Today’s entry is the start of a series related to changing social and economic conditions that impact cultural development and cultural planning. The past few years have brought about such dramatic changes to cultural interests, participation, and economics that we’re headed into a whole new era of cultural planning. Unless your cultural plan is REALLY up to date, it is time to face the future and consider new goals and strategies.
Boomers are one of the biggest factors in the future of cultural development, so I wanted to write this in advance of Tom Brokaw’s special on boomers (March 4, replays March 6) to point readers toward the show and to stir up thinking about the boomer/young seniors impact on cultural development and audiences.
As Brokaw will point out, younger boomers can and will (pending the economy) move to desirable places for their early retirement, as opposed to older retirees, who are more likely to stay put. So, what do young boomers consider to be desirable places? Here’s AARP’s top 15 list:
Las Cruces NM
Rehoboth Beach, DE
Ann Arbor, MI
Santa Fe, NM
San Diego, CA
Interesting list, isn’t it. Natural Beauty trumps in most cases, followed by aesthetic beauty, and then by a good healthy dose of culture. It is also very interesting to see how many smaller communities in all climates, are included. (But then, Brokaw himself has a place “just down the road” – as we say out here in Montana – near another high beauty-strong cultural life community favored by boomer-new “seniors,” Bozeman.)
What does this list of aesthetically rich top new-seniors places mean for cultural development?
1. Count on what has been a promised out-migration of young seniors from big metropolitan areas. (A 30%-40% out-migration among affluent young seniors is projected from New Jersey, alone, in the next few years.) If yours is a community that is banking on the new young seniors to foot the bill for annual contributions to major arts organizations or other nonprofits, and to buy the tickets for those events…caution, the road is about to become pretty rocky. On the other hand, if yours is a smaller cultural center in a young-seniors-desirable place – let’s say a place like Concord, NH’s Capitol Center for the Arts – you are probably entering into a really good ten years. And, if you are building a culturally focused walking oriented creek-side (complete with trout) community like Easton’s planned SILK Creative Community, the odds are better and better that those big city losses will be your gain. Point: small communities that invest in cultural vibrancy and aesthetic excellence will benefit by gaining high yield new seniors who have the time, money, and interest to be local investors and leaders. Think about positioning your community to be competitive through cultural development, and reap the rewards.
2. The new seniors grew up on Woodstock, not Wagner, as their cultural foundation, and have much less relationship to traditional performing arts than their elders. That means that though they have the money and cultural interest to “age into” traditional arts consumers, there will be a smaller subset of this generation interested in classical music or ballet than their elders, without question. And, it means they are much more oriented to “festival” extravaganzas and traveling for their major cultural fix than their elders. Local doesn’t necessarily have to be the end all for them, so they will be content to live what AARP calls the “simple” life in their smaller towns and hop on a plane (economy willing) to take in a great performance at an iconic destination.
3. The new seniors are experience junkies – always have been – while the older seniors have always been more passive in their arts consumption. Older seniors volunteer as docents: younger seniors study painting with diligence. We are entering a time of unprecedented opportunity for arts-lifelong-learning. For decades, we’ve tried to build arts participation by concentrating on the young. Now it is time to concentrate on the young seniors. But don’t stay shallow: offer depth. The younger seniors don’t want the simplistic one hour intros to pottery their mom’s liked when they were 80. This group is more likely to build a complete studio in their house, and construct a state of the art kiln in the back yard than to take an “enrichment” course. In other words, you may have fewer people buying tickets for Beethoven, but your town may be selling more pianos, and your best bet for a new cultural arts center may be to include learning space where top pros provide instruction.
4. Finally, let’s return to that list of the top 15 desired locations. Young boomers will want to move to places where there is design excellence, historic preservation ordinances, public art, park systems with aesthetically pleasing areas for individual recreation (trails, bike trails), and cultural opportunities ranging from great libraries to unique music venues. They also want a community that celebrates its cultural image and identity rather than brushes it aside in favor of other brands.
All this is good and challenging news for cultural development. Remember, these are people who will increasingly choose to move to a specific community based on doing careful research and comparison. Has your cultural plan positioned your community to win at this?