Your clever investments are in place.
You’ve carefully thought through your retirement.
And you’ve decided how you’re going to tastefully push your little cherubs out of the nest before you need a hip replacement and daily suppositories.
Then the blunt reality of investing hits you:
Ninety percent of investing is waiting.
And In The Meantime?
While you’re waiting for those investments to bring home the bacon (or Fakin’ Bacon, if you’re that way inclined), life goes on.
In The Meantime, well, there’s In The Meantime – an award winning (not really), widely acclaimed (by my mum) blog (that bit’s true!) that shares ideas on how Generation X is figuring shit out and crushing life and as we edge toward an empty nest and early retirement.
But so far, we haven’t asked ourselves if our current lifestyle will have repercussions in our retirement?
Obviously, there’s some no-brainer (almost literally) decisions we can make that will have terrible side effects in retirement: invest poorly and we’ll be living under a bridge in retirement; smoke cigarettes now and we’ll be 6ft under before we even make retirement, for example.
But what about the less obvious life choices? Are some of these more subtle choices shortening our retirement?
McMansion vs Inner-City Chic
We recently moved from a trendy, inner-city suburb deep in the leafy lentil belt of our capital city.
To a sprawling, Lego Land, housing estate on the fringe.
Gone were the giant elm trees lining the quiet streets where tastefully restored cottages sat unashamedly on 1000 square metre blocks.
Gone was the sound of the quintessential backyard chickens and the yapping of designer dogs as they walked their owners through old-growth parks.
And gone were the colours of the seasons: the buoyant greens of spring; the smouldering reds of autumn; and the carpet of yellow leaves as the trees shed their canopy and frame the crisp winter sky.
In its place?
The great Australian dream – a sheep paddock hurriedly transformed into a medium-density housing development.
The estate is crammed with homes so big they fill almost every square metre of their tiny parcel of land. The eye finds only houses, fences and roads. Our backyard is now so modest that traversing it requires careful foot placement lest we tread on one of the dog’s ‘landmines’.
New housing estates don’t have big trees. They have little ones that aspire to be big ones in 30 years from now.
They feel hotter.
People are penned in like sheep (a nicely ironic thought), which means more cars. Shitty public transport means those cars are being used more. And less greenery means there’s little biomaterial to soak up road noise. Traffic becomes the backing track of life in the ‘burbs.
With no trees to filter light, street lamps glare through house windows at night. It feels like you’re living in downtown Kings Cross, right across from the Coke sign.
To convince people to live in these places, property developers invented the McMansion. These houses are packed with ‘luxury’ features that make raising a modern family easier, at least on paper.
Study nooks, extra bedrooms, triple garages, a bathroom for every bum in the house, McMansions have it all. And if you’ve ever lived in an old, inner-city cottage with their pokey rooms, temperamental power supply and leaky roofs, the McMansion can seem like a dream come true.
The Circle of (Gen X) Life
And so it came to pass that Maggie and I put aside our prejudices, swallowed our pride and moved to the ‘burbs.
Truth be told, as much as we might not want to admit it, we really enjoy it. At first we couldn’t figure out how we shed our judgey-ness of suburban life so quickly.
Don’t believe me? You only need to go camping or to the races to see how thin the line between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ really is.
Generation X hops back and forth across the line so easily because a huge number of us went from blue collar backgrounds to middle class. Today, for example, over 30% of the Australian workforce has a degree, compared to less than 1% in the 1960s when our parents left school.
That’s just a generation ago.
And that’s why we are only ever a BBQ away from our bogan roots.
But I digress.
Are Our McMansions Killing Us?
What we really want to tackle here is whether suburban living is robbing us of our retirement time?
In a word, probably.
In Sydney, the 2016 census data revealed that people in our sprawling Western suburbs are dying 20 years earlier than those in our established inner-city suburbs. Same in London, where you lose six months’ life expectancy for every Tube station heading east from the city centre.
Road noise and light pollution are not the causes of this – they are the symptoms. The causes are a little more complex, but much of it has to do with lifestyle.
People living in the outer suburbs of cities often don’t have great public transport and concentrations of services, like medical clinics, so they drive everywhere.
This creates stress (one the country’s biggest killers ), more road accidents (no slouch in the killing stakes either) and poorer health outcomes (because people can’t make it to hospitals regularly or in time for emergencies).
The Grattan Institute found Australia’s outer suburbs also have poorer quality of family and social life.
Much of this is caused by a lack of density of jobs that forces residents to commute further, which means more time in the car and less time with family and friends.
How to Survive the ‘Burbs
Of course, all this depends on the suburb.
Clever design can create pockets of ideal living on the fringes of a city. Conversely, some inner city suburbs can also have high pollution and poor transport options.
It raises an interesting point, though. We shouldn’t just assume that our designer homes, while convenient, are good for us.
When considering moving to a McMansion-rich suburb, perhaps we should value good public transport, and proximity to services and recreational green spaces, higher than study nooks and a fifth bathroom.
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