Generation Angst: The Boomers and GenY Won't Save Us
One of my favorite books of all time is Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture – a novel that coined a term for my age group of people, and subsequently affected how other generations have come to be defined. It’s no small irony that what Coupland was writing about was how this particular generation didn’t like being defined, and resisted labels of all kinds. Welcome to how marketing ultimately co-opts everything. Despite the later twist of fate, Coupland’s book did strike a chord with me at the time – it seemed to nail a certain set of attitudes and common characteristics that were common among my friends and peers. And, his description of our age group as an “…X generation-purposefully hiding itself…” really hit home. Aside: for a more recent Coupland book that is excellent, try “Jpod”.
Interlude: There were just over 50 million people born in the US in the years from 1962 to 1975, which is often classified as “Generation X” That’s more people than live in Spain.
I got to thinking about GenX and generational differences while reading yet another piece by a New Urbanist colleague that pins our collective aspirations on generational dynamics. You know the story by now: it’s the 80 million baby boomers wanting to downsize and their 80 million “Gen Y” or “Millennial” offspring wanting a different lifestyle that will catapult our cities and towns into a bright, shiny, walkable future. The refrain now is so common, you’ve probably read or heard it dozens of times.
It’s true – I’ve even spoken about this myself, in particular while looking at changing trends in the age groups younger than myself.
I think about this argument, because not only am I growing weary of it, I think it’s misleading and potentially damaging to latch on to.
Interlude: Generational definitions are not simple. Some demographers classify age groups into consistent groups of about 18 years, while others use ranges from 10 to over 20 years, with no consistency in the timeframes.
The typical argument goes: all those baby boomers are getting tired of their big houses in the suburbs, the big yards that need mowing, and the lack of physical connection to their neighbors. They will soon abandon those homes and move into condos in compact neighborhoods.
But what if this is wrong? What if they love their big homes, because it provides room for the kids to visit, grandkids to play and spare rooms for their hobbies? What if they like to garden, or have enough money to pay for household help, a car and gas, and will just switch to hybrid or electric vehicles?
The corollary – the Boomers’ kids are all about living smarter, smaller and cheaper than their parents. They like to walk, take transit and live in cities. This group is the one that finally has set themselves apart from the suburban mindset of the previous 3 generations. The data even seems to be backing this up right now.
But, what if this is just a hallmark of a lousy economy? Or, the delayed adolescence that comes with being a 20-something in American society? What happens when this group starts having kids in big numbers – will they stick to their hip, urban locales, or flee to starter homes in the suburbs much like their parents did?
What do we do if these assumptions prove false, or at least prove not to be the societal-changing trends we advertise them to be?
Interlude: In the “booming” years of births in the US (1946-1961), total births were 67,814,972. In the “declining” years of births (1962-1975) total births were 50,269,121. When you average out those 17 “booming” years the average birth number is 3,989,116. The average for the 14 “declining” years is 3,590,651. That’s a difference of 11%. Since 1989, births have roughly averaged 4 million per year, give or take a couple hundred thousand. That’s consistent with the “booming” average.
In the study of demographics and trends, we get very caught up in classifying and labeling people, as if we are widgets that were manufactured. Because I was born in 1969, does that mean I have all the same aspirations, tendencies and hobbies as any other random person born that year? Do we really believe that, beyond the shared pop culture references, I have more in common with a stranger from 1,000 miles away than my own family, for example?
Moreover, our typical generational definitions are, to be perfectly blunt, stupid. We’ve had some up years and some down years in terms of live births, but if you take any series of 18 or 20 year periods since the end of WWII, the total numbers are within 10% of each other. The distinctions make for compelling media, hours of billable time on Madison Avenue, and fun talk over a couple of glasses of wine or beer, but as a narrative it doesn’t hold much real meaning for us as planners and designers. Or, to put it another way, we put far too much emphasis on it.
Interlude: In the peak baby boom year of 1961, the US had 271,000 legal immigrants. In the “declining” years that followed, legal immigration averaged closer to 400,000 per year. Since 1989, legal immigration has averaged approximately 1,000,000 people per year
So what does all this mean, and what solutions are there for those of us who do hope to see people flocking to walkable communities?
First, I would put great caution in pinning our revitalization hopes on age groups. The statistical arguments of the moment seem compelling, but they ignore those core features of humanity that change very little.
What are those features exactly? For starters they include that we are social animals, we enjoy seeing/hearing/touching other human beings. We enjoy mystery and whimsy. We enjoy both excitement and relaxation. We enjoy being in public space, but also crave a need for private space. We have an innate desire for freedom and the choices that come with free will. And, we need beauty to be inspired.
If we can offer these things (and more, no doubt) in our walkable places, we will attract people across age, race, gender and class differences. A great number of human beings really love the joy of a nice walk after having a meal; the freedom to safely ride a bike or walk to a park, a coffee shop, the post office, and so much more. And, a number of people don’t care about these things – they might prefer quiet and isolation. The majority of people quite frankly have no real preference, or may not even know that there are choices available to them in lifestyle.
These aspects of humanity are harder to quantify. They don’t fit neatly into a statistical abstract. They require us to treat each other as complex human beings. But isn’t that a better place to start than a hyper-focus on what a generic 25 or 65 year old might want that week?