At 54, Jack M. Guttentag decided to downsize. His children had grown, and he and his wife thought they should prepare for the future and move from their town house in Philadelphia to something countrified, a few dozen miles west in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
“I wasn’t quite thinking about retirement, but looking toward that time,” said Guttentag, known as the Mortgage Professor. He has long worked in that financing field as a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and has an advice website of the same name.
That was 37 years ago. Guttentag is 91 now, and last year, having been an emeritus professor since 1996, he and his wife decided to downsize again. They moved halfway back toward Philadelphia and into a one-story retirement facility with some good amenities such as a movie theater, a pool and a physical fitness center with two instructors.
“Now we want to be closer to the city and the things to do there,” Guttentag said, adding that he no longer wanted to mow the lawn — or even find anyone to do it.
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Guttentag is part of what some see as a growing trend toward retiring and downsizing in multiple steps.
In an earlier generation, people tended to do it all at once — and only once — typically either retiring in place or selling a house and moving to a resort area to play golf and mingle with others their age.
Now an overwhelming number of older people are taking a more gradual approach, downsizing a family home and full-time career but not abandoning work or a familiar region altogether.
Rather than seeking refuge in faraway warmer climates, large numbers tend to want to stay in the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for a long time — even if they do move around within the area in the short term.
A survey by the AARP’s Public Policy Institute found that 87 percent of those age 65 and older, and 71 percent of those 50 to 64, preferred to stay close to their longtime neighborhoods and were not making the traditional choice of packing up and moving to a resort area.
As people live longer — and are healthier and more productive as they age — the opportunity to retire and downsize multiple times increases, said Rodney Harrell, director of livable communities for the AARP institute.
“The trend has started with those who are older now,” Harrell said, adding, “We don’t yet know how it will be for the entire baby boom.”
But there are signs that the more gradual approach involving multiple moves is becoming established behavior.
Olivia S. Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School and executive director of its Pension Research Council, said two-step retirement may be more common in the baby boom generation because of several factors.
First of all, she said, there are more two-earner families doing significant work. In past generations, even if the wife worked, it was probably in something she would quit when her husband retired.
Now, more women hold jobs they may find “aspirational,” Mitchell said, and may want to stay with them, thus delaying a final major downsizing and having an interim one instead.
“I do a lot of work with people who are just finding ways not to run out of money,” she said. “With people living longer, that is a concern, so maybe they retire, then downsize, then go back to work, then retire again.
“Or, on the other hand, people may feel their mortality and just jump on something for a while before really downsizing,” she said.
For Stu Alexander and his wife, Dierdre Kaye, this gradual approach to a full retirement has become a long-term lifestyle. They had already moved once and changed careers. In 1996, when they were both 46, they left Minnesota for Arizona and, giving up their former careers as a state recreation director and a sales executive, started writing, directing and acting, eventually opening up their own theater.
“We thought we would do this for 10 or 15 years and then really retire,” Alexander said. But in October 2012, at a seniors softball tournament, he went through a complimentary health screening that showed an elevated blood sugar level. When he returned home, his doctor told him he had diabetes, and a month later, short of breath on a hike, he found he had clogged arteries and soon had triple-bypass heart surgery.
“When I recovered, there was no thought but to really live out our dream before anything else happened,” he said. For the last two years, they have traveled in their recreational vehicle around North America for six months at a time, alternating with six months at home in Arizona. It’s a schedule they hope to maintain over the next eight years.
“When we’re done, we’ll be 72. That should be the time we’ll be slowing down for real,” said Alexander, who still writes, particularly about his travels. “I guess we will have retired three times in a way, one step at a time.”