Baby boomers, Millennials, Ed McMahon and Rehoboth

November 4, 2016

All you members of the barbell generations pay attention. You know who you are, you baby boomers and millennials. Ed McMahon is talking about you. Not Johnny Carson’s affable and guffawing sidekick. Ed McMahon of Urban Land Institute fame and serious proponent of planning, to make communities as great as they can be.

Ed will be in the Rehoboth Beach Fire Hall Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon to discuss Rehoboth Beach and the surrounding area and what it can do to take advantage of a changing world in the years ahead. Several groups concerned and interested about Rehoboth’s future are sponsoring Ed’s visit.

About the barbell generations. Ed said the millennials - those between ages 18 and 34 - have now taken over the position as the largest population of people in our country. The next largest group is the baby boomers, between the ages of 55 and 70, or thereabouts. Those are the weights on each end of the barbell. Sandwiched between them in smaller numbers are the Generation Xers, aged between 35 and 55. Ed says the combination of the millennials and the baby boomers and their common interests make for a powerful force that shouldn’t be ignored. Those common interests, he said, have a bearing on Rehoboth’s future.

“Both of those generations like living where they can walk and bicycle to things,” said McMahon. “Some call it car-lite living. The millennials in particular are seen as the sharing generation. They don’t have to own everything. They share cars - think Uber. They share bicycles, they share houses, they share rides.”

McMahon said the millennials also share people. “Around Tacoma there’s an organization called Lifelong Tacoma. They’ve developed something called walking school buses. Retired baby boomers get out on the sidewalks when kids are going to and from school. The kids are always accompanied by adults and the kids get to know the older people.”

And, said McMahon, Millennials like original. “Survey after survey shows they think authenticity and originality are more important than predictable and comfortable. There’s an old line that says the good thing about Holiday Inns is that there are no surprises. And the bad thing about Holiday Inns? No surprises. So the question is, for a place like Rehoboth Beach, how do you maintain authenticity? How do you keep it from looking like everywhere else, like what’s been happening out on Route 1. Capital is footloose and the more places look like other places the less competitive they are. They’re the places that will lose out. So economic vitality is very much a part of proper planning for the future.”

Tools and techniques

McMahon will discuss these ideas at Saturday’s presentation and offer tools and techniques to help create and sustain what he calls Placemaking Dividends. “Places like the Boardwalk. People have invested memories there. They feel affection for places like that. They like to go back and they spend money there.”

McMahon noted Rehoboth Beach’s situation as a one square-mile incorporated community with little open space left to develop. “All development in the future will be redevelopment. At the meeting, I will be asking questions about housing. Should old Rehoboth Beach - the style of the existing buildings - be shaping whatever new development there is or will new development shape Rehoboth Beach?”

His question is particularly pertinent as the pace of demolition in Rehoboth Beach quickens. He pointed to Sanibel Island on Florida’s West Coast as a town that has gotten it right.

“It was the first community in America to do a carrying capacity analysis. They wanted to know how many cars, residents and visitors they could have without destroying what people liked about the community. So now they have no buildings over three stories - no high rises, they fought to preserve one of the nation’s first wildlife preserves, they have bicycle trails along all their roads and they have safe evacuation routes. It all makes them very different and one of the truly unique destinations in the U.S. - certainly in Florida.”

Parking is a big issue in Rehoboth.

“If Rehoboth designs around cars, there will be more cars. If the city designs around people, there will be more people and fewer cars. You can park 12 bicycles in one car parking space.”

A lifelong visitor to Rehoboth, McMahon said the bicycle trail between Lewes and Rehoboth Beach is a huge improvement for the area. “Cycling is, by far, the fastest growing form of transportation in the U.S. In communities that build infrastructure for bicycles, the growth is even faster. It’s easier to get into places on bicycles and there’s no worry about parking. And people shop and buy when they’re walking around.”

The ultimate message from a man who has made a national career of urban planning? “Sussex County and Rehoboth Beach have great assets and great people. But the world is changing fast. The economy, demographics, consumer attitudes, transportation, even the weather. We can anticipate and prepare, shape and direct, or we can just let things happen. Those that don’t plan will not do as well as those that do.”

  • Dennis Forney has been a journalist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972 and has been writing his Barefootin’ column for The Whale and then the Cape Gazette for more than 30 years. Contact Dennis at