to be a high cost state, but the question is how we can balance it out,” Golway said.
“One of our contributors mentioned that something as simple as timing our traffic lights so seniors can get across the street in time would help,” he said, adding “we need towns and cities that are friendly to our older citizens.
“I think you have to look at what we get back here in New Jersey for our taxes and how we can continue to improve on that in the coming years,” he added.