The American West.
What do those words evoke? The last frontier? Wide open spaces (with “room to make big mistakes,” as the Dixie Chicks so memorably put it)? Outdoors in the mountains, skiing, fishing, hiking, climbing, trail running?
Or maybe opportunity? New subdivisions sprouting on barren tracts of prairie? Jobs, businesses, entrepreneurs? A great place to work, play, raise your kids, enjoy the good life?
Those images are all part of our collective view of the West, and of our own city, aren’t they? A few of us were born here — but most of us came from somewhere else, following our dreams, or a spouse or the promise of a job.
And yet the components of our collective/individual perceptions of our (mostly new) home share a single characteristic.
Youth. Migrants are young. Young adults raise children, ski, run trails, start businesses, buy houses in new subdivisions. They both create and fuel our dynamic local and regional economy.
The big-box stores that follow the rooftops don’t care about the geezers. They’re looking for the new consumers, the early adapters, the soon-to-be successful professionals. They want to capture customers whose sole home appliance a few years ago was a decrepit mini-fridge in a dorm room.
Why? Because they want to sell them sub-zero refrigerators, home theater systems and all the paraphernalia of the good life.
And as long as we can maintain our demographic profile — young, educated, abundantly skilled — we’ll be just fine. But once that changes, so will everything else.
But that’s not going to happen, is it? We’ve been a young, growing city for generations — why should that change?
It won’t change tomorrow. But change will come, surely and irrevocably, as today’s young parents, eager entrepreneurs and dedicated skiers enter their AARP years.
Let’s look at the U.S. Census Bureau’s demographic projections for the next 25 years.
At the time of the last census, Colorado was one of the youngest states. Only 9.7 percent of Coloradoans were over 65, compared with 17.6 percent of Floridians, and 12.4 percent of all Americans.
Only three states (Georgia, Utah, and Alaska) had smaller geezer percentages.
Fast-forward to 2030. The good news: we’re still one of the youngest states. The bad news: the “geezer percentage” (as a geezer myself, I feel that I can use that phrase without giving offense) will nearly double, to 16.5 percent.
That’s a full percent higher than that of No. 2 Pennsylvania in 2000. And remember, much of the decline of the northern industrial states has been blamed on demographics — as the young flee and the old stay.
But, ironically enough, Pennsylvania might be better placed to weather the coming demographic storm than Colorado.
Cities like Pittsburgh have already adjusted to a population that’s heavily skewed to the elderly. And although Pittsburgh will still be older than Colorado Springs, the relative difference will be much less.
That’s because, as the Economist put it recently, “… the Grim Reaper will even things out.” Today’s senior citizens will take Woody Allen’s advice, and embrace the only sure and permanent way to cut one’s expenses.
Hence, Pennsylvania’s percentage increase in the 65-plus category is projected to be the smallest in the nation.
Our present economy — vibrant, youthful, entrepreneurial — is almost certainly incapable of withstanding such a demographic shock. Unless present trends are reversed, things will change. And the changes, although slow and incremental, will be drastic.
We won’t be building new schools — we’ll be closing old ones. We won’t be building new houses — instead, as demand slumps, we’ll be trying to re-negotiate our mortgages based on falling home values.
Neighborhoods won’t be fighting Wal-Mart’s plans to build yet another superstore — instead, they’ll be protesting Wal-Mart’s plans to close yet another superstore.
And if you think Colorado’s going in the tank, look at the projections for our next-door neighbors. More than 25 percent of the residents of Wyoming and New Mexico will be over 65 — good news for Democrats, whose devotion to generous Social Security benefits will serve them well; bad news for state economies.
So what can we do? How can we ensure that our local economy can avoid its own appointment in Samarra? Or should we just sit back, get older and let fate take its course?
The solutions are, believe it or not, simple, mutually contradictory and easy to accomplish.
First: listen to Norman, the dog that moos. Make downtown diverse, exciting and interesting to the young, adventurous, entrepreneurial folk that constitute the so-called “creative class.”
We need more people living downtown, more art galleries, more restaurants, more bars and nightclubs, more hotels, more shops. Lots of cities have done it — and we’re well on our way to doing it, too.
That’ll help repopulate the older areas of town — the west side, Manitou, the near east side — with an influx of urban lefties, ready to fight tomorrow’s political battles.
And whom are they going to fight?
Listen to the dog that barks – Focus on the Family’s mascot Sherman. Keep those well-scrubbed, deeply religious, fresh-faced young conservatives coming to town. Make sure that our northeastern suburbs are safe and affordable. Encourage the New Life Church’s Ted Haggard to train a suitably charismatic successor.
And hope that our young conservatives will continue to abstain from pre-marital sex, treasure the sacrament of marriage and oppose abortion of all kinds.
Result: big families — the key to younger demographics.
And finally — and maybe most importantly — most of us need to rethink our positions on immigration, legal and illegal.
If the Census Bureau is right — and, as far as I know, no demographer seriously disputes either their methodology or their conclusions — this country is headed for a bleak future. We’ll have an ageing, unproductive citizenry, supported by a small and sullen cadre of younger workers.
How are we going to fund Social Security? Medicare? National defense? And given that every developed country has the same looming problem, can’t we expect a world-wide economic crisis?
Maybe, but there’s one sure and certain way of avoiding such a crisis locally and nationally — by admitting young immigrants.
Tens of millions of young people would love to come here, to become productive citizens, to contribute to our nation. It’s simple enough to identify them, to make sure that they’re neither criminals nor terrorists, and welcome them to our shores.
We just need the political will to do so — and that means rejecting both the nativist nonsense of Tom Tancredo and the retro-environmentalism of Dick Lamm.
Otherwise, we’ll have to rely upon geezers like me to be the entrepreneurs of the 21st century — a task for which we may be ill-equipped.
But if that’s what you want, fine.
Actually, I was thinking of starting a hearing-aid company, so if you’d like to be in on the ground floor, just send me a check!
I promise to cash it.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 421.