From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast

Episode 3A - Special: Suburbanization Supplemental & Podcast Update

September 13, 2019 Logan Rogers Season 1
From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
Episode 3A - Special: Suburbanization Supplemental & Podcast Update
Chapters
From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
Episode 3A - Special: Suburbanization Supplemental & Podcast Update
Sep 13, 2019 Season 1
Logan Rogers

The late 1940s witnessed the birth of modern suburbia, as economic prosperity & declining inequality combined with newly-generous lending policies allowing millions of Americans to own their own homes for the first time in their lives. American families in an ascendant middle class could now afford cars, which began to transform the residential & commercial landscape of the nation. So-called "white ethnic" immigrant groups experienced more acceptance & assimilation in the suburbs, but suburban developers & residents drew the line at selling homes to African-Americans, & blacks were usually left behind in economically declining inner cities. Many suburban areas of the 40s & 50s began with a tight-knit community spirit (sometimes ridiculed as oppressive & conformist by critics), but over the decades that followed, longer work hours & changing cultural attitudes made the suburbs less neighborly & more individualistic. This episode also examines the recent revival of urban living. It concludes by considering why Millennials now are often giving up on the suburban dream, and it speculates on whether the suburbs are destined to stagnate & decline in the future.

Show Notes Transcript

The late 1940s witnessed the birth of modern suburbia, as economic prosperity & declining inequality combined with newly-generous lending policies allowing millions of Americans to own their own homes for the first time in their lives. American families in an ascendant middle class could now afford cars, which began to transform the residential & commercial landscape of the nation. So-called "white ethnic" immigrant groups experienced more acceptance & assimilation in the suburbs, but suburban developers & residents drew the line at selling homes to African-Americans, & blacks were usually left behind in economically declining inner cities. Many suburban areas of the 40s & 50s began with a tight-knit community spirit (sometimes ridiculed as oppressive & conformist by critics), but over the decades that followed, longer work hours & changing cultural attitudes made the suburbs less neighborly & more individualistic. This episode also examines the recent revival of urban living. It concludes by considering why Millennials now are often giving up on the suburban dream, and it speculates on whether the suburbs are destined to stagnate & decline in the future.

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/boomertomillennial/posts)

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boomers to millennials is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the historical events that shaped current generations from the Cold War era to the present. Welcome to a special episode known as episode three a suburbanization supplemental and podcast update. This episode has a format different from our full length episodes. We'll examine a gradual phenomenon, the rise of suburbanization, which got its start during the 1940s but which doesn't neatly fit into any one specific year. We'll follow the thread of the historical trend forward, examining how it impacted various generations. Finally, we'll examine whether suburbanization is over and consider the uncertain future of the suburbs, but first we will give you an update on some changes to the podcast and solicit your feedback. First of all, we are excited about the growing numbers of people listening to our show. We have now been downloaded in 29 us states plus Canada, the UK, Germany, Norway, and Japan.

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So here's the special things to our overseas listeners. Domo, Arigato, Donka, Shane tack. Actually, I think talk might actually be, thank you in Swedish. I apologize. My knowledge of Norwegian is a little rough. Our episode covering 1949 will be released by the end of the month. I wish we could release full length episodes more regularly, but they require considerable research and revision. Doing some shorter supplemental episodes is going to be our way of trying to get out more content without having to compromise the quality and accuracy of our episodes that attempt to cover an entire year. We now hope to release episodes approximately every two weeks alternating between supplemental episodes and full length episodes. The supplementals will go deeper into a single topic and examine the connections between it and present day events. We'd like to recognize some of our fantastic listeners who have supported the podcast either by leaving a review on iTunes or by donating to the patriot.

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We salute the following individuals. We'll smiley Susan Miller Vena to Noko and Elaine hone. Also a special thanks to Ryan Peterson and the Irvine Nonfiction Book Club for recommending the Book Happy City by Charles Montgomery, which we used as a source for this episode. We're now going to do a monthly recommendation of another podcast that might interest our listeners. We encourage you to check these out as long as you promise that you won't stop listening to us. Of course, if you're getting impatient for us to get a little deeper into modern US history, you should definitely subscribe to the long seventies podcast, which discusses the period from the late sixties to the early eighties in a series of and easygoing conversations, Matt and Alex provide a deep dive examination into the cultural changes, political activism, social controversies, and pop cultural trends that marked this chaotic and sometimes surreal period. In American history. You should definitely check out their social media as well because they create epic artwork for each episode that look like psychedelic concert posters.

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It's very cool and really evokes the time period. Check out their website at the long seventies podcast dot Lib, s y n.com. If we have managed to get you stoked enough about modern US history that you want to read more about our topics, please check out our source lists for each episode on our Patrion page at www.patrion.com/boomer to millennial. They include links where you can buy the books from their various publishers. We greatly appreciate donations of as little as one or two bucks per month at that page. Also, you can contact us by email@boomertomillennialatoutlook.com or via social media if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or complaints about our podcast. Now, enough about us, let's get back to the 1940s one key phenomenon of the postwar era was the rise of the suburbs. Many of us probably grew up in a suburban environment that may not have stopped to consider how suburbia came into being and the fact that this type of living arrangement was not historically inevitable.

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The suburbs emerged from a combination of increased affluence, growing families and government policy during the post World War II baby boom era. One residential development that pioneered successful design, construction and marketing of suburban homes was Levittown, a planned suburb of New York City that got its first residence in 1947 using preassembled materials developer William Levitt, mass produced this community of homes that were relatively cookie cutter in style but affordable to people who hadn't previously been able to purchase their own homes. Levittown eventually accumulated over 80,000 residents. New housing developments weren't lavish, but they were sufficient to appeal to the parents of the baby boomers who had often lived with substantial material deprivation during the depression and the war for city dwellers. Suburbs often held appeal compared to urban life where small apartments forced large families to live in uncomfortably close quarters. City air was sometimes choked with industrial pollution from nearby factories.

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Summers could be uncomfortable due to the people and animals and trash packed into a single city block. In this era before the advent of air conditioning, children sometimes ended up playing in city streets during the summer, which put them in danger of being hit by cars or trolleys. Suburbs were envisioned as a compromise between the city and the country, seemingly offering the best of both worlds. One could enjoy the fresh air and open spaces of the countryside without its remoteness and isolation. One could enjoy the more refined cultural sensibilities of city life, but with far less daily chaos, noise, dirtiness and danger. The suburbs would draw population away from both rural areas and tiny towns on the one hand and from crowded urban neighborhoods on the other. The suburbs seemed at the heart of what by the mid 20th century was being called the American dream ideas, connecting freedom and citizenship to property ownership stretched all the way back to u s founding father Thomas Jefferson.

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He thought that the United States of America would be different from the old world because instead of a society divided between privileged aristocrats and powerless peasants, the new republic would be a land of small independent family farmers. Westward expansion kept this idea alive. Social theorists called this a safety valve that prevented too much class conflict in big eastern cities. The idea was don't get mad if you lack opportunity in Boston, just go west young man, your piece of the American pie, probably a piece of property is out there somewhere to many immigrants. Part of the appeal that drew them to America was this dream of finally having their own piece of land, which wasn't possible in overcrowded Ireland or Italy. The suburban home allowed many of these Americans in the post war era to have a little miniature homestead for the first time in their lives. Growth in automobile ownership was obviously a vital factor, enabling the rise of the suburbs with their own car.

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People could now travel independently in high speed from their home to any place within their home town after World War II, cheaper cars and homes. Turbocharge suburbanization public policy also played a role. Interstate highways and other car friendly infrastructure got federal funding. According to historian James T. Patterson, new car sales increased from 2.1 million per year in 1946 all the way to 7.9 million in 1955 Patterson writes, quote, the boom in automobiles was threatening the financial health of downtown retail districts and hotels reducing ridership of buses and urban mass transit and badly damaging the already fragile railroad industry was doing wonders. However, for the oil business, gas stations, roadside hotels and restaurants, and the trucking industry closed quote, government policy wasn't just paving the way for a car friendly world. It also was providing people with the financial foundation for buying a home. In the early 20th century, private bankers often required people to make a down payment of 50% of a home's value and pay off the rest of the mortgage.

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Within 10 years, few people could afford that. Public private partnership lending institutions like Fannie Mae provided more generous terms that gave far more people access to homes tax loopholes like the home mortgage interest deduction also helped to promote mass home ownership. Standard 30 year fixed mortgages made buying a house seem like a safe and prudent financial decision, particularly in this era where many people stayed with one company and had a relatively stable income compared with our less predictable career trajectories of today. The suburbs were facilitated by some indirect wealth redistribution away from the top and toward the middle and a March, 2019 lecture at the Huntington Library near Los Angeles. Historian Louis Warren argued that despite common perceptions, California was not always a land of opportunity that beckoned in innovative newcomers in the era between the gold rush and the start of the 20th century, California didn't attract as many people as did other states, such as Minnesota that we may not traditionally think of as magnets for migration.

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California's land was consolidated into largest states and there was little cheap land available to newcomers, which made it less appealing for settlers. Only in the 20th century was the Golden State's land subdivided into smaller lots for suburban homeowners. A process that accelerated after Pearl Harbor. The war with Japan caused great economic demand on the West Coast for people to staph military bases and munitions factories that were supplying the Pacific theater of the war. Postwar economic prosperity put recent migrants in position to buy permanent homes there. A huge influx of population. California grew from 7 million people to 11 million in just 10 years. Between 1940 and 1950 fueled a suburban real estate boom, economic and political factors, thus caused a redistribution of property. The transformed California areas that were once farmland owned by large land barons and worked by poor migrant laborers became subdivided and sold as lots of providing houses and yards for upwardly mobile middle-class families.

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Part of what made this redistribution of land on the west coast and in many other parts of America possible was the so-called great compression and economic phenomenon that occurred from the mid 1930s to the mid eighties that allowed the working and middle classes to gain a greater share of national wealth. This reduction in income inequality was caused by factors including higher tax rates on the wealthy government programs such as the GI bill that provided mass access to education and housing and a stronger labor movement that was able to win higher wages for workers. However, the path the suburbs wasn't available to everyone, the cast at the bottom of the American social hierarchy marked out by their skin color was not allowed to share in the benefits. Racial exclusion of non whites was often the norm for new suburban neighborhoods. The aforementioned developer William Livid, for example, claim to personally oppose racial prejudice, but he admitted that he tried to keep blacks out of livid town saying they were bad for business.

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Given that most white people would refuse to buy a home on a street with black residents. Indeed, there was considerable social pressure for white homeowners not to sell the blacks, and in many cases, not just in the south, but all across the u s such sales were sometimes legally prohibited due to a property contract provision known as a racially restrictive covenant. The U S Supreme Court in 1948 held that these covenants were unconstitutional, but other methods were then used to keep blacks out of the suburbs. According to Patterson, there was quote systematic adoption by lending institutions of red lining, a practice that blocked off large areas of the cities from black seeking home mortgages. Close quote, over decades of suburbanization central cities lost their middle-class whites to the suburbs, leaving only racial minorities and poor whites behind in the cities. Black city neighborhoods became more crowded because African Americans moving to northern cities for jobs after the war couldn't find anywhere else that they were allowed to live.

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Patterson reports that quote, blacks in Chicago lacking market options faced rents ranging between 10 and 25% higher than those paid by whites for comparable shelter. Close quote, so-called white flight away from cities would eventually be a major factor in suburbanization, especially after riots in response to social tensions and police abuses troubled urban areas during the sixties and seventies at that time, remaining white city dwellers who were seeing property values drop and businesses leave, areas that were becoming ghettos often were frightened into moving away either to a lower end suburb or a wider urban neighborhood. This is how many major US cities, particularly those in the Midwest, developed severe residential segregation. While blacks were generally excluded from the suburbs, other groups that had previously faced discrimination found more acceptance there. Well, there were still country clubs and colleges with discriminatory policies during the forties and 50s overall, groups such as Italians and Jews became more broadly accepted into the u s mainstream.

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During this era, three decades of reduced immigration, along with shared national traumas of depression and war made white Americans more tight-knit across ethnic tensions that existed between Catholics and Protestants. During the 1920s were fading away. Founding father of suburbia. William Levitt was himself of Jewish ancestry and his housing developments enabled some people of southern or eastern European backgrounds to move out of the cities. Ethnically homogenous immigrant urban neighborhoods broke up over time as a result of suburbanization, many Irish and Swedes and poles and Greeks stop seeing themselves in national origin based terms as they mixed more outside of their own ethnicities, they instead began perceiving themselves as members of the big generic group known as quote Unquote White Americans. What was life like in this new suburban world? Early on, suburbanites tended to bring with them the community spirit that had existed in their previous small towns or urban neighborhoods.

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Television was in its infancy and had only three or four channels for the few who could afford it. Obviously, video games and smartphones were many decades in the future, so people had a lot of time on their hands. They actually got to know their neighbors well and often got very involved in the local suburban community. According to political scientist Robert Putnam, this was a golden age of social participation. Suburbanites knew lots of nearby people and were involved in lots of organizations. Some of these like the Red Cross seem obviously admirable while others like the rotary or Cuanas clubs may seem a bit silly to some modern people. However, these groups often did beneficial service projects in their communities. There was also a revival in religious participation in the post war era that also contributed to the increase in community activities and social interconnection. According to Putnam, as time went on, some cultural critics mocked the suburbs for being homogenous and conformist.

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There was some uniformity in forced by homeowners associations that limited what individual suburbanites could do with their property. For example, Paterson writes that love at town, quote at first required homeowners to mow their lawns every week, forbade the building of fences and outlawed the hanging of wash outside on weekends. Lowe's quote, yet the darker side to the close-knit suburban communities that these critics fixated on had to do with conformity, not just of external space, but also the internal mindset. Nosy neighbors sometimes viewed eccentricity or deviation from the main stream with suspicion and non Christian minority. A gay person or someone rumored to have past leftist political affiliations might find the suburbs far less friendly than other people did in 1950 suburbia, even a divorce person or a single parent could cause neighbors to whisper disapprovingly. Suburbanization was a long process stretching from the 1940s to the nineties over that time, the character of the suburbs would change.

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They would, according to Putnam, experienced a decline in social participation and interpersonal trust, a phenomenon that spread across many segments of American life. By the 1970s over time, the social divisions that grew out of the 60s growing cynicism toward established institutions and a general increase in individualism would make American suburbs feel less communitarian and neighborly and more standoffish and atomized people became less likely to know as many of their neighbors. It soon became clear that the car focused, built environment of the suburbs was not automatically conducive to community, unlike in a vibrant urban neighborhood or a European village, one could not simply walk a couple blocks down the street to buy fresh vegetables, perhaps chatting with neighbors along the way instead, one often had to get in the car and drive several minutes to reach a large impersonal supermarket. Another factor in the transformation of the suburbs was women entering the workforce.

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Their predominant postwar status as housewives gave women time to get involved with the neighborhood, and they were usually more dedicated community builders than men. However, by the 70s many instead focus their energies on joining the workforce, either because they had aspirations beyond just being homemakers or out of economic necessity. Well, social conservatives alleged declining religiosity and increasing divorce rates were sapping the supposedly family centered vitality of suburban neighborhoods. Ultimately, economic pressures would cause even quite traditional nuclear families to have both parents working often putting in long hours away from the kids in order to hold on to their middle-class lifestyle. According to Putnam, an increase in the number of hours Americans watched television also helped reduce social participation as people individually and passively consumed entertainment instead of amusing themselves in each other. In social gatherings, Putnam also says boomers grew more skeptical of formal civic engagement and their parents had been.

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Admittedly, the Lions Club meeting seemed pretty square compared to the led Zepplin concert. People also were driving more places and increasingly we're driving by themselves in their own cars. Putnam notes that quote, we went from a society of one car per household in 1969 to two cars per household in 1995 even though the size of the average household was shrinking over this period, he finds that lengthier commutes also decreased social participation. Historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in his suburbanization study entitled Crabgrass frontier quote with increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished. There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street. On a hot afternoon close quote and architectural critic named Jane Jacobs famously warned Americans about the potential downsides of spread out suburbs and the ever proliferating car culture in her famous 1961 book, the death and life of great American cities.

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It observed construction of freeways and other urban renewal projects being done in the name of progress. We're cutting a destructive swath through once great American cities destroying historic buildings, displacing people from their homes through eminent domain and creating multi-lane highways that served as motes tearing a sunder once vibrant urban neighborhoods. She also praised the cultural richness and diversity of surviving hip urban neighborhoods such as her own beloved Greenwich Village in New York City. Jacob's insights on urban design were often profound, but some of her disciples could be rather judgmental writers living in a few remaining urban enclaves wrote, literary works portraying suburbia as adult, conformist and repressive cultural wasteland that made its residents miserable. Surely that was not how everyone experienced suburban life. Intellectuals might despise living in the burbs, but if you're a guy who likes working on his car, mowing his lawn and inviting the neighbors over for a barbecue, you might like your suburban life just fine.

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Thank you very much. It was also an easier place for raising a large family than a small apartment in a dense urban neighborhood. Some intellectual critiques of suburbs also feel a bit classist, even among those Americans who might prefer urban life. It wasn't easy for blue collar folks in say, the Midwest to abandoned career and friends and family obligations in order to just up and move to the Greenwich Village. Not everyone dug beat poetry anyway. Besides and much of the country subdivided suburban style neighborhoods were becoming the norm. They were often the most accessible and affordable areas for lower middle class families and in some places, we're basically the only option. Flash forward a few decades and millennials bring in new perspective that sheds a different light on the suburbanization process for a variety of reasons. Millennials are waiting longer to marry or have kids if they do so at all.

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As a result, the spacious suburban home with a front lawn and backyard tailor made for the needs of a large nuclear family holds less inherent appeal for today's young people. Also due to a combination of financial, cultural, and ideological reasons, millennials are less likely to own or even drive. So what living arrangements are they attracted to? They often aspire to do the same shift their grandparents made only in reverse, moving from the suburbs into crowded urban city centers. Why is this? For one thing, millennials are often more attracted to buying experiences rather than the consumer goods. Previous generations sought, cultural experiences can be had at restaurants, museums, bars, clubs, and concert halls, which are most often found in urban centers. Some commentators, they've even claimed the pop cultural influences such as TV programs helped shape new preferences among young people. The sitcoms of the eighties and early nineties were nuclear family focused shows such as family ties, the Cosby show, Roseanne and home improvement.

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But by the late nineties most popular shows were featuring single protagonists living in urban areas such as Seinfeld, Frasier, friends and sex in the city. But it isn't just that millennials are romanticizing urban life. Cities have genuinely become more pleasant places to live. Beginning in the mid nineties the U s crime rate began to plummet. Meanwhile, factories and other industrial facilities have moved overseas. Cities have thus become significantly cleaner and safer than they were 40 years ago, and they are much more appealing to young professionals. Increased concern about the environment and climate change also influences millennials. Disaffection with the suburbs. Ironically, escaping urban industrial pollution was part of the initial appeal of suburbanization, but the means of escape to the subdivision was the automobile which burned carbon in an internal combustion engine. Eventually commuting cars would surpass industrial factories is the chief source of US air pollution. Other downsides to suburbs have become apparent as eve extended further into the distant outskirts of sprawling metro areas.

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Many suburbanites endure increasingly long traffic choked commutes that social science data indicates contributes to anxiety and unhappiness. Some folks now question whether a house in the suburbs is worth it, if it requires them to spend three hours of every weekday sitting in a car trying to get to and from work with the population growth in various metropolitan centers, free parking has become scarce and popular downtown districts and recreational areas and paid parking. There has often become very expensive. Millennials often find that cities with high quality accessible light rail offer a cheaper and more pleasant way to reach central destinations. Issues such as these have caused new urbanists like Charles Montgomery, author of the book, Happy City, transforming our lives through urban design to advocate mixed use urban, particularly those that restrict automobile use. These practices facilitate quaint neighborhoods where people stroll into small local shops and they promote health by encouraging commutes, by bicycle or on foot.

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Montgomery argues that this urban model offers a more socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable way of life for humanity. This sounds quite nice in theory and there's data to suggest that people are often happier with these communities. Then with other arrangements, but some nagging questions remain about the mass viability of these new walkable, so-called happy cities. Most involve questions of access, who's able to get in and who gets pushed out. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Washington DC to pick some obvious examples have seen many poor urban residents, often racial minorities being driven to move out of their neighborhoods into cheaper surrounding downwardly, mobile, suburban, and rural areas because of skyrocketing rents and high cost of living in the increasingly gentrified central urban districts. Meanwhile, many millennials in the suburbs who are interested in living in a cool urban area have to settle for a more unhappy city.

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Will a few millennials with degrees from elite colleges snap up Sheik Manhattan lofts thanks to their cushy jobs and finance media or law or thanks to their parents trust funds. Many more commonplace. Millennials are overeducated but underemployed weighed down by student loans and sometimes medical debts. In these cases, millennials, failure to buy a suburban home may be more related to financial limitations rather than cultural preferences. Such millennials can often be found living in dumpy, suburban apartment complexes with roommates or in their parents' basements because both the old suburban home ownership dream and the new urbanist dream have eluded them in conclusion, suburbs seemed like a good idea in the mid 20th century and they seem to have provided pleasant and comfortable lives for many people. However, they no longer seem as hospitable or sustainable as they once did. As aging boomer homeowners may retire to warmer climates or eventually relocate to a senior living facility.

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It remains to be seen what will become of their former neighborhoods. Will suburban social entrepreneurs be allowed to repurpose spacious suburban homes into small businesses and apartment buildings? Will Zoning and regulatory reform ensure that multiunit affordable housing will be built in order to revitalize these areas in accordance with new consumer preferences and economic realities? Or will these areas fail to evolve but slowly become more abandoned like they already have been in rust belt suburbs such as those near Detroit with the once prized home sitting of all but the occasional squatter and once prized yards grown over with weeds standing as haunting relics of a last age of more broad based American prosperity.

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please follow us on Twitter and Instagram if you haven't already. Our Twitter handle is at boomer underscore two and our Instagram handle is at boomers to millennials. Please support the show on Patrion or by leaving a review on iTunes or stitcher. Also, let us know if you have thoughts about our show by emailing us@boomertomillennialatoutlook.com we'd love to give each of our listeners their pick of either a nice house in the suburbs with beautiful landscaping and a white picket fence or a hip modern apartment and an exciting urban center. Unfortunately, we are not Oprah or Warren Buffet and we can't actually give you either of those things, but we can thank you for listening, so thanks everybody.

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