Empty seats in the Berkeley City Council chambers: the new normal for the Coronial generation? Photo: Pete Rosos

(Ed note: This story was published on April 1 … just saying!)

In a research paper rushed to publication Wednesday morning, bypassing many of the usual peer review delays, two UC Berkeley demography professors predict a major surge in population that will dominate the coming decades of the 21st century.

“They will most likely be known as the “Coronial Generation,” explained demographer Dr. Edmund Fitzgerald at the pre-publication press conference, held online early Wednesday morning. All city council members were invited to log in to the virtual meeting. 

“The Coronials will include all those born in December of 2020, and, unless the pandemic ends quickly, the early months of 2021.”

“The Baby Boomers,” explained co-author Dr. Mary Ellen Carter, “were born between 1946 and 1964, and dominated the shape of our population age curve for the better part of a century. The wave of boomers began right after World War II and accelerated over the immediate post-war years, gradually tapering off during the economic expansions of the ’50s and early ’60s. But with the Coronials, we’re in for a much sharper front-end shock. Labor and delivery rooms nationwide need to look at their supplies of critical birthing equipment now, to be prepared for Dec. 17 2020 and the months that follow.”

“How do the other named generations fit in?” asked Reuben James, Chair of the Population Planning Subcommittee of the Development Commission. “If this has happened before, why aren’t we prepared for it?”

Timeline showing generational birth rates from 1909 to 2020. Source: Dr. Edmund Fitzgerald

“We had Gen X follow the boomers,” Dr. Fitzgerald responded, bringing up a timeline graphic that was mirrored to the online participants and viewers of the press conference. “Most demographers agree that Gen Xers were born between ’65 and ’80, but there was no sudden surge in birth rate so no unanticipated crisis.”

“Millennials came next,” added Dr. Carter — 1981 to 1996. These are the kids who came of age during the early years of the new Millennium. Sometimes also called Gen Y”

“What about the kids born since then?” asked Mary Rose, Chair of the School Lunch Menu Subcommittee of Public Health Commission.

“Gen Z is late ’90s to about 2010 birth year,” answered Dr. Carter.”They are mostly the offspring of Gen X.”

“Well I refer to them as Gen XXL,” responded Rose. “Childhood obesity is out of control.”

“But look what’s coming next year,” warned Dr. Fitzgerald. “This is going to change everything. School attendance, sports events, even the way city government is conducted.”

“My parents tell me I was conceived in a stuck elevator during the Great East Coast Power Failure of 1965,” added one unnamed commenter.

“We predict that the Coronials will have the highest rate of home-schooling in modern history,” noted Dr. Andrea Doria, a post-doc sociologist who had participated in the research. “Their parents, understandably, will be reluctant to send these children to any large-group activities, especially schools. Berkeley Unified School District can breathe easy in terms of long-term facilities planning. Despite the population spike, school attendance will be down, especially in the primary grades.”

“This phobia will continue into adulthood,” predicted Dr. Fitzgerald. “This will not be a generation who attends concerts, sports events or meetings.”

“Where does that leave the Brown Act, or what’s left of it?” asked another viewer of the online meeting. 

“What’s left of the Brown Act will be obsolete. Transparency in government will no longer be achievable through physical meetings.”

The new normal at Council and Commission meetings: empty seats as council members and commissioners will in future participate online from home. Photo: Pete Rosos
The new normal at Council and Commission meetings: empty seats as council members and commissioners will in future participate online from home. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Brown Act, passed by the California legislature in 1953, guarantees the right of the public to attend and participate in meetings of State and local legislative and government-sanctioned advisory bodies. It sets rules for timely notification, and prohibits a majority of members of city councils, boards and commissions, as well as their subcommittees, from meeting in any form other than a properly noticed physical meeting. It also prohibits communication, including email and other electronic forms, by any member on any substantive issue, to a majority of the members of these bodies. 

“Scrapping Brown will be no great loss,” remarked Rose. “Everyone knows that the Council makes all its important decisions around the fifth-floor water cooler anyway.”

“The real work of our commissions is already conducted in email,” added Mary Celeste, member of the Abandoned Structures Subcommittee of the Housing Commission, “But under current law we have to be careful never to copy more than three other commissioners so the distribution remains a sub-majority of the nine commissioners. Honestly, though, does anyone really believe that the discussion doesn’t find its way into the inboxes of all nine commissioners? Personally, if I receive an email on some critical issue with all Commissioners cc’d, well, I didn’t do it, so I just don’t notice that my reply is going back to all nine. Commissions run on plausible deniability.”

“Fact is,” responded Grace Darling of the Folk Arts Preservation Commission, “we make much better decisions in email than in live meetings, whether in person or teleconferenced. A protracted email discussion gives us time to research issues, follow links to resources, and actually read the documents. Not like what happens at those old-fashioned in-person meetings, where staff hands out a report and expects us to vote on something related to the content of the report at the same meeting. That’s what shouldn’t be allowed, but even Brown is silent on the issue.” 

“I usually read those hand-outs during public comment,” confessed Celeste.

“But without live public comment, how are these Coronials who don’t attend meetings going to participate in local government?”

“Our research finds that we will need to revise the Brown Act so that electronic deliberations among Council or Commission majorities are allowed, encouraged and publicly readable,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.”

The capacity crowd (limited to ten members of the public) in the Council chambers. This might have been the last-ever physical meeting of the Berkeley City Council.  Photo: Paul Kamen

“Will the public be free to join the discussion?” asked another viewer. 

“They will be free to make public comments,” replied Dr. Carter. 

“Online commentary?” Reuben James typed in reply. “You mean you’d trade the thoughtful and compassionate live comments at face-to-face physical meetings for the anonymous trolls and free-market ideologues who dominate online discussions?”

“Anonymity must be preserved,” wrote a commentator only identified on the screen as “Lovely Athens Queen.” 

“There’s no anonymity when you have to stand in front of the Council or a Commission at a real public meeting,” countered Norman Dee, who went on to insist that anonymity was the cause of most of the problems with online public debate.  

The next round of public comments focused on ways to prevent anonymity without restricting access, but it was clear that no consensus could be reached before the virtual moderator closed discussion as being too far off-topic, and uninvited any further public participation in the press conference. 

“Back to the main issue,” asked Lucy Tania of the Foreign Policy Commission. “Does the U.S. have a strategic reserve of disposable diapers? According to Ty Tannic, the Federal Director of Emergency Hospital Equipment Reserves, the supply chain is unsinkable.”

“Possibly, but I’m buying stock in companies that make pacifiers and crib toys,” concluded Dr. Fitzgerald.