The Times They Are A 'Changin'
By Carter Clews
The much-celebrated Baby Boomer generation is now embarking upon its "Last Hurrah." And just as it has since its inception some 60-plus years ago, it clearly intends to "rage, rage against the dying of the light" - no matter what it takes, or where it leads.
If that means facelifts and tummy tucks, good enough. If it means donning Dolfin shorts and sweating to the oldies with Richard Simmons, that's not too high a price to pay. And if it means eking out a threadbare living on a barebones income... well, wait a minute, there's got to be a better way - and place.
And, in fact, there is.
THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE MAY WELL BE ON THE VERGE OF THE GREATEST "POPULATION INVERSION" IN MODERN HISTORY
With 78 million Baby Boomers soon to retire from the work-a-day world, and the cost of living in the U.S. out of control and getting worse, the Western Hemisphere may well be on the verge of the greatest "Population Inversion" in modern history. Tens of millions of Latin Americans have already moved north and more than a million or more North Americans have moved south. And by all indications, the retirees' trek to their place in the sun has only just begun.
Still, for many Americans, when it comes to making the move south of the Rio Grande, the foreboding admonition, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," has long been taken as an article of faith. And, understandably so. To many North Americans, Central and South America are something akin to the dark side of the moon. But, what if it turns out that not only is the grass greener, but the sky is more blue, the weather is warmer, the lifestyle is far more relaxed and rewarding, and the cost of living is a mere fraction of what it is on the north side of the great divide?
That's a question now facing nearly 10,000 retiring (or, perhaps not-so-retiring) Baby Boomers a day as they leave the comfortable confines of the office suite, watch their savings dwindle by the day -- and look longingly south to the warm climes and welcoming embrace of Latin America. And the answer they are increasingly giving is: Where do I sign and when do we leave?
THEY CAN LIVE THE "LIFE OF RILEY" WITH A TWIST OF LIME FOR PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR
From the southern banks of the Chetumal Bay to cosmopolite Buenos Aires, retirees are finding that in Central and South America, they can live the "Life of Riley" with a twist of lime for pennies on the dollar. And what once was a migratory trickle could quickly become a torrent.
o In the bayside town of Corozal, Belize, a modern three or four-room home rents for just $800 a month. A maid or a gardener costs as little as $15 a day. Dining out on a full-course meal can come in for as little as $10. And utility bills amount to little more than a few dollars a day.
o In the picturesque city of La Ceiba, Honduras, snuggled between rainforest mountains and the Caribbean Sea, a comfortable two-bedroom home with all of the modern amenities can still be purchased for under $100,000. A full-time, live-in maid may cost $110. And in the local comedores (small restaurants), a full meal may amount to $2-$4.
o In cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, a spacious one-bedroom apartment can cost well under $500 a month. Utilities normally fall under $30 a month. A steak dinner for two runs around $10. And full-coverage health insurance for first-rate medical treatment runs in the neighborhood of $100 per month.
With prices like these, it's little wonder that an increasing number of North American retirees are seeking the serenity, security - and Golden Years solvency - of Latin America. And keep this in mind: as they do, they are not settling for a primitive lifestyle and hard-scrabble scrape-bys. They are seeking - and finding - first-rate accommodations at Third World prices.
From Monterrey to Santiago, they are shopping at fashionable malls and eating in the finest of restaurants. They are enjoying state-of-the-art Internet transmissions and Satelcast cell phone technologies. Their favorite sports teams come to them in real-time HD. Their emails are dispatched and received at the push of a button. The best of their in-country friends are only minutes away. And their friends from afar can arrive within hours on international flights at a myriad of modern airports.
So, let's put one onerous misconception to rest right from the start: North Americans who move to Latin America need not "go native"...unless of course they want to. If they want to live like Robinson Crusoe on primitive beaches, or rough it like Quigley in the far outback, that's their choice. But, if they want to live like "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (or Mike) in the lap of luxury (at bargain prices), the opportunities abound throughout the region.
Let's put it this way: The old days of disgruntled expats roughing it on some god-forsaken mosquito coast are no more a part of today's Central and South America than tin horn dictators and banana republics. In fact, today's middle-to-upper-class North American "trans-pats," bolstered by the safety and security of thriving democratic republics, are enjoying the best of both worlds: strong ties "back home" complementing the beauty and bounty of the good life in Latin America, far from the madding crowd.
Latin America - the new American Dream
Let's take a quick look at how this serendipitous situation all came about - and where it is almost certain to lead for today's retirees. Exactly how many Americans live in Latin America today is almost impossible to ascertain. The U.S. government's last serious attempt to take a head count was in 1999. And it has simply refused even to try ever since. Says, Elizabeth Grieco, chief of immigration statistics at the U.S. Census bureau, "We don't count U.S. Citizens living abroad." And that's that.
IN 1999, THE U.S. CENSUS BUREAU ESTIMATED THAT 1.2 MILLION AMERICANS WERE LIVING IN LATIN AMERICA
Still, the 1999 trial count yielded some significant results - especially when one factors in that in the near-decade since that count, American's awareness and appreciation of the Caribbean lifestyle has grown considerably. In 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that approximately 1.2 million Americans were living in Latin America; that's out of a total of some 4 million living abroad.
Of the 1.2 million accounted for, approximately one million had taken up residence in Mexico. The next highest number, some 40,000, lived in Brazil, followed by Colombia with 30,000 and Venezuela, Costa Rica and Panama with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 each. Here, in alphabetical order, are the remaining countries (with the American population in parentheses): Belize (2700), Bolivia (3000), Chile (12,000), Ecuador (8,000), El Salvador (10,000), Guatemala (10,000), Honduras (10,000), Nicaragua (5,000), Paraguay (2500), Peru (14,000), and Uruguay (3500).
Looking at these figures, however, three key points need to be kept foremost in mind when considering the coming "Population Inversion." First, the figures are clearly skewed low because a significant number of old-style expats - many of whom are rugged individualists who left the U.S. in order to be left alone and simply don't care to register. Governments try, they refuse. And that's all there is to it.
Secondly, many of the Latin American countries had an exponential increase in U.S. immigrants in the Nineties that cannot be adequately reflected in the previous decade's raw figures. For example, between 1990 and 2000, Mexico saw an estimated 57.6 percent increase in the number of U.S.-born individuals. And in Panama, the increase was nearly identical at 57.8 percent. If that remarkable growth pattern has continued throughout the first decade of the Twenty-First Century - and there is no reason to think otherwise - the population of U.S.-born individuals in those two countries may easily be one-third (or more) higher. And the remaining Latin American countries are likely not far behind.
And, finally, bear in mind that North Americans are not the only immigrants who have discovered life anew in Latin America. Europeans were long ago attracted by the distinctive allure of the region. Particularly in South America, their numbers are staggering - as is their influence and lineage. From the middle of the Nineteenth Century until 1960, more than six million Europeans descended on Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador and other South American countries. Coming predominantly from Britain, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Italy, these sturdy Europeans brought their traditions with them. And, their influence still flavors the countries and their cultures.
The bottom line: with the strong presence of North Americans and Europeans manifesting itself throughout Central and South America, today's retirees invariably find a familiar environment that, to many, comes as a welcome surprise. Then, as they congregate in Euro-American enclaves, often insulated, though not isolated, from the rich traditions of the indigenous populations, they again enjoy the best of both worlds.
But, even with all of this, the real story of the retiree's life in Latin America is not so much what once was, or even is now. It's what the future portends. And that verges on a one-world utopianism once considered the sole province of phantasmagoric fiction.
The good life, at a great price - or else?
Imagine living in a spacious two-bedroom condo by a pristine white-sand beach overlooking the turquoise bay. Just off the veranda, palm trees sway in a gentle breeze. In the courtyard, only a few steps from the back door, mangoes, bananas, and pineapples abound, tended to by a faithful gardener, a distant cousin of the personal maid.
The average bills - for two people -- come to roughly $1,500 a month, and that includes:
o Rent .................................................$500
o Housekeeper......................................$130 o Electricity............................................$30
o Water ...............................................$10
o Telephone (local calls).........................$25
o Cable TV............................................$30
o Cell phone.........................................$30
o Transportation (bus, cab).....................$50
o Health insurance (should you wish)........$90
o Entertainment (theater, dinner).............$130
o Miscellaneous ....................................$100
Those particular figures happen to come from Costa Rica, one of the most popular spots for North American retirees in the entire Caribbean. But, generally speaking, they could have come from just about any other country in Central or South America. In some places - for example, on Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras - the prices might run a little higher. In other places - like Nicaragua, which MSNBC calls "the world's best-kept retirement secret" - they could be considerably less.
How important is that to the retiring Baby Boomers of the "Me Generation," used to being "free to do what I want, any old time?"
Well, consider this: the average social security check sent out by the U.S. government to retirees is just over $1,000 a month. For a couple, then, it is $2,000. And that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is barely above the U.S. poverty level.
Unfortunately, that's just the beginning of the bad news for those determined to stay stateside. Recently, the esteemed accounting firm of Ernst & Young analyzed the future financial prospects for today's - and tomorrow's -- retirees. And, to put it mildly, the outlook isn't brilliant.
Here, in a nutshell, is E&Y's bottom line for Baby Boomers:
"The analysis finds that almost three out of five middle-class new retirees can expect to outlive their financial assets if they attempt to maintain their current pre-retirement standard of living. To avoid outliving their financial assets, middle-class retirees will have to reduce their standard of living, on average, by 24 percent."
As bad as that sounds, the in depth analysis is even worse. Remember, the three out of five cited above is just the average. The reality is that in 39 of the 50 states, the number of retirees who can expect to outlive their financial assets is right at, or well above the average - with the dismal outlook for current retirees in several states topping 70%.
But, as chilling as that is today, the future looks even worse. Those figures are just for what E&Y calls "new retirees" - those "65 and above who have already entered retirement." The projections for "near retirees" - those "58 and planning on retiring at 65" - virtually shout, "Get out while the getting's good!"
According to E&Y, the probability of "near retirees" outliving their financial assets is a stunning 74%. Let's put that into perspective. If the situation is as bad as E&Y predicts, three out of every four Baby Boomers who are now 58 years old and plan on retiring at 65 - and staying in the States -- will almost inevitably end up living beneath the poverty level.
While no one likes to be a doomsayer, it would be remiss not to point out that E&Y's dismal forecast came out before the current worldwide financial collapse. And that bodes nothing but ill for fixed income retirees.
Right now, the U.S. government is pouring trillions of dollars into the economy in hopes of staving off a near depression. Whether that will work is anyone's guess. But, one effect of the "paper chase" seems all but certain - as best summed up by the respected financial writer Kevin Phillips: "Our own decade, like the years from 1966 to 1982, could easily see another severe economic turndown and a stock market slump, but one partially disguised by fast-rising prices."
Some predict that the "fast-rising prices" could result in a double-digit inflation rate by 2010, or even sooner. And for "new" or "near" retirees, even with Social Security COLAs, that could spell deprivation - unless ... unless ...
There's another recent study that suggests a real and present solution to this catastrophic panorama. And it all goes back to the grass being greener, the skies being bluer, and "the cost of living being a fraction of what it is on the north side of the great divide."
According to a recent Zogby survey, tens of millions of Americans may be ready to make the move away from U.S. shores. If they make the right move, much of the above could be rendered moot.
ZOGBY'S RESULTS SHOWED THAT AS MANY AS 30 MILLION AMERICANS HAVE ALREADY DECIDED TO MOVE OFFSHORE
Clearly sensing wanderlust in the air, Zogby's interviewed more than 115,000 Americans (a huge sample size by anyone's reckoning) about the possibility of re-locating outside the United States - on permanent basis. The results showed that as many as 30 million Americans - one out of every 10 - now have already decided to move offshore, or at the very least are "seriously considering" such a quantum change.
Here are the precise findings - and remember: the figures below represent households, not just individuals, so according to the U.S. Census Bureau, each of the figures below can be multiplied by 2.59:
o 1.6 million U.S. households have firmly decided to move offshore and, in fact, are already making preparations.
o 1.8 million U.S. households are "seriously considering" moving offshore and are likely to do so.
o 7.7 million U.S. households are "somewhat seriously" considering moving offshore and "may" do it.
o In addition, nearly 3 million U.S. households are "seriously considering" buying a vacation home or other property offshore.
o 10 million U.S. households are "somewhat" serious about buying a vacation home or other property offshore.
Clearly, any Baby Boomer making the move offshore to low prices and easy living is not going to be left feeling lonely for a lack of friends. Nor are they going to miss the ambiance of the culture they left behind. In short, moving offshore is going to be far more like going to the beach than being left in the breech.
Low Crime and Health Care Costs Complete the Perfect Picture
It's all part of the Population Inversion mentioned above. Think of it this way: currently some 35 million Latinos now reside as legal residents of the United States. If Zogby's survey is any indication, some 30 million U.S. citizens may soon make the move to Latin America. And just as the 35 million Latinos here have had a major effect on the U.S. culture (as in "Press One for English"), the 30 million ex-pats and trans-pats in Latin American countries will have an equal or, considering their financial status, perhaps an even greater impact.
Even with all of this, however, most "new" and "near" retirees have two burning questions about life in Latin America, the answers to which likely will form their re-location final decision. The first: What about safety and security? The second: What about health care? Both are serious questions that require individual due diligence. But, some observations are in order.
Particularly in the impoverished barrios of Latin America's inner cities, crime can be a serious problem, just as it is in the United States. But, ost North Americans who visit, or re-locate, to Central and South America rarely, if ever, have reason to venture into the impoverished barrios. And outside of those areas - particularly in the North American enclaves -- crime in Latin America and throughout the Caribbean is far less than most observers could possibly imagine.
For example, according to NationMaster.com - a source the New York Times calls "astounding," and BBC World terms, "a statistician's dream" - Uruguay has far fewer crimes per 1,000 people (21.7) than the United States (80.1). Jamaica has only 14.3, Costa Rica has just 12, and Venezuela records a minuscule 9.3.
Colombia, long considered one of the world's most dangerous countries, now has only 4.9 crimes per 1,000 people. And, in fact, once-crime-ridden Bogota now reports barely 20 murders per 100,000 people, as compared, for example, with Detroit, Michigan, with 46 and Washington, D.C., with 31.
Crime is so low in Chile that even the U.S. State Department (prone to see criminals under every Latin bed) reports: "Crime rates are low to moderate throughout Chile and are moderate in Santiago, Valparaiso, and other major cities." While certain areas of Honduras report relatively high crime rates, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises, "The majority of serious crime involves Honduran citizens and does not affect tourists." In the Dominican Republic, "there is a low incidence of violent crime." (Source: Frommer's Travel Guide)
Perhaps the essence of Latin America's safety and security was best summed up by the highly respected Offshore Legal Law Firm in its report on Panama: "What you won't see are teenagers with outrageously colored hair and tattooed bodies gathering in circles in the middle of the night shouting out random curses at random strangers. There won't be bums littering the streets prophesying the end of the world while chugging a bottle of cheap vodka ...You might even find, as some retirees have found, that it's actually a better place to live than your own neighborhood."
Not a bad recommendation for Baby Boomers searching out the good life at a great price. Yet, even with all of that, there is one other important advantage retirees will find all but irresistible in Latin America: first-rate health care at Third World prices. And south of the U.S. border, doctors still make house calls.
In Chetumal, Mexico, a laparoscopic appendectomy, including a four-day hospital stay in a private room, surgeons' fees, an anesthesiologist, and medication costs $1200. In Argentina, dental implants, gastric bypasses, and cosmetic surgery cost 50% less than the same procedures in the U.S. And in Costa Rica (as well as in other countries throughout the region), prescription medicines are freely available over the counter for up to 80% less than the same drugs in the U.S. Little wonder that the Washington Examiner recently headlined its article on the latest breakthroughs in medical care: "Medical off-shoring growing as patients combine tourism, surgery." And even less wonder that last year, an estimated 750,000 Americans traveled offshore for first-rate medical care.
Some 40 years ago, when today's retiring Baby Boomers were shaping anew the world in which they lived, their balladeer of choice, the nasally Bob Dylan, struck the chords that were to become their creed:
Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.
And now, for many, the Last Harrah of those changing times - and places -- are likely to lead to the warm waters and welcoming venues of Central and South America's islands in the stream.
AUTHOR: Carter L. Clews began his career in marketing as Director of Public Relations for the National Right to Work Committee in Washington, after which he became Director of Communications for the U.S. Senate Conference of the Majority. Following his years in Washington, Mr. Clews became Creative Director for Inphomation, Inc, the company responsible for several of the top infomercials in recent history, including Making Love Work, The Psychic Friends Network, and The Helicopter Lure. Mr. Clews has won numerous writing awards, including the Best Scriptwriter of the Year Award from the Electronic Retail Association. He now lives at Keyhole Bay on Roatan in the beautiful Bay Islands.
Email : Carter Clews