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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Boomers & Millennials: Kindred Spirits

Yesterday, a friend posted this link on my Facebook page—it’s to an article written by Anjulie Rao on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s website. 

My friend knows of my determination to live out my golden years in Chicago, the city I’ve lived in for nearly 50 years, give or take a year each in Manhattan and Madison, Wisconsin, and those couple of crazy months in New Mexico.

I’ve copied the text of the article below (in Comic Sans), so I can comment directly on each of the five things Ms. Rao thinks we should know about Boomers and city living.  My comments appear in bold.

5 Things You Should Know About Baby Boomers and City Living
by Anjulie Rao

We’re excited to see how the lifestyles of this great generation will impact the way cities are designed. How might we see Chicago’s built environment evolve to adapt to the many Baby Boomers getting ready to retire?

The question posed in the second sentence has been on my mind for awhile, though it doesn’t seem to be on the minds of our current politicians or city administrators. 

But, despite their collective silence on the matter, the age wave being driven by the Boomers is gathering strength, including in cities, and so I’m happy that Ms. Rao has asked the question.


Political issues surrounding topics like Medicaid and social security are bringing a lot of attention to the Baby Boomers. Between 1946 and 1964, the US saw a major population increase in this generation, hovering around 76 million babies born.

Now that this population is approaching retirement, researchers and senior citizen advocates such as the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) are launching initiatives to understand how the individuals who make up this important generation are preparing for the next stage of their lives.

Actually, Boomers may be approaching retirement, but a large segment, over half, are not retiring. (See #3 below).  In truth, we probably need to better distinguish between the traditional retirement age—65—and when we actually stop working.  In this regard, we know well that the times they are a-changin'.

And as for “preparing for the next stage of their lives,” I’m betting that a sizeable number of Boomers have not done so.  Certainly they, as well as those who study these things, were not prepared for this large number of human beings living so long and in such good health—a first in our species’ history.


What constitutes a livable environment? According to the AARP, “As the U.S. population ages, we face a serious challenge: our communities are not prepared for an aging society. In an effort to address this urgent problem, AARP sought to help consumers and policymakers decide whether their communities are places where residents can easily live as they get older. Taking a multifaceted approach to assessing livability at the neighborhood level, AARP developed this ground-breaking tool to jump-start community conversations about livability and encourage action by consumers and policymakers alike.”

Enter The Livability Index, a survey given to 4,500 individuals, ages 50 and above, to get a sense of general preferences for livability. The survey examined major elements of day-to-day living, including housing, health and transportation. The overarching trends indicate that seniors:

Tend to vary their social gathering spaces (private homes and public places)
Desire access to public transit
Value neighborhoods with good schools

So,what is a livable place as we age?  The answer, of course, will vary, but for me, it is still a decent-sized city with all three of those “trends” listed above.  Also lots of diversity in race, ethnicity, age, income level, cultural offerings, and a good blend of the built and natural environments.  

Encountering that mix is what accounts for much of my day-to-day pleasure while walking and biking the streets of Chicago, and while on buses and trains.  Engaging with people with vastly different stories reminds me of what it is about human beings that is essentially the same. It also broadens my horizons and my mind, and keeps me from getting too rigid in my thinking or set in my ways.

Then there is the multitude of ethic restaurants and markets selling falafel, enchiladas mole, and pad thai.  How could my golden years possibly glow without those just up the street or an “L” ride away?


Surveys have found that the Baby Boomer generation is preparing for the next stage of life in very different ways than generations prior. It was common for generations before the Baby Boomers to stay with a company for three or even four decades before retiring. Today though, many Boomers continue sharpening their professional skills, in large part because 65% of this generation foresees working past retirement age, or not looking towards retirement at all. Only 32% are counting on social security as their primary income source. Obviously, attitudes toward aging are changing.

It has been suggested that Baby Boomers are also looking to maintain active lifestyles. Support by recent survey data suggests that seniors are less interested in moving to retirement communities and more enticed by urban areas, whether staying in the city they live in, or moving to places where transit and amenities are more readily available.

Yes, despite all the adverts, more of us geezers are running in the other direction from living in a retirement community. Again, it has to do with diversity.  Even if I could afford it, which I can’t, I believe that in such an environment I would suffer irreparably from SSD (Severe Stimulation Deprivation).


The main goal of designing a livable area is improving health. The physical health of the city’s residents, creating positive and equitable community relations and ensuring that sustainability are all a priority. Housing and transportation remain key to creating and maintaining that environment.

Transit Oriented Development (TOD) refers to zoning laws that connect high-density housing and transportation. The Livability Index reveals that seniors desire access to affordable, sustainable public transit and also, a variety of housing options with access to said transit. Seniors, whether single or families, want to live in a diverse environment. Along with diversity in housing comes opportunities for greater numbers of affordable housing. In Chicago, laws mandate a specific percentage of units in a building to be designated as affordable, and greater numbers of rezoned TODs can potentially bring about more affordable housing for seniors and families.

And so to my greatest concern about being able to grow really old in the city: will I be able to afford it?  I may know more about that later this month, after attending an event sponsored by the Center for Neighborhood Technology: Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and Community Change, which will address, among related issues, affordable housing in Chicago.

According to Peter Ellis, Principal at CannonDesign (designing future infrastructure for Boomers), we’re looking at a future in which Millennials and seniors will make up roughly half of the population of the average American city.

What is most striking about the findings of the Livability Index is how universal they are. Community amenities such as quality parks and maintained pedestrian areas, mixed-use living and access to sustainable transit, have typically been associated with younger generations who opt for bikes and public transportation over cars, and prefer local grocery stores and farmers markets to supermarket chains.

In actuality, the desires of Millennials and seniors seem to match. As more young people move into cities, demanding efficient and affordable living spaces, they may find that their closest allies for vibrant, sustainable communities are the Baby Boomers living next door.

Since learning about the Millennials, including that their numbers are about to overtake those of the Boomers*, I’ve felt a weird affinity for this age group (18 – 34), some of which has to do with certain shared values, including urban living and the transit options that come with it. (Seriously, anything to reduce the  number of cars clogging the streets, my view, my ears, and my lungs.) 

And so I will eagerly look forward to having those young’uns as allies in making our cities more humane, sustainable, equitable, and pedestrian-and bike-friendly.

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