The End of Cool?

As part of an ongoing challenge to incorporate more non- fiction in to my personal reading routine I stumbled across a book called The Last Bohemia, Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Essentially a tale of urban gentrification, it provides a front row seat to the transformation of this once industrial and dangerous neighbourhood that attracted addicts, struggling artists and financial hardship to – wait for it – “a playground for the game of ironized status-seeking and lifestyle one-upmanship”. Wow, this place is definitely on my list of ‘must visits’.

What struck me about the author’s lament for a once cool neighborhood, however, was the suggestion that with the passage of time and influx of people and money, Williamsburg has lost its creative edge, its authenticity. Many of the artists that once defined the area have moved on, while those that remain were viewed as ‘aging hipsters in skinny jeans’ who no longer represent what is leading edge, hip or cool. While there is no question that the gentrification of a neighbourhood inevitably impacts the character of that community or that the mainstreaming of a culture can somehow diminish its impact on society, the bigger challenge for me was the idea that maturity implies a loss of cutting edge creativity, thus the loss of cool. Does that mean that as our cities and neighborhoods age out, as our population grows older, that we will lose our capacity for creativity, for leading edge ideas or grand visions of a better society? Or more importantly, that cool can only be defined by what it is new or young?

Now before you laugh this idea off, think about this fact. “The number of people over the age of 60 is projected to reach 1 billion by 2020 and 2 billion by 2050, representing 22 percent of the world’s population.”[1] We’re already being told in the U.S. and Canada that there won’t be enough workers to replace the baby boomers that will retire in the coming years and many communities and businesses have begun to feel the impact of unfilled ‘creative’ economy jobs – the very types of jobs and professionals that drive economic growth and contribute to making a city or neighborhood vibrant, hip, or cool.

As a community, and to some extent as a society, we also seem to dismiss the contribution of older generations, or the impact they have had both in business and in our communities. Just look at the tone of today’s advertising, the assumptions that are made about retirement living (and don’t even get me started on women’s wardrobe choices). Ads can be condescending and presumptuous about how we should live, and there is certainly no consideration given to any lasting coolness. In my professional capacity, many of the communities that I have worked with will tell me flat out “we don’t want to be seen as a retirement community”, meaning they aren’t interested in attracting older populations…and by old I mean 55+. It’s all about being family friendly, a great place to raise your kids.

For me this seems counter- intuitive in the face of a major demographic shift. It also represents a missed opportunity to define cool on new terms, to capitalize on the entrepreneurism, creativity and talent of older generations that can define the character of a community and go a long way to establishing its authenticity.

I take heart in the current popularity of music and bands from the 70’s and 80’s. I recently attended a Peter Gabriel concert and marvelled at both the capacity crowd and amount of gray hair in the audience. Even at 62 Gabriel continues to define what is cool and hip about this generation.

Singing loud and with fists in the air, the audience takes back what was ours in the first place, we are cool again.

[1] David E. Bloom, David Canning and Gunther Fink, Implications of Population Aging for Economic Growth. Working Paper Series No. 64, January 2011. Program on the Global Demography of Aging, Harvard University.