Motorcycles, tourism and paradoxes of retirement
The faint electronic-sounding whisper barely caught my attention. I glanced up from my gardening. Two helmeted older people—riding the quietest, sleekest, deepest burgundy motorcycle I’d ever seen—went gliding past our front lawn.
The bike stopped at the stop sign and took off, and it was only then I could tell it was gas-powered. But even then it was whisper quiet—a highly sophisticated four cylinder or six I figured.
I compared it to the bike and sidecar I’d seen in town a couple of weeks before. It was a noisy antique contraption, its riders wearing matching gang colours: ragged jackets with big Hell’s Angels patches on the backs.
Since the arrival of the Altanticade motorcycle event there’s been a lot more motorcycle traffic to our little town. Most of these bikes—ridden by aging Baby Boomers—are Harleys or Harley knockoffs, with big V-twin engines and minimal exhaust systems. They’re loud, even when the riders are trying to be quiet.
Welcome to the new age of retirement, in which “do your own thing” is the mantra. So the question becomes, how does a small tourist town accommodate the diversity? Well, it can—and it can’t. The town first has to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to cater to folks who like art galleries, crafts shops and upmarket restaurants, or does it want to cater to people who like stripper bars, fast food, loud entertainment and rebel paraphernalia? Either group can spend a lot of money.
These value choices are extremely important: these choices shape the culture in which we live. For example, our small town has somehow managed to keep big franchise stores out of the community, so you won’t find a Burger King or McDonalds or even a Red Lobster here. The people here seem to care about what fits and what doesn’t.
So why is the town willing to distort its values to accommodate motorcycle tourism? The easy answer would be money. But that’s not the whole story. The answer is numbers. Tourism runs on traffic, and motorcycles bring visitors. And when tourist destinations in town sense that their numbers are dropping, they tend to look to “the low-hanging fruit,” which in this case is motorcycle tourism. But whether that type of tourism best fits their existing businesses or their community’ culture is another issue.
As the Baby Boom generation starts to impose new challenges on national scene these value choices aren’t limited to small town tourism. And these challenges bring more paradoxes. Affluent Boomers want to preserve their wealth, while their less affluent cohorts will be relying on the government and social security cheques. And Boomers of all types will be looking at affordable, high quality retirement locations.
Real estate in some parts of Canada is expensive, which makes the East Coast, with its affordable real estate attractive to potential retirees. But the eastern provinces—especially New Brunswick—are “have-not” provinces that depend on federal transfer payments to remain viable. So if the federal government neutralizes the transfer payments, or decides to disconnect the provinces from a national universal health care system (allowing any province to develop a two-tiered, private-public system), the entire social services picture could change depending on where one retires.
New Brunswick also has a rapidly aging population and a historical problem with outmigration of young people. So one would think that these demographic dynamics are extremely important to policy developers, who might view building affordable and efficient retirement housing, seniors’ health care, social and cultural centres, and attracting young and capable service workers as primary challenges.
But reality check: the current provincial government is forced by necessity to focus on internal cost-reduction and paring back its spending to control its spiralling debt rather than looking at the future. And there’s the rock and the hard place.
Retirees from across Canada and the U.S. are looking at attractive, affordable retirement locations. Many of them will make the leap without a full understanding of the long-term implications. Pretty seaside towns may be quaint, affordable and fun while these retirees are still relatively young but may become less desirable as these newcomers move into old age. But the lack of assisted living facilities and distance from comprehensive medical facilities will pose new challenges. As will living within the financial constraints of a “have-not” province.
Perhaps, for the first time, we’re seeing a three-stage retirement: early retirement in which retirees in good health explore their inner adolescent in seaside towns along the coast, mid-retirement in which they scale back youthful desires and move into affordable condo living, and late retirement in which they tighten up their expenses and look after their fading health.
Geographically speaking, these three phases might suggest living in three different towns, creating a new class of aging nomads. Disconnected from their children, who have moved away from home after college, and thus from their grandchildren, the new retirees are a footloose, go-anywhere group.
And that simply means another new market to exploit. Paradoxes and challenges always bring new opportunities for those who willing to anticipate the future. Retirement, like everything else, isn’t what it used to be.
(On a sadder note, rest in peace Jack Layton.)