Boomer Economy Stunting Growth in Northern California

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The road north across the Golden Gate leads to some of the prettiest counties in North America. Yet behind the lovely rolling hills, wineries, ranches and picturesque once-rural towns lies a demographic time bomb that neither political party is ready to address.

Paradise is having a problem with the evolving economy. A generational conflict is brewing, pitting the interests and predilections of well-heeled boomers against a growing, predominately Latino working class. And neither the emerging “progressive” politics nor laissez-faire conservatism is offering much in the way of a solution.

These northern California counties–which include Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Marin–have become beacons for middle- and upper-class residents from the Bay Area. These generally liberal people came in part to enjoy the lifestyle of this mild, bucolic region, and many have little interest in changing it.

“The yuppies have insulated themselves here for the long term,” notes Robert Eyler, a director at the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University. “The boomers have blocked everyone else different in age and skill from rising up and making their place.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the “green,” anti-growth movement so prevalent in these places. Strong restrictions of business growth, bolstered by California’s draconian land-use regulations, have turned these areas into business no-go zones. This has become increasingly clear after the collapse of the real estate boom, which created thousands of jobs for agents, mortgage brokers and construction workers.

Hard times have come to paradise. Unemployment in Sonoma now tops 10%, up from barely 3% two years ago, notes Eyler. The rate is slightly higher in neighboring Solano County but a bit lower in wealthy Marin and Napa. Across the region, vacancy rates for offices and other commercial buildings have reached as high as 30%. Overall, by some estimates, the vacancy rate is higher in Sonoma than in Detroit.

These conditions, local business leaders suggest, seem to have no effect on the region’s well-organized and well-financed greenies, who often see any growth as a threat to their quality of life

Of course, economic reversal can sometimes hurt the balance sheets of wealthy yuppies and early retirees, but Eyler suggests the change could prove most devastating to the next generation of residents. In 2000 these counties were almost 70% white; Eyler projects that by 2030 they will be majority minority, with the Latino percentage more than doubling to almost one-third the population.

At the same time, the predominant white population will be getting older and even less supportive of economic growth. The boomers who moved to paradise may not have “put up a parking lot” as much as rooted themselves firmly into the ground. Already Marin, the wealthiest county, is among the oldest in California, vying with other high-end places like San Francisco and Orange and Ventura Counties.

Today in Marin, there are still more people aged 40 to 55 than over 65. But by 2025 the over-65 crowd will be as large as the prime working-age population (which comprises those in their 30s and 40s) and should be larger than the under-25 population. The old and young also will diverge greatly in their ethnicities. In virtually all North Bay areas, the bulk of the codgers will be white, while most young people will be Hispanic or other minorities.

In the past, besides construction, these young workers might have found employment in the area’s once-burgeoning electronics and telecommunications industry. But many of these companies have moved operations to more business-friendly regions or overseas. “When these kids who are in school now grow up, we are going to have a huge job crisis here,” Eyler warns. “But when the boomers are gone, what happens when all the jobs have moved to Des Moines?”

Of course, the widely accepted solution to this dilemma comes in the color green–that environment jobs will provide the new employment. Indeed by some accounts, most embarrassingly in a recent Time magazine cover, the shift to green technologies has already created a “thriving” economy.

This would be news to a state that suffers 12% unemployment, massive outmigration and among the worst business climates in the country. Time extols Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and the other Silicon Valley companies as exemplars leading to a glorious prosperity; somehow the article missed the empty factories, vacant offices and abandoned farms across the state.

Not surprisingly, California’s middle class is getting hammered, and has for years. Since 1999, according to research at the California Lutheran University forecast project, the state has experienced a far more dramatic drop in households earning between $35,000 and $75,000, than the national average. At the same time California’s poverty rate has grown at a more rapid pace than the national average, with a huge spike since 2006.

This reflects a strange disjunction between the optimism of the top-tier boomers–venture capitalists, academics and the self-described progressives–and the realities facing most Californians. For Apple’s Steve Jobs, Google’s Eric Schmidt and venture capitalists connected to Al Gore, these could well be the best of times. Fed policy prints money for investment bankers to speculate; stock prices rise as people have nowhere else to invest. And for the much celebrated venture community, there’s also an Energy Department that pours hundreds of millions into “green” start-ups that build things like expensive electric cars.

California’s high-tech greens may talk a liberal streak in terms of diversity and social justice, but their prescriptions offer little for those who would like to build a career and raise a family in 21st century California. Their policies in terms of land use regulation and greenhouse gas emissions will make it even harder for existing factories, warehouses, homebuilders and other traditional employers of the middle- or working class. “In effect,” Eyler notes, “the progressives have become regressives.”

In the real world hype and enthusiasm are not sufficient to create a sustainable economic model. In order to grow a “green” economy, you first have to have an economy. To be sure, there are potential opportunities in the development and implementation of energy-saving technologies in the next decade, including wind and solar energy, but it’s doubtful that many jobs can be generated without a major shift in the economic climate here.

One key problem, as suggested in a recent analysis by Rob Sentz at Economic Modeling Specialists, is that green is not really about “what” you make but about “how” you make it. Green jobs, for the most part, will come from growth in construction, manufacturing and warehousing industries.

Yet the “greenest” parts of the country–places like the northern end of the Bay Area–are among the toughest places to build or manufacture anything, without huge public-sector subsidies. Indeed, California’s new green requirements, compared with places like Texas or China where manufacturing has other advantages, would further undermine an already struggling sector. Few businesspeople see much growth in the near future in office or residential construction.

This leaves “green” industries reduced to largely improving the energy footprint of existing structures, an effort that will no doubt be further undermined by the deteriorating picture for many commercial mortgages. At best, Eyler notes, this may create a small temporary surge in jobs, but the long-term effects will likely be limited.

Ultimately, the only way out of this looming crisis lies with the boomer gentry doing something totally out of character: getting past their self-interest and self-love for the good of the next generation. In the process, they do not have to give up preserving paradise, but focus as well on creating economic opportunity for the emerging working and middle class majority. If not, their Eden will end up as a green version of a gated community.

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