Debunking The Myths of San Francisco

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A recent business trip took me to San Francisco, a picturesque U.S. city that most people love. In fact, it’s nicknamed “Everybody’s Favourite City.” Crooners sang about it and a ton of Hollywood movies were made there. This was my sixth visit but I still can’t count it as one of my most favourite cities in North America.

But let’s start with the positives: the weather is very mild all year long; the architecture and some of the sceneries are breathtakingly beautiful; most of the people are nice and friendly; and the food and wine are excellent. A restaurant worth mentioning on this trip is the two-star Michelin restaurant Quince on Pacific Avenue. The restaurant has been elevated this year from a one- to two-star status. Judging from the prix fixe tasting menu I’ve had – from the Royal Sterling Caviar to the Fantasia Di Mare (lobster with artichoke and Iberico ham from Spain) to the suckling pig tortellini with black trumpet mushroom - the food, service and ambiance were par excellence.

Chef and Owner Michael Tusk was trained in both Italy and France and demonstrated an ultra-refined and contemporary approach to his culinary performance. His personal note on the menu summed it all up: “We believe that the essence of a meal is not just what is put on the plate, but the entirety of the experience. The food, the flavours, the wine, the company, the conversations – together these elements combine to create a sensual, savory memory.” My memory of that particular dinner, so graciously hosted by my good friend who’s also my first boss, was close to perfection.

Actually, most of the restaurants in San Francisco are very good. You don’t need to eat in a renowned one, but you can probably walk into any neighbourhood restaurants without reservations and the food and wine will not disappoint you.

But there are two things that irritate me in this city. I take a lot of taxis everywhere I go because I’m just not a hiker. My overall experience with cabbies in Frisco was not good on this trip - most of them didn’t know where they were going even though they were city drivers. San Francisco’s downtown area is also geographically very small, so there’s no reason not to know your streets, directions or major landmarks, particularly when you have to drive for a living. I’ve encountered one taxi driver who gave me such a poor attitude that even though I was going to an obvious landmark in Union Square, he showed no intention to ask for directions or check his GPS or even call his dispatcher for help. But maybe this could be a problem for cabbies in North America overall – drivers in Manhattan are not much better and I recently came across a cabby in Toronto who didn’t even know where City Hall is! When we talk about a city’s reputation, cabbies should always be part of a metropolis’s front-line ambassadors and should be trained as such.

Another unpleasant surprise is the city’s significant and highly-visible homeless problem due to its mild climate and its social programs that have provided cash payments for homeless individuals. The city’s homeless population has been estimated at 7,000 – 10,000 people, of which approximately 3,000 – 5,000 refuse shelter. Ten years ago, San Francisco officially began an attempt to scale back the scope of its homelessness problem by changing its strategy from cash payments to providing care instead. In 2010, a city ordinance was passed to disallow sitting and lying down on public sidewalks for most of the day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. But around Union Square in downtown Frisco at night, the homeless people are still lying in the open in groves. It’s sad and disturbing to see that in an affluent city where so many Silicon Valley billionaires and Hollywood celebrities call their homes, there is such a disparity between the haves and have-nots and no better way to provide shelters for the homeless and the mentally-ill. San Francisco actually ranks eigth of major cities worldwide in the number of billionaires known to be living within city limits – so perhaps some of them could do more to alleviate this problem?

I’m not surprised that according to a recent study from the Brookings Institution, San Francisco has the second highest gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. Though San Francisco has the second widest income inequality gap (second to Atlanta where the poor are poorer, but the rich far less than the rich in San Francisco), it’s also tops in terms of the speed at which the wealthy are pulling away from the rest of the Americans, the study found.

On the baby boomers front, San Francisco’s baby boomers are less likely to have income below the federal property level than the city’s current seniors aged 65 or older, but they have higher poverty rates than baby boomers at the national level. According to a report prepared for the San Francisco Aging and Adult Services Commission, the poverty figures are quite troubling. High costs of living exacerbate the difficulties associated with living on a poverty-level income.  The city’s boomers are also significantly less likely to own their homes than are baby boomers nationally or statewide in California. Nationwide, 70 percent of all households headed by a baby boomer own their housing units; the rates are almost half of that in San Francisco, at only 38 percent.

In spite of my complaints, there’s a lot to like about San Francisco. You just have to know that apart from the obvious tourist attractions such as The Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown district, the former prison on Alcatratz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars and steep rolling hills, there are some truths and realities to explore beneath the fog.

 

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Job Satisfaction From Second Or Third Acts

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Every challenge could be a new opportunity. So while the media have been primarily focusing on the doom and gloom of labour shortage either due to baby boomers retiring en masse or the lack of jobs for millennials because the boomers refuse to retire, the much-talked-about retirement of baby boomers actually presents new job opportunities.

According to The New York Times, while nearly three-fourths of Americans say they will continue working after retiring from their main job, only 18.9 percent of Americans aged 65 or older actually remain in the work force. Many workers in their 40s, 50s and early 60s are convinced that they will want to or need to work well past 65, yet many retire earlier than they anticipated. Very often, health challenges, growing job dissatisfaction. layoffs or a dire need to take care of their elderly parents lead to an earlier retirement than anticipated. Nevertheless, the percentage of Americans 65 and over who remain in the labour force has grown significantly when compared to two decades ago – from 12 percent to 18.9 percent. A recent AARP survey found that 31 percent of those who planned to continue working after retiring said they would do so because they enjoy working. Thirty percent said they would continue for extra money and 21 percent want to have something interesting to do. Fourteen percent said they would continue working to be physically active and 11 percent to be mentally active. Ten percent said they would continue working to support themselves and enjoy their independence.

But to remain employed is difficult. According to retirement experts, today’s jobs might not require as much lifting, bending and stooping as the manufacturing or warehouse jobs of old, but a lot of jobs are demanding in a different way – requiring keen eyesight, intense concentration and multitasking on the computer. So many boomers find themselves moving to their second or third acts before even planning to do so.

But retirement careers can be rewarding. Massage therapists for an aging clientele apparently are in hot demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of massage therapists is projected to grow 23 percent by 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. The New York Times reported that as the population ages, jobs like massage therapists and others like senior fitness trainers, dietitans and nutritionists, personal assistants, handymen, drivers and caterers who prepare meals for people who are forced to stay at home are on the upswing.

Another AARP survey found that nearly 90 percent of those over 65 want to stay in their residence for as long as possible, and 80 percent say they believe their current home is where they will always live. Consequently, more and more jobs and businesses are being created to satisfy not just the growing number of people living healthier and longer lives, but this “aging in place” market as well.

To prepare for their second or third acts, boomers are enrolling in skills upgrade professional certifications instead of a full degree program. Some of the other jobs and fields in demand include home modification, financial planning, driving for seniors, personal assistants and travel guides to help seniors use public transportation when they can no longer drive.

Boomers are starting to realize that their second or third acts can continue to make a difference in the lives of others.

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Boomer Parents Help Millennials With Home Ownership

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For how many years have Canadian economists and analysts been worried about the collapse of the condo market here? Now, after five years of constant doom and gloom about the nation’s real estate market, the housing market still hasn’t cooled down. In fact, it’s the opposite – prices across the country rose 10.4 percent in December from a year ago to an average of $389,119, according to the Ottawa-based Canadian Real Estate Association. But according to The Financial Post, once you took out Toronto and Vancouver, the increase drops to 4.6 percent.

One of the reasons for this trend is that millennials are either making realing estate purchases a priority or their boomer parents have been buying for them. The Globe and Mail reported that last year, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. held seminars that identified millennials as a growing opportunity for the Ontario housing market. While millennials accounted for 15 percent of home ownership demand in Ontario in 2012, by 2016, they will own about 35 percent of the province’s homes. Real estate agents claimed that many young people of this age group want to own their own homes and are averse to renting. They will stay at their parents’ homes and save up a down payment.

Then there are the boomer parents who are purchasing condo units for their millennial kids who are still at university. According to a new survey commissioned by the think tank Broadbent Institute, millennials fear their working lives will be governed by precarious, short-term arrangements and that the gulf between the rich and poor will grow. Their parents, meanwhile, worry that the younger generation will not get a decent job upon graduation and, therefore, won’t be able to save enough to purchase a home. Rick Smith, Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute, said, “Parents across this country are fretting about the economic prospects of their kids. They’re worried their kids aren’t going to have the same economic opportunities as they did.” The Globe and Mail pointed out that baby boomers are more likely to say that their children face worse economic times than they did as young people. With the current youth unemployment rate at 13.6 percent, parents are worried that their kids will never be able to own a home. Hence, I see my next door condo unit sold to an immigrant couple who bought the property for their daughter who’s entering the University of Toronto this year. At least half of my boomer friends have also bought condo units currently under construction for their millennial kids.

The Vancouver Province also reported that analysts are bullish about the real estate market as massive transfer of baby boomer wealth looms. According to a new study released by Sotheby’s International Realty Canada’s Housing and Economic Outlook, real estate prices will improve in Canada in part because of the unprecedented wealth currently being transferred between generations, with $1 trillion estimated inheritance to be received by baby boomers in Canada over the next 20 years. “According to the latest figures, Canadian baby boomers make up 42.4 percent of the population and will individually average $56,000 in inherited capital,” the report said. Sotheby’s expects many boomers to hand those inheritances directly to their own children. “An inheritance is an opportunity to assist their millennial-generation children with down payments to enter the real-estate market, particularly in major urban centres such as Vancouver, where housing affordability is an ongoing concern.”

So I keep telling my boomer friends, with no kids, who are waiting for the condo market to cool down before purchasing a home for themselves that this is probably not likely to happen soon. The falling Canadian dollar plus the strength of the U.S. economy will also boost the urban real-estate markets for foreign investment such as Vancouver and Toronto. That’s why in spite of the increasing home-sale costs, it might still be wise to invest in real estate now.

 

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Spain’s Ways Of Handling Aging Population

A recent European visit took me to Madrid, Spain. Everywhere I go, I try to observe how other countries are handling their aging populations, so here’s a summary of what I’ve learnt.

We all know that Germany is currently the oldest of all EU nations with a median age of 45.7 years (half of its population are younger than this age and the other half are older), but most other EU countries are facing the same challenges of an aging population. By the year 2020, people aged 60+ will be one-fifth of the EU’s population and about 20 million people that year will be aged 80+ which represents an increase of 300 percent in this age category since 1960. When compared to the rest of the world, population-aging in Europe and Canada are among the most advanced just after Japan (median age of 45.8 years). While the median age of the world population is 29.4 years, it is 39 years in Europe, 41.5 years in Canada, 37.2 years in the U.S., 38 years in Australia, 36.3 years in China and 26.7 years in India.

With a median age of 41.3 years in 2013, Spain is exactly in the same boat as Canada. According to the World Bank’s estimate in 2007, by 2050, around half of Spain’s population will be older than 55, which would give Spain the highest median age compared to all of the other countries in the world.

Similar to Canada, population aging is a challenge to policy makers within the EU member states. The most important impacts include a decrease in the percentage of people in the working age and hence a decrease in the labour force; an increasing public expenditure on social security, healthcare services and pensions; and a risk of intergenerational conflicts.

Spain has undertaken several innovative measures to address these challenges. The Spanish government has been trying to increase immigrants and has adopted an open-borders approach by passing a regulation in 2004 to provide residence and work permits for thousands of illegal immigrants who were employed at the time. After centuries of emigration, Spain has recently experienced large-scale immigration for the first time in modern history. According to the Spanish government, there were close to 5.6 million foreign residents in January 2010. Of these, over 1.5 million were from Latin America, especially from Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil; 750,000 were Moroccan; while immigrants and expatriates from the EU member states amounted to more than 2 million (especially from Romania, U.K., Germany, Italy and Bulgaria).

The government has also recently approved an immigration law granting a residency visa for international investors buying property in Spain. Investors, spending a minimum of 500,000 Euros on residential real estate or a portfolio of properties making up this limit, will gain a residence visa often referred to as the “Spanish Golden Visa.” This visa seems to be one of the most affordable and flexible in Europe. There is no minimum stay requirement in Spain and the visa can be renewed up to five years. After five years, those who have invested in Spanish property may apply for permanent residency although that will require a minimum residence period of 183 days. Permanent residents can then, of course, apply for citizenship and a Spanish passport which will grant them the right to live and work anywhere in Europe.

In cooperation with business leaders and trade unions, the Spanish government has also introduced a “flexible retirement” system in 2011, and subsequently enforced in 2013, which raises the official retirement age from 65-year-old to 67-year-old during a transition period of 15 years that will end in 2027. After 2027, it will be still possible to retire at 65 with a full pension if the contribution period is of at least 38 years and six months. The new system also allows early retirement from the age of 63 with a reduction coefficient on the pension per year ahead of the legal standard retirement age. In order to promote a voluntary increase of the retirement age, an increase in pension between two percent and four percent will be added for each year on top of the pensionable age within the total period contributed. The new reform also strengthens the Social Security System which improves the minimum pensions paid to old age pensioners who are living alone.

It is not clear how much positive impact this series of reforms will have on the Spanish economy which has been in the doldrums since 2008. Recent figures show that Spain’s GDP rose by 0.3 percent in the last quarter of 2013, up from 0.1 percent in the third quarter. This represents the biggest rise in Spanish GDP since the beginning of 2008. Compared to Spain’s total population of 47.27 million (2012), Canada is a smaller country with our population of 34.88 million (2012) living in the second largest land mass in the world. Even though our overall economy is in a much better shape, we should perhaps learn a lesson or two from the Spanish government in addressing our own aging-population issues.

In the meantime, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has just met with her counterparts from PEI and Manitoba to create a proposed pension system to supplement the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), with the aim of delivering extra benefits to retirees. Ontario decided to press forward with a provincial pension plan after the federal government rejected its call to expand the CPP. According to The Globe and Mail today, the exact details of the plan will be revealed in the spring, but government insiders have hinted that it will be a defined contribution plan run as a non-profit organization at arm’s length from the government. It is likely to be modelled after the National Employment Savings Trust in Britain.

The latest National Household Survey shows that Canada is home to 6.8 million foreign-born residents or 20.6 percent of the population, compared with 19.8 percent in 2006, and the highest in the G8 group of developed countries. However, the Conservative Government has just scrapped its 28-year-old visa scheme for investor immigrants. Nearly 65,000 applications for Canadian residency under the Immigrant Investor Program were pending when the scheme was axed. Of the total applications, 45,500 were from mainland China. I guess these would-be immigrants will now have to turn to other countries such as Spain.

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Preventing Falls Not Only For Seniors

This winter has been unusually brutal for Canadians. Yes, I know we’re living in the second coldest country in the world and, in theory, we should be used to toughing it out. But lately, call me paranoid: I’ve been very concerned about making sure that I don’t slip and fall on the ice or in the snow. Too many boomer friends around me have either broken their wrists or ankles due to dangerous falls. Also, my experience with a severe fall one stormy day in Hong Kong when I was much younger resulting in a few stitches on my chin, obviously, didn’t help to allay my fears!

According to The National Osteoporosis Foundation in the U.S., each year about one-third of all persons over age 65 will fall. Many of these falls resulted in broken bones. But preventing falls on the ice should not be just a cautionary measure for seniors – baby boomers cannot afford to have such accidents either because falls would bring about huge damages to the body, particularly, the bones.

According to The New York Times, people do not take the common-sense approach to walking in the winter weather - pedestrians dash across the streets instead of walking slowly and women still wear stiletto boots without rubber soles. After several recent heavy snowstorms in New York City, emergency rooms have reported as much as a 300 percent increase in snow-related maladies. Apart from dislocated shoulders and elbows and fractured feet and ankles, there were also lots of heart-related problems due to snow shovelling.

Whether you’re young or old, nobody seems immune to slipping and falling. But there are a few important preventive guidelines to follow from orthopaedic doctors and surgeons:

Discard Fashion and Change Shoes If Necessary

I love wearing high heels but when it comes to safety, I refuse to be a fashion slave. Wear hiking boots or footwear with deep treads and rubber soles. Rain boots are no good because they are too flat, according to medical experts. When concerned about how you look in your footwear, bring a pair of dressy boots or shoes to change when arriving indoors.

Walk Like A Penguin

It may not look very elegant, but it’s important to take very small steps so that you minimize the chance of slipping. As much as possible, try to test the ground surface by tapping on it first before taking a stride. Avoid slippery patches and surfaces by taking an alternative route to your destination.

Keep Your Hands Free

During winter, most people put their hands in their pockets to avoid exposure to the cold temperature. But it’s best to wear gloves and keep your hands free for balance should you fall. This is, of course, easier said than done because most people carry handbags, grocery or shopping bags.

Use Handrails On Stairs

Stairs are always tricky when they are wet with rain or snow, so even though you might look like an elderly person, remember to rely on handrails so that you can catch yourself if you slip on icy steps.

Focus On Watching Your Steps

In the world of modern technology, try to avoid multi-tasking when walking in wintry weather. Do not check or send messages on your smart phones and focus on the ground you walk on. Tweeting or texting while walking in icy conditions can lead to disasters. As your mother always says: “Watch where you’re going!”

Prevent, But Do Not Resist Your Fall

Bone experts say that if you’re really falling, do not try to resist it with the full force of your body. Just go down naturally so that you won’t end up having a broken wrist or ankle. This might be the hardest advice to follow: after all, who can do this unless you’re an acrobat or a toddler?

Prevention is always better than cure. Try browsing the following websites for more tips: Jobsafety.seton.ca, National Osteoporosis FoundationAmerican Recall Center: How To Prevent  Slips, Trips and Falls. Walk tall and safe this winter, and the good news is: the nasty season is almost over!

 

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