This article is part of the occasional Who Are We? series in which writer Judy Woodward examines changes that have taken place in the Bugle’s communities from the 1980 U.S. Census to the present.
What’s going to happen to the baby boom generation now that they are beginning to reach their senior years?
Thanks to their numbers, they’ve exerted an outsize influence on society ever since they were bursting the seams of their grade schools back in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. Are they still going to be reshaping the demographic landscape in their seventh and eighth decades?
One place to look for some answers is the northeast section of Falcon Heights, known officially as Ramsey County Census Tract 419. Census figures tell us that in 1970, the median age in Falcon Heights was just 26, reflecting the many families with children living in the city. By the time of the Census’s 2012 American Community Survey estimates, the median age for Tract 419 had risen to 43.3, with women reflecting an even higher median age at 47.4.
In 1980, baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964— made up about 45 percent of the population in Falcon Heights. By 2012, baby boomers still made up nearly 40 percent of the residents of Tract 419. The difference is that the boomers are several decades older, changing the area from a neighborhood overflowing with youth to its opposite.
‘Fifty years ago the area was teaming with children’
When it comes to personalizing the baby boom, it would be hard to find a more representative couple than Paul and Kathy Ciernia. In their middle-60s now, the couple have lived in the same Falcon Heights house for 40 years.
In that respect, they’re like a lot of their neighbors.
The Ciernias arrived in Falcon Heights just at the beginning of Paul’s 26-year career with a local computer manufacturer. They were among the many young couples who moved to the comfortable inner-ring suburban neighborhood of postwar ramblers. They raised a family, made some improvements to their house and are facing their senior years with equanimity. They remain active, energetic and involved in their community and devoted to their adult children and their grandchild, who live nearby.
When Deb Jones, zoning and planning director for Falcon Heights, talks about changes created by the aging of the boomers, she isn’t talking about the Ciernias individually, but she might as well be.
“In Falcon Heights, we’re not seeing housing stock turn over when children grow up,” she says. “People stay in their homes. Fifty years ago the area was teaming with children,” but in more recent years, “We’ve seen changes in age composition, and household size has decreased.”
Jones says that, thanks in part to boomers with paid-off mortgages and stable lives, Falcon Heights survived the Great Recession in good shape. “We haven’t seen housing values decline. Our housing stock is good quality, but small,” she says. “We’re close enough in [to the metro center] to be a desirable place to live, but there’s no pressure to add housing density.”
Without many cafes and boutiques—what Jones calls the “walkable amenities”—Falcon Heights is likely to escape gentrification pressures. “We aren’t prestigious enough to attract tear downs,” she notes wryly.
Calling Falcon Heights “an island of placidity” and “a comfortable place without a lot of change,” Jones notes that most changes produced by the aging of the baby boom have been small and incremental. There’s less demand for a recreational ice-skating rink at the city park and more interest in community garden plots. The Recreation Department still maintains “outreach to youth and families” but it’s added yoga for older adults. Extension classes for older adults offered by the University of Minnesota through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute have found a home at City Hall.
“The classes are very well attended,” says Jones, as is the free income tax help offered to senior citizens by AARP.
In fact, one of the biggest changes that Jones has noticed is how people communicate with City Hall. When Jones started working there, “The phones rang all day. Now people email us. The boomers are on the electronic side of the divide. Phone calls get fewer and fewer … residents are passionately engaged but in electronic space.”
Often people want to communicate with City Hall about a building permit. Although Falcon Heights is a “fully developed community,” according to Jones, she handles the permitting process for improvements.
“People are not expanding their houses, but they are remodeling the interior. Maybe they reduce four little bedrooms to two luxury ones. Or they get a new kitchen or add a bath. But they’re not expanding the footprint of the house.”
The Ciernias, for example, enlarged a closet and remodeled a bathroom to create a walk-in shower with grab bars. “When we did the remodeling,” says Kathy, “I always thought down the line. We have a really livable place.”
Although the Ciernias are just as apt to hop on their bicycles for recreation, they do cite access to public transportation as a neighborhood plus. “Our house is close to bus service on Snelling Avenue. That’s a nice thing,” says Paul.
Jones agrees, noting that public transportation in their area has improved with the recent addition of express buses on Snelling Avenue that connect Falcon Heights to the new Green Line light rail on University Avenue in St. Paul.
The Ciernias’ children are now grown, and one big difference in their immediate neighborhood is the decline in the numbers of school-age children in the last 40 years. “Our first child was born in 1976,” Paul says. “There were lots more kids around then. Everyone on the block had kids.”
But that number was not to last.
Mobile society makes it hard to predict school district needs
According Jan Vanderwall, semi- retired technology coordinator of Roseville Area Schools and a boomer himself, the number of young children in the district dropped so precipitously in the 1980s that the Ciernias’ local school, Falcon Heights Elementary, was briefly closed.
Vanderwall explains that the further adventures of Falcon Heights Elementary School are a good illustration of the pitfalls of demographic prediction. Thirty years ago, he recalls, “We used to make enrollment projections based on the birth rates five years earlier. I was accurate to within around 10 kids [out of 500] in predicting the right number of kindergartners.”
Now we live in an increasingly mobile society, says Vanderwall, “and those birth rate numbers have become meaningless as predictors.”
Falcon Heights Elementary has long since reopened and enrollment has stabilized, he explains, but fewer students come from the Ciernias’ neighborhood. An influx of Somali immigrants plus other residents of the new apartment complex at Larpenteur and Snelling avenues, as well as cross-border enrollment from St. Paul, account for many of the new students.
What hasn’t altered over the years, says Vanderwall, is Falcon Height’s financial support for its school. “The district has never lost a bonding referendum,” he notes. The well-educated residents of Falcon Heights with their traditional ties to the University of Minnesota “don’t go to the schools as much as when they had kids there, but intellectually they still support them,” he said.
The leading-edge boomers like the Ciernias are now in their mid- 60s. Statistically, they can expect to live another 15 to 20 years, and thanks to the improvements of modern life and health care, few of them currently feel the need to make use of specific services for seniors.
Of course, that will change.
Janelle Wampler, program coordinator for the Roseville Area Senior Program, which serves Falcon Heights, says her organization is gearing up for the baby boomers. “Boomers are looking for volunteer opportunities, social and recreational outlets, and the chance to learn new skills.”
Jody McCardle is the executive director of the Como Park/Falcon Heights Living at Home/Block Nurse program. Her organization is dedicated to helping seniors stay in their homes as long as possible, and she says her group’s biggest challenge is to persuade potential clients to accept assistance.
“When people have troubles in daily life, it’s hard to take the first step,” she says.
She notes the presence of many boomers in the ranks of volunteers with her organization, and she says their experience may well prepare them for the next steps in their own aging process. She foresees continued interest in fitness, book clubs and “grow your own food” with wheelchair-accessible gardens on the horizon.
Noting that Falcon Heights has one of highest concentration of seniors per capita in the state, McCardle cites “lots of one-floor homes” among the factors that make the city “such a convenient place.”
On the big question of whether the boomers will, in fact, be able to stay in their homes, McCardle introduces a note of harsh financial reality. “So many boomers don’t have large savings. People may find themselves living together co- operatively or in multigenerational settings.” The inevitable frailties of mind and body that come with advancing age will introduce additional complications.
As for the Ciernias, they remain upbeat. “We like being in the area,” says Kathy.
“Even though this last winter made us think twice,” Paul jokes, “we’ll stay here for the foreseeable future.”
This research for this article was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.