"Ready, set, go!" / Photo: Dan Burden

“Ready, set, go!” / Photo: Dan Burden

In mid-December I was invited to participate in a listening session convened by the AARP and GOVERNING to consider the question of how local government can prepare for the so-called “Silver Tsunami” of Baby Boomers entering retirement. It was an impressive group that convened: leaders from Federal agencies; leaders from the many national non-profit organizations and associations that populate DC; even a few private sector individuals sprinkled in.

For us to have a common departure point for the morning’s discussion, we had to first define the Baby Boomers in broad strokes, a task that fell to Neil Howe. Howe may be the most widely read and influential generational theorist of our time. He delivered to us some stark statistics and observations: 25% of Boomers have no retirement savings; 26% have no personal savings (beyond a 401k); and the recession couldn’t have  hit at a worse time for the Boomers, who saw a 33% drop in median household net worth just as retirement looked to be approaching. The bottom line of those numbers is that the typical Boomer will work well past retirement age, and remain in his community, in his home. This conclusion is backed up by numerous surveys of Boomers who (overwhelmingly) indicate they’re staying put.

If you are wondering where the Harley Davidson-riding, little-blue-pill-popping “greedy geezers” went, you need to look to the “Silent Generation” (born 1925-1945) who cashed out near the peak of the housing market with generous defined benefit packages. (FYI: the highest median-net-worth cohort is households headed by someone 75 years and older.)

Howe’s words were a reality check for my fellow attendees, many of whom had reached the pinnacles of their careers, and as such were members of the Boomer cohort. I noticed many of them nodding in silent agreement as Howe detailed how the fates of the Boomers and their Millennial children were intertwined. As the Boomers approach retirement age, their children are emerging from college and graduate school saddled with oppressive debt and grim employment prospects. It is no wonder that the percentage of young adults (24-34 years old) living with their parents as doubled since 1980, from 11% to 22%.

The Baby Boomers were our first suburban generation, and it is in the suburban environ that many are likely to remain in retirement. By 2029, when the last Boomers reach retirement age, 1-in-5 Americans will be over 65. Before listening to Howe, I considered the notion of retrofitting suburbia to a more multimodal, mixed-use form to be a quaint, romantic, or even hubristic idea. Now such transformation appears to be a necessity.

Walkable neighborhoods are critical in creating livable, accessible places for senior citizens to live / Photo: Mark Plotz

Walkable neighborhoods are critical in creating livable, accessible places for senior citizens to live / Photo: Mark Plotz

Despite the tall task before us, I departed the discussion full of optimism because I heard from many people in the room about the importance of place, and the necessity for communities, neighborhoods, and developments that are supportive of walking, bicycling, and transit. These people weren’t ringers; they were drawn from all sectors including housing, finance, commercial development, health care, and governing.

Crisis can precipitate change, which can lead to better outcomes. The Silver Tsunami can be considered such an opportunity for those of us who desire a stronger sense of place, and a more sustainable transportation system to support it. Here are a few ideas that the AARP/GOVERNING discussion inspired for me:

  • A deep distrust of institutions. According to Howe, Boomers have a deep distrust of institutions, and in the past have united to oppose war, racism, and environmental destruction. State DOTs remain some of our most opaque and entrenched institutions. Perhaps Boomers will start asking why, when we have passed peak driving, DOTs continue to follow the prime directive of increasing capacity.
  • Mixed use in the rough. A major challenge to reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in suburbia is the segregation of land uses and the distance between residential and retail. One way to solve this may be to start converting some of this country’s 16,000 golf courses, only one-third of which break even or actually turn a profit, into mixed use developments. Think about it: they’re often at the center of a neighborhood or community, they contain miles of cart paths that could become multiuse trails, and they’re not even in use for part of the year. (Of course, I don’t play the game, and if you suggest turning my pool or velodrome into a lifestyle center, then we’re going to have a problem!)
  • We’re spending the money anyway. We spend billions annually to build un-walkable and un-bikeable junk; that money could just as easily be used to build something that supports sane transportation and land use. Yes, MAP-21 is problematic, but your state DOT has a tremendous amount of flexibility with what they can build using Surface Transportation funds. At the local level, The Man is constantly replacing out worn out roads, bridges, and water/sewer infrastructure, so go stick it to him when he shows up with the orange cones and bulldozers and tell him to complete your street. Groovy!