Building for Boomerennials
By now you’ve undoubtedly come across a comment from a demographer or industry analyst that points out some seemingly random similarity between Baby Boomers and Millennials. I started watching for these references to overlapping wants and needs specifically around housing and community-building issues, and the more I found the less random they appeared. In many ways, Boomers and Millennials are more-or-less the same people, give-or-take a few years.
When looking at issues of homes and community, there are a growing number of areas where these two groups overlap in attitudes and behaviours, and since we are talking about the two largest demographic cohorts in history, maybe those seemingly random similarities are a bigger deal than we thought.
Many observers agree that the “Maker Movement” originated in the tech sector, with computer wizards hacking into hardware and software to make things other than what the manufacturers intended. Sprouting from that is a Maker Movement of a lower-tech variety: young Millennial moms knitting sweaters for their kids, canning vegetables from the backyard garden, building things with power tools and tinkering with old cars are all popular pastimes for Maker-Millennials. Look at the explosive growth of offerings on the hand-made-stuff-online-retailer Etsy if you need proof that making things is a very big thing indeed.
But Millennials didn’t invent this. The Boomers did, and in most cases they got it from their parents who really had no choice. Boomers’ parents had to make clothes and food and furniture because, well, that’s how you got your clothes and food and furniture. Boomer dads love their tool bench in the garage, and Boomer moms use the clickety-clack of knitting needles as a sort of meditation practice.
So the Millennials and Boomers agree: making stuff is fun. But why should we care? Because huge waves of Boomers are selling the family house in the suburbs and moving to higher density urban condos and apartments, and huge numbers of Millennials have no intention of ever leaving their dense urban lifestyle, even if they have kids and are raising a family.
So not only do the Boomers and Millennials agree that making stuff is fun, they agree that making stuff is fun while living in condos and apartments. What would we have to do with our buildings and our communities to help foster this shared interest? Imagine the wonderful connections that would ensue if you had a condo tower where baking bread in the community kitchen (or refinishing thrift-shop furniture in the common-area workshop) became a regular Saturday morning intergenerational event?
Research shows that social interaction is the key to a long and happy life. As I discovered while researching my book The Stackable Boomer, one of the biggest fears Boomers have about moving away from the family home in the suburbs is that they won’t fit in, and will find it hard to meet people. If we can mix Boomers and Millennials in multifamily condo developments, and provide amenity spaces with simple programming, we will make everyone happier and healthier.
Lifestyle Spaces, NOT Fitness Rooms
Another major lifestyle trend shared by the Boomers and Millennials is a move away from hard-core fitness, and towards a kinder and gentler idea of health and wellness. The weightlifting and cardio regimes of days gone by are almost comical to many Millennials. They don’t want to get fat, or be unhealthy, but they just can’t see themselves crowding into a gym to build better biceps, or duct-taping themselves to a treadmill to lose a few pounds when snowboarding or a hike will get them to the same destination. It’s a de-institutionalization of healthy living: a strong preference for more natural ways to stay fit instead of slavish devotion to a fitness-factory full of machines.
Yoga? Yes. Pilates? Of course. Millennials are also driving healthy-living trends like organic foods and non-GMO produce, and would prefer to eat a 100-mile diet if they could figure out how. Walk through a local Whole Foods and count the percentage of Millennials in there, looking for grass-fed butter.
Now a lazy writer could cut and paste those preceding paragraphs, substitute the word “Boomer” for “Millennial” and no one would be the wiser. Boomers share many of the same ideas about health and wellness that Millennials do. Plus, they have an added incentive: while their bodies are aging, they sure don’t feel like they are 50 or 70, or anywhere in between.
Saying “60 is the new 40” out loud has become an inescapable proclamation, mostly from 60 year olds. Boomers are responding to the memories of their own parents’ declining health by embracing swimming, hiking, skydiving, skiing, snowboarding, and yes, yoga and Pilates. And it all seems to be working. Average life expectancy in developed nations is growing by leaps and bounds, which for the Boomers is exactly the delayed-end-game they have in mind.
So, both Boomers and Millennials crave long-term health and wellness. How can this help us create better homes and communities? Maybe the scrap of space in the back of the towers we build filled with second-rate weight machines and ineffective cardio machines should be banned? Maybe what is needed instead are climbing walls, ski-weekend-shuttle-buses and a building manager that teaches yoga in the mornings. Is it so crazy to imagine Boomers and Millennials downward-dogging before the day begins, side-by-side, in the building they all call home?
Boomers repeatedly say that they have very little intention of retiring, at least in the way their parents used the word. They may be leaving corporate life behind, but they will be consulting, volunteering on boards or with community groups, taking classes in art history or motorcycle mechanics, or learning how to program HTML. And for this, they need a workspace.
Millennials have an entirely different attitude to work than the generations that came before.
First off, they are not so hung up about getting one job at a great company and staying there until they eventually get a corner office with a potted fern, and finally a certificate (suitable for framing) thanking them for a lifetime of service to the corporation.
No, they may work for a company for some time, or part time, but they will also likely have a side-business or two, and maybe make some extra money as a DJ on the weekend when they aren’t being a yoga instructor.
Millennials enjoy – in fact prefer — this gig-based economic existence. They don’t want to be stuck in one job, doing one thing for the rest of their life. Consequently, the time Millennials spend working versus the time they spend not-working is more fluid. They may work some afternoons and a few mornings and all day Friday and Sunday around mid-day. They have friends whom they work with, friends who work for them and friends whom they work for. The boundaries between work and not-work are very blurry, if they exist at all.
So as Boomers are looking at integrating more kinds of work into their life, and including family and friends in their endeavors, Millennials have been behaving this way since they began earning a living. What could we do with this, as an industry charged with building homes and communities that work for both these groups?
Within our buildings, maybe that big empty lounge with the billiards table and squishy sofas could be a co-working space with a coffee machine. Co-working is the newest and hottest thing to hit the world of work, and it is perfectly suited for those who work in spurts and want people around sometimes and others times would rather be alone. More like a coffee shop or hipster study hall than an office, these places virtually force you to talk to other people around you. Need proof? Google “WeWork” and see what pops up.
For Boomers with thick fingers when it comes to minor tech glitches, Millennials sharing the co-working tables are a built in IT department. The Millennials struggling with a budgeting forecast or tax issue? I bet there’s a retired chartered accountant or VP of finance in the room, who’d be glad to pass along some things she or he picked up over the years. Perhaps some simple skill-swapping board could be organized, so everyone knows what resources they have available to them, right there, at home.
Planning Neighbourhoods for Boomerennials
Urban planners have been talking for some time now about how to make our streets more Boomer-friendly. As we age, mobility issues become an annoying yet serious part of our life. We progress from walking slowly, to using a cane, and for some of us, eventually a walker and even a wheelchair. Our energy levels decline, so that quick sprint down the street to the grocery store for guacamole and breadsticks becomes a half-day outing.
Urban planners suggest some simple solutions for an aging population that should become commonplace as we work to build inclusive communities. Steep curbs are impossible for wheelchairs and walkers, and are inconvenient for those using a cane, or even just a bit unsteady on their feet. A sloped “ramp style” curve to the curb is much less likely to cause trip-ups or create barriers to moving around the neighbourhood.
Frequent placement of benches and plenty of other kinds of public seating are good ideas too. Older Boomers can stop and rest, and maybe even have a chat with a friend. Bright lighting on streets and in public spaces makes it feel safer and easier to move around at night. Parks and greenspaces should be liberally scattered everywhere, instead of centralizing the greenery in one giant park in the middle of the community that only hard-core Frisbee players and dog-walkers will use.
These are all simple changes that make sense for an aging Boomer population. But you know who else they make sense for? Moms with kids in strollers. They need a place to sit, curbs that are friendly for prams, and good safe lighting for getting around. Millennials will appreciate pocket-parks as much as Boomers do, too.
I’ve commissioned a new research project to dive deeper into the cross-pollinating impacts these similarities may have as we work to build better homes and cities. Even before that research is done, however, it seems that the real story here is that it’s time we had a big think about the way we build homes and cities entirely.
For a very long time now, we’ve done things more-or-less the same way because we’ve always built for vertical clumps of consumers that we define as demographic groups. But maybe the real revolution is to think about building for cross-generational groups that enjoy the same kinds of things in a home, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or income? It could mean buildings that feel more like a village, and a community of these villages-in-a-building. As more and more families choose urban over suburban, these could be pretty great places to live. For everyone.