Planning for all generations

Generational trends are leading to changing demographics in many communities and presenting new challenges. Having strategies to bring all generations into a planning process can help communities meet these challenges.

Children learning from pictures hung up on the walls.
Youth engaged in a community visioning activity with the National Charrette Institute.

It is projected by the U.S. Census that by 2034 in the U.S. there will be more older adults (65+) than those under 18 years of age for the first time in our history. At the same time, our country is set to see its most diverse cohort of young people grow into the cohort with the most educational attainment. To help understand these large societal level shifts, social scientists often divide the population into generations.

According to the Pew Research Center, “[g]enerations are one way to group age cohorts. A generation typically refers to groups of people born over a 15-20 year span, such as the Millennial generation, currently the youngest adult generation.” Generations can also be a helpful tool for planners and land use decision makers to use with their communities as they work together to create quality places for people to enjoy for across their whole life. The generations commonly referred today, as defined by Pew Research Center are:

Generations Born Between Age in 2020
The Greatest Generation Pre - 1928 92+
The Silent Generation 1928 - 1945 75 - 92
Baby Boomers 1946 - 1964 56 - 74
Generation X 1965 - 1980 40 - 55
Millenials 1980 - 1996 24 - 39
Generation Z* 1997 - Now < 24
*There is still some debate on cutoffs for Generation Z

As all of these generations have grown up (and grown older) researchers have observed some general national level differences between them and some of these trends as identified by Pew Research are:

  • Rates of educational attainment in each new generation have been increasing, setting Generation Z up to be the generation with the highest rates of educational attainment ever. This general trend is illustrated by the fact that 43% of Generation Z live with a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree compared to on 16% of Baby Boomers at a similar point in their lives.
  • Generational differences have also been observed in how people form families. An analysis of census estimates and found that in 2019, only three in ten Millennials lived with a spouse and their own children (or what would be traditionally be called the nuclear family). For reference, when the Silent Generation was the same age, seven in ten of its members lived with a spouse and their own children. Millennials are more likely to live with their parents or other family members than previous generations at a comparable age. If they do form new families of their own, they are doing so later than previous generations for a variety of reasons.
  • Another generational trend is towards increased racial and ethnic diversity, leading to Generation Z being the most diverse in U.S. history. In 2018, 52% of Generation Z was non-Hispanic with census predictions placing them on track to be a majority non-white generation by 2026. For comparison, when the Baby Boomers were a similar age in 1968, 82% were non-Hispanic white.

 An awareness of these trends can help planners and land use decision makers recognize them in their own communities and engage the public in how to respond to these changes. Engaging with the perspectives of all the generations in your community is key to creating more inclusive master plans.

Now let’s look at two of the largest generations and how the impact they have on community planning.

Engaging Baby Boomers in community planning

The increasing number of residents 65+ years who want to be rooted in a place can result in new and unexpected challenges for communities as they continue to serve their residents. The rising rates of those 65+ years old is a result of the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), the second largest generation, aging into their traditional retirement years. According to the American Association of Retired People (AARP) the vast majority of those currently 65+ want to age in place in their current communities. Research has found that communities that explicitly include planning for aging and elder engagement in their master planning process were more likely to have higher levels of community services for the elderly.

To assist communities in planning for and meeting the needs of their aging residents AARP created several tools and resources.  AARP uses what they call a Livable Communities approach to create places where all people can be independent and actively engaged regardless of age. AARP also provides a measure of livability with the AARP Livability Index. This measure provides both an overall livability index as well as issue specific scores.  To reach that goal communities can use AARP’s Roadmap to Livability collection. This series of six books each focus on a different aspect of planning (such as housing, transportation, or health services/community supports) and can be used as a step-by-step guide or as a reference book. In addition to these book type resources, AARP has established a Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Your community can enroll in the network as they work through a planning and implementation process and  connect with other communities in the network (including some right here in Michigan).

Engaging Generation Z in community planning

The second largest adult generational group in the U.S. is the Millennials, but the U.S. Census  Generation Z makes up 25% of the U.S. population and they will be coming of age soon. Including younger people in the planning process is just as important as including elders for reaching the goal of livable communities for all ages. Efforts to include youth in planning saw an increase in the 1980s through youth master plans to improve the delivery of youth services in some cities. A 2014 review of these youth master plans found that successful youth plans were those that valued youth voice as an asset, included specific and meaningful participation opportunities, included a community champion and collaborative community organizations, and clearly defined implementation strategies.

While formal youth master plans remain rare, more and more communities are bringing Gen Z into the planning process and other policy decision-making. Some local units of government have set up specific youth councils to help advise on youth related issues. According to the Michigan Municipal League these youth driven boards can be found in Saline, Holland, Novi, and Grand Rapids (and many more) where they bring the youth voice into local government. Many communities have also found success with including youth representative positions on their already existng boards. In Rochester Hills, the city council created a position for youth on their Green Space Advisory Board, Water & Sewer Committee, MR-42E Noise Barrier/Sound Wall Committee, and many more. Tribal nations in Michigan like the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe have also established youth councils of their own. Many community organizations also have youth advisory councils established that can be engaged as partners in the decision-making process like your local community foundation or MSU Extension 4-H programs.

There are many resources available for communities looking to increase participation by youth in their planning process. The National League of Cities (NLC) provides a great starting point for communities to assess their youth engagement with their Authentic Youth Civic Engagement: A Perception Inventory. More data can be found using the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement’s Youth Voting and Civic Engagement data tool to explore voting and public participation data. After exploring the data, local leaders can focus their work on meaningful youth engagement. The NLC’s Authentic Youth Engagement: A Guide for Municipal Leaders is one of the many practice oriented resources for increasing youth engagement. Michigan State University Extension also has many articles and resources on successful youth-adult partnerships. For tribal youth engagement, United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) has resources for tribal youth councils and building youth tribal leadership.  The federal government has also compiled more resources, data, and funding opportunities for communities at Youth.gov.

No matter what your community’s current level of engagement with elders or youth, you can take steps today to begin planning for all generations. In addition to exploring the resources described above, here are some action steps your community can take:

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