The Baby Boomers ruined America. That sounds like a hyperbolic claim, but it’s one way to state what I found as I tried to solve a riddle. American society is going through a strange set of shifts: Even as cultural values are in rapid flux, political institutions seem frozen in time. The average U.S. state constitution is more than 100 years old. We are in the third-longest period without a constitutional amendment in American history: The longest such period ended in the Civil War. So what’s to blame for this institutional aging?
One possibility is simply that Americans got older. The average American was 32 years old in 2000, and 37 in 2018. The retiree share of the population is booming, while birth rates are plummeting. When a society gets older, its politics change. Older voters have different interests than younger voters: Cuts to retiree-focused benefits are scarier, while long-term problems such as excessive student debt, climate change, and low birth rates are more easily ignored.
But it’s not just aging. In a variety of different areas, the Baby Boom generation created, advanced, or preserved policies that made American institutions less dynamic. In a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute, I looked at issues including housing, work rules, higher education, law enforcement, and public budgeting, and found a consistent pattern: The political ascendancy of the Boomers brought with it tightening control and stricter regulation, making it harder to succeed in America. This lack of dynamism largely hasn’t hurt Boomers, but the mistakes of the past are fast becoming a crisis for younger Americans.
Zoning codes in America have their roots in the early 1900s. Some land-use rules arose out of efforts to manage growing density in cities due to industrialization and new construction technologies that allowed taller buildings. But most zoning was intended to protect property values for homeowners, or to exclude certain racial groups. For many decades, though, zoning codes were relatively limited in scope.
Stricter zoning rules began to be implemented in many places in the 1940s and 1950s as suburbanization began. But then things got worse in the 1960s to 1980s. This shift is reflected in the increasing frequency with which various land-use associated words were used in Google’s database of American English-language publications. These decades, when the political power of the Baby Boomer generation was rapidly rising, saw a sharp escalation in land-use rules.