Bridging Seattle's Generational Divide for the City's Sake, and Ours

From Boomers to Millennials, Seattle's generations need each other, especially as we all face the challenges ahead
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It is somewhat fashionable for American generations to dislike one another, Boomers vs. Millennials vs. Gen Xers. All have come in for criticism, despite the fact that defining people by age and marketing categories doesn’t fully reflect human experience which, at its best, is multi-generational.

The other day I was walking in Columbia City and was struck that five generations of my family have lived, at one time or another, in Rainier Valley. My grandfather built a house there in the 1920s and my father grew up there. I was raised down the block from that home and lived there until adulthood. Now my son and twin grandkids live in the Valley. That continuity is special to me, and more so because Columbia City has undergone a real renaissance as one of the best neighborhoods in Seattle. When I was a kid, it had the feel of a small, dying Midwestern town. Now it is diverse and thrives.

But affordability is a challenge, especially for Millennials with families. If you have kids and grandkids, it easy to stay somewhat in touch with younger generations. You follow their struggles, celebrate their victories, offer help. My kids are Millennials, and I admire them and their generation as they face tough challenges.

Forterra recently released two parts of a survey of Puget Sound Millennials and we learned some things that shouldn’t be big surprises, but are interesting nonetheless. First, they are worried about the stuff we’re all worried about: affordability, housing costs, transportation, homelessness. The housing affordability issue is especially key. As the Seattle Times reported, “45% of Millennials in the Puget Sound region think they will have to move somewhere cheaper to afford the life they want, even though nearly all would prefer to stay in the area.”

Our regional prosperity rewards and punishes. The more our inequitable economy flourishes, the harder is it for many others to stay, creating the prospect of a Millennial diaspora. The downside is that our virtues come at too high a cost. The upside is that other communities will gain from our loss. Unfortunately, we cannot plan well regionally, in part due to constitutional protects of property rights. So people have to shift for themselves, bounced by “the market.” The trend is especially difficult for young families to find the space they like (Millennials want good schools close to parks and nature, and especially good transit). And it’s not cheap for any generation to take on more debt to sustain a semblance of a middle class existence. According to Forterra, Millennials in the region hate sprawl, but the current dynamic seems like a recipe for it.

On the upside, the survey shows that local Millennials are generally optimistic about the direction of things (67% say we’re generally on the right track in the region). That is countered, though, by frustrations over affordability and a skeptical, some would say cynical, view of our economy: 75% say it unfairly favors powerful interests. Eighty-four percent believe they can influence the direction of local government (though they would do better if more voted), but only 41% think they can do so at the national level. You can see that reality playing out as the region is, for example, backing expanded light rail, but with little help from the federal government.

Since our economic issues are both national and global, the feeling of powerlessness is understandable and, I think, multi-generational. Many of the trends that have rendered Seattle unaffordable are due to global economic trends, not just your NIMBY neighbors. The difficulties our neighbor, Vancouver, BC, has had with affordability despite high density, better planning and mass transit, is an example.

Millennials in the region, according to Forterra, say that growth is happening too rapidly. Their older counterparts would agree. The generational divide is often framed as young Millennials fighting the prejudices of aging Boomer (and older) homeowners who won’t budge to protect what they have. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is more complicated. My Boomer generation is trying to help its parents who are living much longer—my own mother is 100—and trying to create opportunity for at least two younger generations, to give them a boost or assistance or protect in the years ahead. Not all of us have benefitted from Microsoft stock options or real estate wealth. We’re struggling with economic challenges too, even more so as Congress contemplates “reforming” Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare.

Millennials need our support. The generations need each other, especially if we want to stay together.

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