AS I WAS RINGING IN 2011 on the roof deck of a friend’s freshly rehabbed Grad Hospital rowhome, watching the Penn’s Landing fireworks light the sky to the east, and admiring our city’s sparkling skyline to the north, something big was looming. Finally. Doomsday. On January 1st of this year, 10,000 baby boomers a day started turning 65. The trend, according to the Pew Research Center, will continue for the next 19 years.
I don’t know when exactly this never-ending story — essentially, the story of boomers getting old — started dominating our news, politics and culture. For me, a smack-in-the-middle of-Generation-X adult of 38 years, the interminable aging process of this massive generation has always been there, casting a shadow over my future like, well, a parasite ready to suck the life out of my highest-earning-potential years. That it has arrived in the midst of a bad recession just seems to be the icing on the tapeworm.
So the end has begun. Maybe we can move on now? But no, befitting the latter-days boomer rep for self-centeredness and greed, the focus of this ad nauseam tale of aging now shifts to how they’re retiring at a bad time, in a bad economy, how they — the generation that once talked about living in communes and rolled in the mud at Woodstock and protested bad government, yet sold out on all that for Volvos in the ’burbs — how they who once had it so much better than their parents were now, indeed, worse off. Where are the stories about how college-grad Millennials currently can’t even get their foot in the door of a decent paying job? The articles about how Generation X is sandwiched between the older boomers, whose retirement will start to strain Social Security to the breaking point, and the children of younger boomers, who were raised helicopter-style and need to be spoon-fed praise to get anything done at the office? Few and far between. Boomers may finally be queuing for their long-stretching shuffle off into the sunset, but they’re still a large majority in power and still controlling the national conversation.
So perhaps you’ll excuse me if, as I took in that city skyline from the roof deck on New Year’s Eve — a night that admittedly can play on a soul’s cynicism and hopefulness all at once like no other holiday can — I couldn’t help but think: You mean these people aren’t dying already?
GOOGLE "BABY BOOMER," and you find a solid frame with a well-defined picture inside. Boomers are post-World War II babies born between 1946 and 1964. (It’s those 1946 babies making news for turning 65 this year.) But things get fuzzy with Generation X, which is accorded a post-boomer beginning but a vague ending, and even fuzzier with the Millennials, or Generation Y, which only gets a start guess of anywhere from the mid-’70s to 1980 and a nebulous ending of the early aughts.
That I’m not on the end of any of these ranges, but in the middle, I think creates my strong Gen X self-identification. But my generation is not so keen (as the boomers, anyway) to embrace a brand name for ourselves. The poor Millennials can’t even get agreement on what they’re called. I suspect boomer sociologists and pop-culturists can’t bring themselves to give those coming up behind them a proper generation ID with time frame and label. No, they will be the last ones to carry a clear distinction; they will continue to be special.
Each generation thinks the one preceding it is out of touch and the subsequent one self-entitled and lazy, and each generation thinks it’s leading the biggest rebellion. Gen X is no different there. But, I wonder, are those of my generation, born to early boomers in the ’70s, an uncomfortable reminder to our parents of how they sold out and what they sold out for? We didn’t grow up on communes; we grew up in split-levels situated on orderly cul-de-sacs. Despite our parents’ protests, we’re inheriting an America that has not stopped getting involved in questionable foreign wars. We definitely didn’t grow up without political corruption. We were latchkey kids. Both our parents worked. A great number of our parents divorced. We were slackers. We wore baggy jeans in college. We listened to grunge. In Philadelphia, we watched boomers maintain the status quo of corruption and business as usual. There remained a pervasive can’t-do attitude among the city’s residents that’s been a broken record for decades.
But if you listen closely enough, you’ll hear the stuttering skip has been stopped, or at least muffled. Post-boomer generations are finally lifting the needle.
[sidebar]THAT I CELEBRATED NEW YEAR’S EVE on a South Philly roof deck is no coincidence. While boomer life has been largely suburban, Gen Xers and Millennials prefer the city. And Philadelphia is starting to look noticeably different because of our choices.
“I’m 62, and I’ve been involved in Philly real estate my whole life,” notes Anthony Rimikis, senior vice president for urban development at Brandywine Realty Trust. “My generation, you got married and you bought a house in the suburbs. But in the elevator of my building last week, I heard two young people talking. By young, I mean late 20s, early 30s. And the guy said, ‘We put a bid on a house at 7th and Catharine.’ Thirty years ago, that never would have happened.”
Generation X, with its oldest members turning 46 this year, may just now be starting to fill leadership roles in the city, but our rising consumer power is already changing the Philadelphia streetscape. Bart Blatstein might be a boomer, but he sure as hell didn’t build the Piazza in Northern Liberties for boomers.
I’ll give credit to our elders (boomers like the Center City District’s Paul Levy, restaurateur Stephen Starr, and David L. Cohen, chief of staff to then-mayor Ed Rendell) for revitalizing Center City. Their work yielded a spiffed-up Philadelphia that entices ’burbs-dwellers to clog the eastbound Schuylkill on Friday nights. But at the end of the night, those folks drive home. A healthy city needs a healthy residential tax base, and the post-boomers fit the bill (or, technically, fit the revenue).
According to January reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city’s at the epicenter of our recession bounce-back; the majority of jobs gained in the region last year were in Philadelphia. And though Rimikis speculates that there won’t be a complete reversal of the boomer migration to the ’burbs, he believes companies are realizing the importance of being in Center City — even in this economic downturn. “The kids are going to drive these changes. They want to live in the city and work here,” he says. Our message to CEOs everywhere: Center City headquarters IN; corporate campus in Chesterbrook OUT.
But unlike the boomers, who felt so compelled to build big things, to make their mark indelible, post-boomer generations don’t necessarily want to make Philadelphia a better place to satisfy their egos or garner prestige. They simply want to improve — neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block if that’s what it takes — the place where they want to live. In that way, we’re no different from the boomers: We, too, just want to live someplace nice. We’re just not going to leave the city to find it.
“I’ve been here for 20 years. When I came here, Temple University Center City was on the 1600 block of Walnut. I’d go see movies there, and you’d get out at 10:15 and there was no one around,” recalls Jeff Friedman, chief of staff in the city’s Division of Technology. Friedman grew up in the suburban wilds of New Jersey, but at 41 and married with a child, he has no plans to return. “I wasn’t interested in the suburban lifestyle,” he says of choosing to live in the city. “I like the idea of being part of something bigger than myself.”
Gen X was the first generation to job-hop willingly, and we came of age in an ever- increasingly mobile world. I think that’s where we get our wanderlust, our quest for greener grass, our certain type of rootlessness. Of course, someone who might, say, move or switch companies on a whim might not be considered the most reliable source of revenue. But I think my generation’s mobility might just be what unsticks Philadelphia — a traditionally rooted place where people die a few miles, or often blocks, from where they were born. New people are moving here, whether to go to school or get a job or live cheaply or be part of the thriving local arts scene, people who don’t say That’s the way it’s always been done because they don’t know how it’s always been done. They’re staying because there’s a palpable possibility of change in the air.
Nonprofit organization Campus Philly released survey results in December showing that more non-native university students than ever — 48 percent — are staying in the area post-graduation. When Claire Robertson-Kraft, who moved here from Texas to go to Penn, graduated in 2004, that figure was 29 percent.
“I was at Penn as an undergrad only because it was a good school,” says Robertson- Kraft, who at 29 is board chair of Young Involved Philadelphia, a group of civically minded folks whose typical ages are somewhere between 20 and 35. “Philly was a detractor if anything, because it didn’t have a strong reputation. But that’s changed. There’s a strong youth culture now. There are a lot of young organizations. Involvement looks different and feels different. The way people get their news and information is different. There’s been an explosion of online conversations and blogs.”
Take that, I say to the boomer editor who questioned whether today’s young people are too cynical to get involved.
“You don’t have to go to a community meeting at a certain time at a certain place to talk about certain things anymore. Social networking enables you to engage in different things at different times on the issues you want,” Friedman says. “I can’t make any meetings, but if there’s a PayPal account, I can give $100 now. Or, I don’t have time during the day, but I can give time from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.”
Take that, too. Besides, I argue we’re not that cynical after all. Despite the fact that our early presidential memories include a switch from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. We’re just more practical. Friedman agrees: “The new culture, we tend to be more pragmatic about how we address problems, less idealistic, less political.”
Where boomers felt compelled to take over the system, we’re just as happy to work around the system. The popularity of charter schools is one good example of that Gen X practicality. The rise of neighborhood associations is another. After all, we’re post-Nixon, post-Vietnam. Boomers who grew up trusting in institutions, believing government acted in their best interest, felt betrayed when that trust was broken. But Gen X and Gen Y? We’re post-betrayal. We’ve never believed in good government. Up-and-coming civic-minded leaders won’t try to change the old Philly ways as much as we’ll just flat-out ignore them.
A lot has been made of Philly’s seeming power vacuum, but I think that’s because the city that owes its little slice of progressiveness to singular forces of nature like Sister Mary Scullion or Jane Golden or even Willard Rouse III is probably looking in the wrong place for leaders. Gen Y is decidedly group-fueled in contrast to the trademark boomer individualists. Instead of boldface names, we’ll have boldface organizations, like Young Involved Philadelphia. “There’s been an increase in civic engagement,” says Robertson-Kraft. “There are a lot of young organizations. Now our role is to connect those groups.”
OUR REVOLUTION — again, different from that of the boomers, who made their mark splashy and citywide — will be more block-by-block, not skyline-altering. Instead of Stephen Starr dominating the food landscape with big-production restaurants, 30-somethings Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida open neighborhood joints like Resurrection Ale House, Memphis Taproom and Local 44. (Of course, Stephen Starr’s savvy enough that he’s ventured into the neighborhood restaurant biz and has plans to expand beyond the traditional Center City borders. Though this again demonstrates the younger generations’ consumer power.) Brandywine Realty recently converted the old 30th Street post office building into IRS offices, but Anthony Rimikis points to younger real-estate hands shaping up-and-coming neighborhoods with smaller-scale work, noting developments in places like Port Richmond, Kensington and Mount Airy, all areas once deemed unlivable by his generation. In a January article called “Small stuff makes Philly better, a bit at a time,” Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron announced the “year of small,” touting projects like the Race Street pier park that she says “[make] urban life better.” Saffron cites the economy, but I think it’s just as much about a values shift.
“I read a study recently that said more people would rather engage socially than get a car,” Jeff Friedman says. Well, where better to engage socially without a car than a city? Incidentally, PhillyCarShare was cofounded by a Gen Xer, Tanya Seaman, in 2002.
Our wanderlust could someday finally spur the building of infrastructure that will allow us to hop quickly from NYC to D.C. to Philly by train. Our passion for city living will demand that we send our kids to public schools. Such a critical mass of new students with young, involved parents — parents with access to those in power — could fix the school district, once and for all.
We’re connected, and technology — not surprisingly — is certain to be a factor in Philadelphia’s change. While the “Digital Generation” kids today are growing up totally and relentlessly plugged in, even Gen Xers possess a tech edge the boomers didn’t. We had computers when we were kids. (Sure, they were Commodore 64s, which had less memory than a 50-cent jump drive these days, but we had computers.) That comfort level could allow us to bridge the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots in this society. Everyone must have accessibility. We’ll insist upon it, and we’ll make it happen.
“There are a lot of challenges,” Robertson-Kraft admits. “I’m Texan, so I’m optimistic by nature. But I do think the city is ready for new leadership. I think it’s an exciting time.”
True, with its poverty and illiteracy rates and looming bankruptcy and chaotic public-school system, Philadelphia’s a bit of a gamble, but we’ll take our chances. Like the city we want to live in, we relish a risky underdog — literally: We’re adopting beleaguered pit bulls instead of showy golden retrievers.
And we’re ready. The boomers should be cheering us on. They should be doing everything they can to grease the way, because at the end of the day, our success is their success (if only to support them in retirement). Maybe they won’t want us to succeed where they couldn’t. Well, boomers, you can paint us as slackers. You can call us complainers. You can call us entitled brats. We’ve stopped listening to that record. Because, you know, we don’t listen to records at all anymore.