Make way for the baby strollers

In recent days, our neighbors across the street have kept a car parked at the end of their driveway, facing the street, as if poised for a speedy takeoff.

We call it their getaway car. Their first baby is due this month, and they are taking winter precautions: There'll be no need for the expectant father to shovel the driveway if a snowstorm hits when it's time to head for the delivery room.

This happy event serves as the latest sign of a baby boomlet in our neighborhood and beyond. This will be the eighth baby born in a single block in the past 10 months. Six are firstborns. All the parents are in their 30s, reflecting a national trend toward later childbearing.

Last year, our Boston suburb of 28,000 welcomed 381 babies, up from 214 in 1975. Nationwide, there were 4 million births in 2000, an increase from 3.1 million in 1975.

No wonder a construction boom is under way around town, as owners of older Colonials and Capes raise roofs and push out walls, adding bedrooms, bathrooms, and family rooms to accommodate their growing families.

And no wonder there is stroller gridlock on sidewalks on pleasant weekends, as parents walking babies, toddlers, and dogs stop to trade notes on the progress of the youngest generation.

This baby boomlet is also fueling a boom in infant equipment. A new toy store, FAO Baby, now occupies space at a nearby mall, joining other retailers catering to the crib set.

In another sign of growth, our neighborhood elementary school is closed this year during construction of a large addition. Another elementary school in the next suburb is undergoing similar expansion.

What a change from the late 1970s, when suburban schools were emptying out. At that time, our town razed one elementary school, turning the site into a playground. It converted another school to senior housing and still another to condominiums.

These babies of 2002 will graduate from high school as members of the Class of 2020. They will grow up in an era of increasing demographic contrast, as a baby boom coincides with an elder boom.

By 2020, demographers say, 1 of every 6 Americans will be over 65, up from 1 in 8 today. By 2020, there will be about 2.5 workers for each Social Security beneficiary, compared with 3.7 workers in 1970. Where, politicians and economists ask, will Social Security funding come from?

Those given to gloom-and-doom predictions tend to see the future as a generational battle, pitting the needs of the young against those of the old.

Child care or Medicare? Schools or senior housing? Kid power or elder power? The list of potential age-driven conflicts goes on.

Yet in a wealthy nation, such either-or choices need not exist. The challenge will be to connect and unite generations, rather than separate them. Generational interdependence is the goal.

As our neighbors await their baby's arrival, they join other parents-to-be across the country in welcoming the next generation. In time, they will also join the stroller brigade on the sidewalk, rolling into the future. For the rest of us, watching from the windows, this infusion of youthful energy, bundled in pink and blue, remains a reassuring symbol of hope and promise.

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