Geography of the Generational Divide
I believe it has been pretty well documented, up to this point, the negative effects of both racial and income segregation in our cities. And, of course, those negative effects tend to be magnified when majority middle- and upper-income white neighborhoods are starkly divided from lower-income minority neighborhoods. But what about neighborhoods that are divided on the basis of age?
As I was looking through some data here in San Antonio, I realized that not only are we segregated on the basis of race and income—in fact, we hold the distinction of being the most income segregated large city in the nation—we’re also pretty segregated by generation.
Take a look at this first map above. Areas in the light green are those whose majority population are Baby Boomers or older (ages 50 and above, as of 2013). Areas in the darker green are those whose 50-plus population outnumbers Millennials (ages 18 to 34) by a ratio of 2 to 1. This greater share of Boomers and older adults is concentrated in wealthier suburban enclaves, such as Shavano Park, Castle Hills, Olmos Park, Terrell Hills, Alamo Heights, and Cross Mountain/Dominion. They also hold a majority in urban neighborhoods including downtown, Tobin Hill, and Southtown/King William. Interestingly, most of the region’s highest-ranked corridors in the state for traffic congestion are in majority Boomer areas—I-35 between Fort Sam Houston and Loop 1604, Loop 410 between I-10 and US-281, US-281 in the Stone Oak area, and Bandera Road on the Far West side.
This next map shows San Antonio’s younger adult population, with areas in the lighter blue indicating a majority Millennial population. Areas in the darker blue show where Millennials outnumber the 50-plus group by 2-to-1. Not surprisingly, some of the largest gatherings of Millennials can be found on our military bases and around college campuses. Other Millennial locales include the Pearl Brewery/Museum Reach area, Mahncke Park, Medical Center, Brooks City-Base, and the Westover Hills area. Another important note is that most majority Millennial areas are found inside Loop 1604, whereas Baby Boomers and older adults are found in greater shares in the periphery. This tends to jive with data that indicates a preference for younger adults to live closer to the city center.
Generation X, consisting of adults between the ages of 35 and 49, don’t make up a huge chunk of San Antonio’s population overall. But, it is interesting to see in the map above where Gen X-ers predominate. The late-30s and 40-somethings are most concentrated on the Far West side and in the Far North Central area most referred to as Stone Oak. A good portion of these majority-X areas fall outside the city limits for San Antonio.
What do we make of all of this?
It seems that we’re at a bit of a crossroads in terms of neighborhood preferences and realities. Those in the 35-to-65 age bracket have been moving increasingly outward into the periphery, bringing with them a blend of circumstances that are only growing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Younger adults are arriving into previously disinvested neighborhoods, saddled with debt and fueling its own brand of resentment among long-time residents. In between them are the oldest adults, stuck with the original suburbia: homes that, 60 years later, lack the high-end finishes and square footage expected by the Gen X-ers or the conveniences and quality schools expected by Millennials.
There are social consequences to age segregation as well. Lack of interaction between older and younger adults tends to breed distrust toward the other, allowing media outlets to reinforce negative stereotypes about each other’s generations. Children also lose out when they only socialize with other kids, as they fail to develop the skills necessary to navigate a world run by adults, or gain hands-on skills that are quickly disappearing from our workforce. In turn, adults treat children as fully-dependent, untrustworthy beings, incapable of playing outside or using public transit without constant supervision.
While not a silver bullet, adapting our built environment is a key piece to our ending segregation (in all its forms). In some cases, it will require developers to make wholesale purchases of deteriorating homes and modernizing them to meet the needs of today’s households. It requires easing zoning and lending restrictions on densifying our existing neighborhoods—allowing residents to build a small, second home on their property or converting existing houses to better accommodate nontraditional households (e.g. roommates). It requires thoughtful innovation about how transit can be more effective at getting residents around our city. It requires standing up to the ‘I-was-here-first’ cries of homeowners in central neighborhoods who believe their property rights extend beyond their fence. It requires honest evaluation of how we meet the housing needs of a changing American demographic—one that is fast rendering the typical suburban subdivision obsolete. It especially requires that we look at how we have gerrymandered school boundaries to keep poor kids out of wealthier schools.