Senior Living in the 21st Century

How U.S. Baby Boomers Will Change the World (for Better or Worse)

The world’s workforce demographics, housing markets, and social dynamics are about to be struck by a tidal wave of change. In this report, we delve into the underlying systems that stand broken, the shifts that are accelerating their reinvention, and the challenges and opportunities they present to the built environment industry — for seniors’ housing and care communities, and beyond.

This report is of interest to:

  • Investors in private equity, real estate, and healthcare
  • Developers of lifestyle/healthcare technology
  • Designers and developers of seniors’ housing and care facilities
  • Retirees and those nearing retirement


Dave Gilmore, President & CEO | Rob Hart, Senior Researcher
Chyenne Pastrana, Director of Marketing | Nicole Puckett, Lead Graphic Designer | Beckie Hawk, Web Master


A DesignIntelligence Perspective

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The Inflection Point: You Are Here

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The predicament we face together is undeniably complex.

A simple technological solution (like a cheap robotic elder-care assistant) or policy solution (e.g. an expansion of Social Security) won’t address the underlying systemic fragility. Warnings of this magnitude are likely to prompt resistance, denial, anger, and anxiety. Thus, it’s time for a moment of reflection.

Over the long arc of human history, there has never been a time of prosperity quite like the one we are experiencing today. Life expectancy is longer, poverty and crime are lower, and science and technology are advancing faster than ever. We are living in a time of unparalleled human flourishing.

On the other hand, we’ve now seen that with unprecedented flourishing comes unprecedented challenge. With 7.6 billion people speaking 6500 languages, ruled by 195 national governments trading in 180 currencies, we face immeasurable complexity. To solve systemic global problems that intersect economics, public health, social policy, and sustainability, we require new tools, mindsets, and modes of operation. In short, we need a new cultural narrative — a story of where we’re going together.

Two authors, a father/son team, wrote about this unique historical period in their 1981 book World Population and Human Values: A New Reality. Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, understood what it meant to live in a strange and fragile time. He has since passed. In 2018, his son Jonathan updated and re-released their book, now titled A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future


The book lays out a vision of our global future based on the graph of population growth over the last 2000 years. It looks like this:

Retiree expectation

Everything to the left of that mark is a segment of history we’re familiar with: the competition for resources, the struggle for growth, and the quest for dominance, all creating the economic/population boom that defined the 20th century. Jonas Salk called this period Epoch A, the time defined
by social and economic patterns of exponential growth. To the right of that mark is a completely different world, Epoch B: a time in which simple growth in any domain no longer guarantees success.

In an era of slowing population growth, there is a concomitant need to slow the engines of economic growth, urban expansion, construction volume, agricultural development, and resource extraction. Instead of growth, there is a new kind of success to be achieved: global, cooperative, dynamic equilibrium. While technological and informational development continues, its focus shifts from bootstrapping industry to nourishing humanity. In Epoch B, success is not defined by simple growth metrics, but by a multifaceted and systemic understanding of health and flourishing — including ecological, cultural, mental, and bodily health. Going forward, true success is about comprehensive, interspecies well-being.

The trouble, the eldest Salk realized, is that our socioeconomic structure and cultural conditioning won’t allow us to decelerate. Instead, our customs and rules — even our individual and national identities — require unending, even accelerating growth. Everyone alive today was born and raised, habituated and trained to see growth and competition as the drivers and definers of success. We are afraid to break from old growth patterns and find a new normal.

Even faced with a pandemic that demands a slowdown of commerce and consumption, governments all over the world are hastening to re-open their economies and resume the project of exponential growth. At a time when seniors face a crisis of medical and financial needs, the world’s most prosperous economy has thus far failed to sacrifice any productive capacity to secure the well-being of its elders. And in an era where ecological collapse moves in lockstep with the growth of industry and urbanization, global economic forces still push for the increase of energy production, resource extraction, and biosphere depletion.

These are not the nefarious doings of mustache-twisting villains. Rather, they’re the natural result of a distributed growth imperative. Each economic entity, from the individual to the largest institution, faces the threat of privation if it fails to produce a monetary increase. Though they have no single point of origin, market dynamics like inflation, debt with interest, and competition compel us to continue this self-terminating pattern of growth.

One of the most insoluble aspects of this problem is that no one individual holds the keys — any meaningful change will have to be cooperative and broad-reaching. At the same time, we can see that our hyper-competitive, hyper-partisan political system is unlikely to produce anything more than a superficial “band-aid” solution to a problem we know requires a more fundamental kind of change. Whatever solution we employ, it will have to emerge from somewhere other than the state, and it will have to deliver something more enticing than competition.

Reinventing Retirement

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What this moment calls for is the transformation of our social roles. 

The Baby Boomer generation has been the most successful generation of Epoch A, attaining higher incomes, greater net worth, longer lifespans, and more accomplishments in science and industry than any previous generation. What if this wealth and power, now assembled in the hands of our elders, were not just a symbol of status or a pathway to luxury? What if it could be leveraged to produce an even greater legacy? And what would that look like?

Such a legacy would be an expression of eldership — an investment in whole-system health that would continue to improve life conditions for everyone, leaving the entire world an unprecedented inheritance. It would care for seniors in their later years while strengthening families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, and ecosystems. It would require cooperation across generational divides, ideological trenches, and national borders. It would take great leadership and ingenuity from captains of industry, especially the Built Environment Industry. And it would take courage from everyone — because the stakes are high.

In the absence of eldership, leadership, and cooperation, another outcome will happen, regardless of our best wishes.


We’ve already seen that population limits (of growth, density, and transit) lead to pandemic, economic limits lead to depression, and ecological limits lead to mass extinction. If we miss this call to action, opting to stay on our present J-curve growth trajectory, the forces of nature will instead produce an n-curve, imposing more hard limits. As Jonathan Salk’s “default case” graph depicts:

N curve can occur if the growth trajectory is not corrected

As the Salks describe it, the transition from Epoch A to B brings new cultural values to the fore. Instead of competition, dominance, and growth, the drivers of change will be collaboration, balance, and integration (not simply because these latter notions sound nicer, but because they succeed at managing systems of resources). The measures of success will change, as will the mechanisms that confer power and influence. Long-term design for deep systemic health will replace short sprints for capital gains. 

Implementing these values will take courage, cooperation, and no small amount of imagination. In truth, we can only opt out of the old program by designing a new one collaboratively. This is why we at DesignIntelligence have labored to develop a network of thoughtful, forward-looking designers. You are the ones with your heads in the clouds and your feet firmly grounded. You’re practiced in the art of making imagined things real and bringing order out of chaos. You’ve seen many of these challenges coming from a great distance, and you’ve already begun to anticipate humanity’s best future.

If anyone is qualified to design the next phase of civilization, it’s you. Or to adopt the inclusive mindset of Epoch B — it’s us, together.

The challenge we’re issuing here is not a competitive one; it’s a collaborative one. In keeping with the new trajectory of Epoch B, we enjoin the Built Environment Industry to invest its intellectual and creative capital together in a series of projects to reinvision the senior living problem as an interdisciplinary opportunity.


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Here’s the question of the next two decades: what can the Built Environment Industry do to ensure that holistic care for seniors is affordable, accessible, scalable, and sustainable?

How can we ensure that such care is valued for its real contribution to individual and community health, rather than measured against old-paradigm growth metrics?

Thinking longer-term, we extend these questions into the next hundred years and beyond: what can the Built Environment Industry do to ensure that city planning, land use, commerce, healthcare, and environmental stewardship meet the same standards?

To kick off the first design challenge, let’s explore senior living through contrasting Epoch A/B lenses.

Epoch A frameworks would formulate the problem as atomized to the individual, delimited by resource scarcity, and strictly competitive: a few seniors will get to have really good (albeit expensive) private nursing home care if they can afford it, while the rest will work extra years, lose most of their assets, suffer greater physical hardship, and die penniless and early. The Epoch A solutions would be to minimize costs by cutting benefits, restricting access to care, or externalizing the burden to another class of citizen (the current workforce, the very rich, or someone else). The solutions would end up causing more harm through social unrest than they mitigate by providing elder care.

An Epoch B mindset would formulate the problem as being communal, defined by health and lifestyle improvement, and thus the solution would be fundamentally collaborative as well. As the aforementioned studies have shown, many of the factors that boost seniors’ health and well-being are non-scarce: access to nature, connection with family and friends, dietary health, physical activity, and meaningful engagement in society. These health gains can all be achieved best in an environment that promotes them for everyone rather than a select few. The solution, then, begins to look like an integrative community of seniors, designed by an interwoven cadre of experts.

Imagine a semi-rural housing development built primarily for seniors, with highly accessible single-story homes that connect via walking paths. Surrounding them are food forest gardens that sustainably grow most of the food they need; in their midst are communal buildings, fitness centers, and recreational facilities that promote healthy lifestyles. 

Among them live workers of all ages: healthcare professionals, groundskeepers, gardeners, and service people who help the community thrive. Even young professionals and families with young children may call the place home and contribute meaningfully to its enrichment. Art instructors, physical therapists, chefs and the like would be valuable additions to such a community. 

Amid such a diverse population, even a small one, elders play a vital role; their meaningful engagement comes from their social embeddedness within the community. Rather than spending their later years cloistered in private nursing homes, they get to enjoy proximity and pro-social activity with people of all ages. Thus embedded, many seniors will find deep purpose by assuming roles of leadership, teaching, and community development.

Other social insights and designs may help to further enrich such a community. One such possibility is to assemble residents by social network or affinity group. Technology could be used to pre-sort those who would most want to retire together and offer them assistance in founding a village, ensuring a closer-knit sense of community once established. Another way to design for social harmony is to right-size the group. Studies show that our psychology can only maintain stable relationships with a limited number of people (called the Dunbar number105), so a well-designed community should help its members sustain group sizes that fit our psychological capacities.

As we begin to unpack the Epoch B perspective on elder care, we see that it can answer the seemingly insoluble problems we observed in Epoch A’s framework. For instance, prioritizing preventative care and lifestyle health will significantly draw down the eventual costs of medical aid without neglecting patients in the least. If housing is also accounted for in the same equation, then there’s no longer a trade-off between medical needs and housing needs. Growing food locally and sustainably helps to resolve the fragility and scarcity of food systems, while also contributing to health and longevity. Finally, the scarcity-generated risk of social unrest is replaced by an increasing sense of inclusivity, abundance, and resilience.

The Interdisciplinary Opportunity:

A collaborative conversation

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Establishing new models of community is only the beginning.

In order to realize a stable, post-growth society, we need a robust network of other adaptations — from finance to transportation, from land use to food distribution, and from manufacturing to education. Even policymakers need to envision a world beyond mere increase.

Such a vision is rarely discussed in our culture. Across the globe, the conversations we hold about politics, technology, development, and progress tend to center around wealth building, job creation, and zero-sum games of resource allocation. Our greatest gifts are spent in pursuit of expired values — and because we’re conditioned by the zero-sum mindset, even our conversations themselves remain in  lockdown. Dampened by fears of idea-theft, our innovations die in isolation.

Contrary to our zero-sum conditioning, ideas are a currency that gains value when we increase the supply. As one idea connects with another, their total value grows exponentially, similar to Metcalfe’s Law for network value.106 Creativity, therefore, runs counter to the old habit of all-out competition — and so should our practices. 

Competition within bounded domains can produce great innovation, but when left unchecked it can dominate and impoverish the whole ecosystem. Collaboration, on the other hand, is the very essence of an ecosystem, built on reciprocal exchanges that multiply the benefits for all.

To develop a more complete vision of our post-growth future, we need a domain of bounded competition and boundless cooperation — a conversation that rewards both competence and generosity. 

Sensing this need, we invite you to join us for a cross-disciplinary gathering in virtual space. Hosted by DesignIntelligence, the event will bring together members of the investment community, social and psychological sciences, designers, tech entrepreneurs, and the hopeful residents of tomorrow’s well-designed senior communities. Through brief talks, breakout sessions, and collaborative games, these diverse groups will grow connections and generate innovation.

Retiree expectation


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105 Konnikova, M. (2014, October 7). The Limits of Friendship. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from

106Fisk, P. (2020, March 18). Metcalfe’s Law explains how the value of networks grows exponentially. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from