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Oakland has five years to get it together

Often long-term demographic and economic trends are an appropriate way to evaluate municipal needs and direction. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Oakland’s population and job base grew very quickly, at least partly because Generation X workers were attracted to the opportunities Oakland presented as a somewhat blank slate, during a period of widespread economic growth and falling crime rates. But there are new generations on the way, including the far larger Gen Y and the children of Gen X. Decisions made in Oakland today will shape the future of the city, because in five years a critical mass of the next generations will make residency decisions that will determine Oakland’s success for decades to come.

Gen Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980, peaking in 1971) are reaching forty and their biological clocks are ticking! Nobody can fail to notice that there are legions of pregnant women and infants in Oakland’s neighborhoods. In Rockridge, a children’s clothing store is closing, but a maternity / infant clothing store is opening (and Pretty Penny now stocks vintage maternity threads). Enrollment at many elementary schools is rising, leading to fights over placement at high-performing schools. In approximately five years, a critical mass of children will be entering schools. A safe environment and good schools, Oakland’s perennial problems, will once again become a critical priority for local households.

The children of the Baby Boom are known as Gen Y (aka The Millennials). Sources say they outnumber or are approximately the same size as the Baby Boom generation. Half of Gen Yers turned 18 in or before 2008, leading some pundits to credit them with Barack Obama’s victory. Much has been made of a “knowledge economy” in which highly mobile, well-educated workers choose where to live based on municipal amenities, and desirable locales succeed economically because of available talent. In approximately five years, a critical mass of educated workers will be choosing where to base their careers, and Oakland (if only because it’s in the center of the Bay Area) will be in the mix. The decisions Oakland makes in next several years will determine if the city can attract Generation Y as well as it attracted Generation X.

There are so many reasons to live in Oakland. The city is beautiful, the weather is perfect, the economy is usually stronger and more dynamic than the rest of the country’s, and Oaklanders’ diversity and creativity anchor a vibrant and exciting culture. But as Susan Gluss famously wrote, “if you can’t protect residents from random violence and crime, then it doesn’t matter how walkable a city is.” That might not be true for me or other people who are revitalizing downtown and neglected neighborhoods with new homes and new businesses, but families place more priority on safety. A young mother in the Dimond may be perfectly happy to raise an infant in an affordable apartment near the bus line, but she will look at her surrounding blocks much more warily when she sends her child off to school.

In five years, college-educated Generation Y members will be considering moving to Oakland, and will do so based on job opportunities, cultural benefits, and the availability of rental and entry-level housing. At the same time, legions of parents will be looking to enroll their children in Oakland’s public schools. If they cannot be assured of their child’s safety and scholarly success, proximity to Lake Merritt and fabulous restaurants will pale in comparison to the needs of their offspring, and they will leave.

Oakland is not going to see a new generation of leaders take power for at least four years, and of course municipal projects move in geologic time. On Monday, as Oakland’s first Gen X Councilmember takes the oath of office, the City Council will choose its leaders (and, more importantly, its Committee assignments the next day). It will be the Baby Boom leaders who have already been at the wheel for a decade who will make decisions in the next several years that will determine if a generation moves here, and if a generation grows up here.

Posted in california, citycouncil, kaplan, oakland, ousd.

8 Responses

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  1. Max Allstadt says

    Actually, DTO, depending on how you look at it, Desley Brooks is not a baby boomer. I had an interesting chat with a 47 year old woman in Mama Buzz the other day which has me convinced that ’64 is way too late a cut off date for baby boomers. There is a generation in between X and the baby boom that is small, but indeed different. Obama is one of them. So is Brooks. So is half of the planning commission, actually.

    I still concur about the five year deadline. In five years, there’s a good shot the economy will be back. Likewise, the late Gen X and early Gen Y folks will be in their peak homebuying years. (1975 is the lowest birthrate year in gen X, and the birthrate doesn’t spike back significantly until 81).

  2. Max Allstadt says

    Hmmm…. Maybe one of us it looking at rate and the other at total live births?

  3. Navigator says

    I’m not sure if families with young children will be well represented in Oakland in the future. I’m afraid, that like San Francisco, Oakland is becoming a city of haves and have nots, with not much in the middle, including young families. I think Oakland needs to do all it can to become a family friendly city. Oakland does provide many benefits to young families that San Francisco cant provide. A less dense greener environment, along with a better climate, more bicycle friendly neighborhoods, a superior zoo, less congested streets, an extensive regional park system, are all positive attributes in retaining and recruiting young families.

    Now, let’s work on the safety issue, and on improving all of our schools.

  4. Chuck says

    dto, I’m a college educated Gen-Y’er, and I could not be more happy to have made the decision to end up in Oakland. There are lots of people like me who feel the same way, and frankly, we’re recruitin’ like hell to get people to join us — except for the folks in SF who think they’re on the right side of the bay ;)

    Navigator, I could not agree more. There are, to use a colloquialism, hella reasons to live here, and I rejoice in every one. You’re exactly right though… schools and safety… Schools and safety… We’ve gotta get the reality and the perception to move toward the potential. Brighter days are on the way!

  5. Michael Gabriel says

    Thanks for the interesting posts…

    I am hopeful that generations of Xer’s and Y’s and their offspring will locate in Oakland for all of the good reasons that we did and that they will make a commitment to make Oakland better than it was when they got there.

    Born in the Bay Area I had concerns about moving to Oakland in 1976. Elders told me to get a gun. While safety was important, I came to realize that I brought most of my fears with me. Then as now, there was no shortage of political critics and newspaper columnists making a living off of bashing Oakland. Let the blogs begin!

    My family is WELL past the five years mark. When our kids were born, we resisted Level II fears and made the decision to educate them in Oakland schools. We volunteered in schools and in the community and supplemented their education with travel and extra-curricular activities like any good suburban family would. One kid added Vassar to our family alma mater list. Go Oakland.

    Many years and much travel later, I learned that Oakland’s crime and other social issues mirrored trends and realities of many major cities worldwide. I watch my back and don’t leave valuables in car when in New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, SF and Oakland. Please note, 2008 homicides in SF reached 93 only to be bested by Oakland at 123 (down from 127 last year). Not good for either city, but Oakland gets the bad press – locally and nationally!

    The idea of Gen X, Y and their future offspring opting out of Oakland might be reminiscent of the notion of “white flight” to suburbia that occurred in the 40′s – 60′s. Those that left were seeking a step up from blue collar work, better schools for their kids and to get away from those left out of the “knowledge based economy” of the day. Some of their kids came back…

    Perhaps the real question for anyone is “where is the best place for YOU to live YOUR life”. For that answer there is no five year time table. But hopefully while seeking the answer some time can be spent – in the moment – making where you are a better place. That’s how to improve Oakland.


  6. dto510 says

    My data show the nadir of the birthrate in 1979, and the “Echo Boom” of high birthrates is from 1985 – 1993. Either way, there’s a critical mass of Gen Yers looking to start careers in around five years, and a Gen X baby boom underway that will lead many residents to rethink their commitment to the city in a few years.

  7. dto510 says

    Chuck – welcome to Oakland!

    I think Generation Y will be easier to attract (and as explained above, most Gen Yers will be leaving college in about five years, so there’s time before a critical mass are making choices). Schools and safety are the priorities of families with children, and are difficult issues. But as long as the Council keeps focused on job creation and doesn’t become too anti-business, new residents will be able to live and work in Oakland, which is environmentally-friendly and also contributes to a more urban and well-rounded city. In terms of municipal amenities, while a new Main Library would be great, Measure DD and the Uptown area will be exciting new destinations for years, and both are well on their way to completion. Educated, mobile workers should continue to be drawn to Oakland.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The changing city council & why I’m hopeful about Oakland’s future « Living in the O linked to this post on January 6, 2009

    [...] Becks Yesterday was a momentous day for the Oakland City Council. Not only did they swear in the first Gen X City Council Member, Rebecca Kaplan, but the council also voted in a new president. After 10 years of Ignacio De La [...]