Thursday, March 5th, 2009
So much talk about the educated and creative classes focuses on the youth market. The implicit concern over “brain drain” is almost entirely based on the post-collegiate market. But what about older Americans, particularly the Boomers? Boomers are turning 60 and as with every stage of life before it are redefining what that period of life looks like. The previous generations moved to the Sun Belt to retire. But are Boomers likely ever to retire in a traditional sense? Will they have the same preferences in living environments? I think not. Commenter Ironwood suggested I devote a post to this, but since he counts himself among that cohort and did such and excellent job of stating the case himself, I figured I’d just promote his comment to a post and let his words speak for themselves. Now, over to Ironwood:
I agree that innovation is one of the keys to an exciting future for the Midwest. And in that respect – and others — I’d like to discuss the impact of Boomers.
Full disclosure: I turned 60 last month, and having a certain personal interest in the subject, I’ve been doing some reading on where the Boomers are heading. What I’ve found has gotten my juices flowing, both in terms of my own personal future, but much more in terms of how me and 76 million other Boomers are going to change things in the next couple decades.
This has HUGE implications for our cities and the Midwest, and the Midwestern cities that grasp these implications and act on them are going to have some pretty exciting days ahead.
This is not a billboard for Boomers. I raise the issue of Boomers specifically in the context of creativity, innovation and the future of the Midwest.
Ten years ago, it was predicted that Boomers would be bankrupting social security and Medicare, and there would be a huge hole in our workforce. It was assumed that Boomers would continue to migrate south into age-segregated communities, and indulge in leisure, golf-cart-type pursuits. This was based on extrapolating then-existing trends. Those trends and assumptions have been built into demographic and hundreds of other unspoken projections about how northern and southern cities would look in another ten-twenty years.
But these trends have already proved to be obsolete. “Bleeding Edge” Boomers and those right behind them are taking a very different direction from their parents. And it’s going to take awhile for everyone to take this into account. (This is built into the Baby Boom. Society has consistently been unprepared for Boomers.)
With apologies to all who are bored stiff with Boomers, consider the following: 8,000-10,000 people are turning 60 every day. By 2020, one out of four Americans will be over 65. The vast majority of Boomers have no intention of retiring – ever; and even if they wanted to retire, most Boomers can’t, since their now-depleted retirement funds were never designed to cover their increased longevity. The fastest growing segment of the workforce – by far – is the over-50 segment, and it will constitute an even bigger slice of the pie in the decade ahead.
We are now looking at the prospect of a relatively healthy, productive, experienced, educated workforce of 76-plus million Americans who control more than half the nation’s wealth and who will end up counting for a huge percentage of the workforce. Boomers will be at a new point in their life cycles, with as much as 25 productive years ahead of them, without the responsibilities of raising a family.
Implications for innovation and creativity? Not only are Boomers going to stay in the workforce, they will be an enormous catalyst for and source of innovation. Boomers (at least in their own minds) feel like they’re just getting started. The majority of Boomers view “old” as 89 – which is currently older than the most optimistic of average life expectancies of Boomers [!] They feel ready for new challenges, want to stay involved and relevant and are hardly invested in the old ways of doing things. Arguably, the Boomers have lived through and embraced far more technological change than younger people have. This is an age group that started with three black-and-white TV networks, no cell phones and no computers, and they’ve spent they’re entire life adapting. You might buy a Jitterbug phone for your grand parents, but you’d better figure on a Boomer buying his own iPhone. Further, most Boomers welcome the chance to work with younger professionals (there’s certainly not the generation gap between Boomers and their kids that existed between Boomers and their own parents). The presence of Boomers and younger people on the same entrepreneurial team is apt to be a positive when it comes to innovation, whether the innovation comes from Boomers or younger people. At the very least, Boomers can provide mentoring, business experience, contacts, etc.
When you think Boomers, think Creative Class. Whatever effect the Creative Class might have on urban areas, magnify it by about as many powers as you want, because Boomers will swell the ranks of the creative class by millions as they move into the new pursuits that, if the polls are correct, should be more focused on personal passions than earning a secure buck.
Now go back to something in the Urbanophile’s article – that some portion of innovation is going to come from smaller, entrepreneurial outfits of four-ten people. These may, in fact, not even be particularly stable, but rather ad hoc teams that come together to tackle specific projects. This is right up the alley of Boomers in the next two decades. Boomers, when polled, say that what they do next will be less structured and more flexible than what they’ve been doing all their lives. They want to pursue multiple opportunities. They intend to devote some time to the not-for-profit sector, some time earning money; some time relaxing, but whatever they do, they intend for it to be more on their terms – working less than a 50-60-hour week; flexible arrangements; being their own bosses; working with people they enjoy; trying out new things.
The Brain Drain has been discussed at length in this Blog. But it’s generally been in the context of younger people. Consider the impending brain drain of Boomers from Midwestern cities. Midwestern cities need to figure out how to retain their Boomers and attract new ones. On that score, see below.
Implications for Midwestern Cities? Most Boomers want to live in age-integrated communities and have generally rejected the “golden years” Sun-City type fates of their parents. So, where will they end up? Well, many want to stay right where they are — if they can afford it. Let’s not forget that, in the past, many retirees moved to the Sunbelt not for the weather, but because it was affordable on a retirement income. In doing so, they left behind, in many cases, life-long friends and social networks. They often became isolated from their families and grand-kids in the process. Boomers are going to be a lot less likely to make these sacrifices, if recent polls are accurate. They want to stay involved and active in communities they’ve helped build. They want to stay integrated in urban settings with people of all ages. But cost-of-living will be a factor. Sure, many Boomers have, and will continue to, move back to the urban cores. But, in the case of Chicago, that’s not going to be an option for many of them. And when it comes to Boomers, “many” means “many.”
Now think back to the recent articles in this Blog discussing a hierarchy of labor that would permit people to achieve a higher standard of living at a lower cost in places like Indy or Columbus, while still being able to access the culture and nightlife of Chicago through light rail. This arrangement should, it seems to me, be as attractive to many Boomers as it would be to younger workers with children. Maybe even moreso, because, in addition to access to culture, Chicago ex-pat Boomers would have access to their Chicago-based, friends, families, churches, etc.
A city like Milwaukee, for example, that could offer a “micropolitan” weekday experience for Boomers at a reasonable cost-of-living that is a short train ride from Chicago could offer a much better alternative to a Chicagoan Boomer than moving to Phoenix. Imagine a city like Milwaukee or Indy specifically marketing itself to Boomers. Imagine Boomer-friendly college campuses; programs that create opportunities for Boomers and younger entrepreneurs to link up; live-work developments; real estate subleasing markets that accommodate seasonal Boomer housing. Imagine more in-city “intentional communities” (example: Lincoln Park Village in Chicago) that can take the edge off of winter-living for some aging Boomers by providing services that are now generally only available in assisted living environments.
Forgive the length of this comment. But the implications of what the Boomers do next amount to a heretofore – in the history of the world – unknown demographic phenomenon. It’s staggering. The advent of the post-60 Boomer is as much of a game-changer as anything discussed to date in this Blog. I’ve just scratched the surface of this topic, and I strongly encourage the Urbanophile to devote another article to this phenomenon.