Can Baby Boomers be part of the solution?

The Baby Boom generation -- that group born in the decades immediately following World War II -- grew up, started families and progressed through careers during the first two generations of the Suburban Experiment, a period of unequaled prosperity for America. Today, we are in the third generation of this great social and financial experiment and, as it unravels, the Baby Boomers hold most of the powerful positions in government and business. Is it reasonable to expect them to substantively reform the institutions, systems and programs they came of age championing?

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Every generation, especially in times of rapid change, feels a natural tension between their generation and the one prior. Often this is reflected in the music we listen to, the movies we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the political positions we take and many other healthy aspects of life. My post today is not to denigrate the "Baby Boom" generation -- those born in the two decades immediately following World War II -- which, as a GenX'r, are my predecessors. I hope those that comment will avoid gratuitous bashing or promoting, whichever the case may be.

I want to offer one question, to which I have many thoughts but no firm answer:

Are those in the Baby Boom generation capable of substantively reforming America's current set of institutions, systems and programs?

This year, members of the Baby Boom generation are somewhere between 48 and 66 years old. As a cohort, it is an understatement to say that they have redefined everything. When we are in a generous mood, those in subsequent generations think of things like civil rights, the environmental movement, feminism and an overall expansion of individual freedom as accomplishments of the Boomer generation. Just by their sheer size in numbers, there were few institutions or societal norms that could withstand their scrutiny for long.

This Ameriprise ad a few years ago was memorable to me because, while it did not appeal to me as a consumer, I could see how brilliant it was in appealing to all of the things Boomers see positive about themselves. Of course they would redefine retirement; they have redefined everything else.

That ad, however, perfectly captures the conundrum we currently face. Here's Dennis Hopper -- who, by age would have been the really cool older brother for a Boomer -- wearing sunglasses on the beach. He affirms that the Boomers will be better than his generation. "Your generation is definitely not headed for bingo night." Cut to the scene of the Boomer-aged gentlemen restoring a sailboat and then to a boat sailing off into the sunset. These are scenes that Boomers picture themselves in, experiences they feel are their just rewards after many decades of working really, really hard.

That ad came out in 2006, a time when it looked like every boomer would soon be able to sell their home in the suburbs at a huge premium, buy the condo unit downtown and the second home in a nice vacation destination, retire with their generous retirement savings or pension and spend the next two or three decades living out the dream. Sure, they would volunteer in their community -- that's what they do -- and there would be time with the grandkids, but there would also be plenty of time to just enjoy all those things they put off until retirement. This was the promise they felt society made to them in exchange for their hard work. If there is one thing we should all be able to agree on it is that Boomers, generally, have worked very hard for a very long time.

Fast forward to today. I myself know a great many Boomers who have put off retirement because their 401(k) has dropped significantly in value right along with their home. They see their kids losing their jobs or having their hours cut back and, among younger Boomers, some of those kids are moving back home. All this is bad enough, but the future looks scary as well now, with Europe on the verge of melting down, unemployment continuing to rise and their own savings -- now mostly protected in low risk securities -- growing at a third the rate of inflation. This is not how things were supposed to work out.

And the clock is ticking. Loudly.

On this blog we talk about infrastructure and how to build productive, valuable places. Our key contributions to the national debate over America's next move have been to explain how the Suburban Experiment has financially failed us, how it provides the illusion of wealth as nominal near term cash advantages are exchanged for significantly greater, long term financial obligations, and why there will not be a real, sustained economic recovery until we change our model of growth and development.

Last week at a Curbside Chat, I was introduced to a former council member from a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. He told me that he had been invited to address a gathering of civil engineers and, at the end his talk, he played our Conversation with an Engineer video. According to him there were two reactions. The younger engineers laughed hysterically while the older engineers sat straight-faced with their arms crossed. That observation tracked with my experience as well.

It also illuminates something important: the Baby Boom generation associates America's Suburban Experiment with wealth creation and prosperity. Now, to be fair, a great many reject the negative impacts of environmental degradation, social isolation and obesity/poor health that have accompanied it, but the responses they embrace have been things like hybrid cars, community centers and new, walkable communities (yes, New Urbanism, I'm talking about our cute, suburban towns). These are all things that fit nicely into the commoditized, suburban financial model.

It is not an irrational association by the Boomers, either. Tom Friedman -- a Baby Boomer who I genuinely respect -- put out a book last year called That used to be us which argues that America's recipe for success included building more infrastructure to promote growth. It is easy to understand why he makes this argument; he saw it happen himself. In the 1950's and 1960's, America invested in infrastructure and we experienced growth. In the 1980's and 1990's, we repeated that (only this time with borrowed money). It is a simple, Pavlov's dog, type of response -- build infrastructure, get prosperity -- but it is understandable how he arrived at that conclusion. From a NY Times article about the book:

A long tradition of American thinkers and statesmen — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to name a few — have argued that a strong and forward-looking federal government should promote a healthy domestic economy and a strong international presence.

This tradition is often called Hamiltonian because of Alexander Hamilton’s role in formulating its basic outlines while serving as Washington’s Treasury secretary. Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum’s blueprint for the next stage in American prosperity is essentially a revival of this Hamiltonian vision of a strong, pro-market national government that creates the most favorable possible conditions (and provides funds for the infrastructure) to promote private enterprise.

And in case you want to argue that Friedman wants "better" infrastructure spending, check out this video where, at the 3:13 mark, he clearly says we need "more" infrastructure. The last thing this country needs is more infrastructure.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a Baby Boomer in a position of authority, maybe high elected office. You are presented with two options. The first -- double down on the current approach, spend a lot more money on the Suburban Experiment, try to revive the housing market, bail out the banks that are funding it, build a lot of new highways, throw in some big rail projects -- makes you uncomfortable because of the magnitude, but you feel confident that at least you are investing in an approach you have seen be successful in your lifetime. And if we can get the economy going again, maybe in a few years we can get back to the position you were in during 2006. Then you can retire, having met this last great challenge, and enjoy your remaining years as planned. This option fits within the world view you have created over the prior decades.

The second option is far more radical. It starts with acknowledging that the Suburban Experiment is a Ponzi Scheme that has put the country in a very tenuous financial position. To start to rationally respond to this insight, not only do we abandon the systems and programs that you put in place or expanded, we actually go about downsizing the infrastructure systems you spent so much money to build. There will be many winners and losers here, with you and a great many of your peers likely being among the latter. A large economic adjustment will be necessary, meaning a period of savings-robbing inflation or stock-killing deflation; neither seems appealing to someone a blink away from retirement. Following the adjustment, there will be growth, but it will be much different than the easy money gains of your lifetime and, even then, it will likely come too late to matter for you. This option is an enormous challenge to your world view.

Is it even reasonable to expect a Baby Boomer to choose the second option? Is substantive reform possible from a generation that is this vested in the current approach and this close to the finish line?

If your answer is no, then where do we go from here?

I don't have any answers here, just questions. Although I suspect we will learn the answers soon enough.

People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

- My Generation by The Who (1965)

What you got, what you got in your hand?
a father said to son.
I got the whole world here Daddy
between my fingers and my thumb.
Well you take care of it
please -- it's the only one.
Well it would take me a life time old man
to undo what you've done.

- Raven by The Dave Matthews Band (2002)


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