For Release Thursday, August 29, 2013
As one who came of age in the early 1960s, I have compared my generational peers to each new group of emerging adults over a half century. Given the propensity to believe one’s own experience is special, I’ve often been unduly critical of the younger generations.
But the decades have now provided me a bit of perspective, to counter my lack of humility. It is the times that shape those coming come of age. I don’t have a crystal ball, but the scar tissue from my own coming-of-age experience is beginning to “itch” again. Just maybe the talented ’10s can be the new ’60s. And if that’s the case, my generation might be able to help them as they enter adulthood.
Then, as now, we faced issues that seemed too big to address – institutionalized discrimination against racial minorities, the unseen plight of the poor, an omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation and a seemingly never-ending War in Vietnam. Then, as now, we had seasoned elders, even modern prophets, who trained and inspired us to address these challenges.
Most important, we had the confidence that we could tackle those issues and make a difference. We didn’t change the world, but we made addressing tough issues into a high priority on local, regional, state, national and even global agendas and so helped end a destructive war.
Now, we seem to be confronted with equally intractable challenges – the fierce weather of global warming, the prohibitive cost of higher education, a hollowing out of the middle class, the decaying of critical infrastructure and seemingly never-ending wars today fought by career soldiers. And maybe most important, the inability of our governance mechanisms to address those challenges.
From Congress to state legislatures and city councils, our legislative bodies are too polarized by ideological differences to fashion practical solutions to real challenges – much less make resources available to carry out the controversial actions needed to address them.
In my own work, I’ve been trying to address the aspects of these issues that cut across our regional metropolises – the places that drive our economies and that most of us call home, but places with weak governance capacities. Metro regions in the U.S. have continued to grow in unhealthy ways, and our attempts to govern them have not kept up with either the scale or the substance of the challenges.
As in the 1960s, today’s emerging generation offers the best hope for awakening public consciousness, proffering new ideas and encouraging people older than they are into action.
What could today’s older generation do to help energize and support the emerging one? We should keep raising the tough challenges in all the media forums the next generation tracks. We should keep pushing for what the next generation can do to address these issues – across all sectors and levels of governance – even if we will not be around to see them implemented. We should offer opportunities to participate in shaping the agendas to be used in addressing the challenges, and we could train them in ways they could advance controversial actions.
Most important, however, we should address one of the biggest differences between then and now. In the 1960s, jobs for the emerging generation were growing exponentially. Education was still affordable, thanks to low tuitions, abundant work-study jobs and growing public/foundation grant programs. Today jobs are scarce, pay is insufficient to support individuals, much less families, and student loans are bankrupting graduates at the beginning of their careers. For someone confronted with stocking the pantry and paying the rent, it is difficult to focus much time on shaping the future.
Maybe the Seasoned ’60s need to focus on giving the Talented ’10s the opportunity – the time and resources – to address the tough challenges and shape the future.
What if we could offer the Talented ’10s expanded opportunities for public service, as former Gen. Stanley McChrystal recommends? (See “Lincoln’s Call to Service – And Ours,” Wall Street Journal, May 30.) We already have AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and City Year programs, but each can satisfy only a small percentage of the demand – less than 10 percent in the Peace Corps, for example. What if we offered, in addition, enough other programs to assure that all Talented ’10s could commit a couple of years to making the world better? And we could thank them by reducing their current student loans or future tuition payments.
My own suggestion, stemming from my work with regional councils: Create a Region Year program to engage the best and brightest in helping metropolitan and rural regions address their part of these seemingly intractable challenges. Then ask the Seasoned ’60s who have served on boards or staffed regional organizations such as councils of governments or chambers of commerce, to be mentors to the Talented ’10s. I suspect such a program would help train a new generation of regionalists, and maybe even a few future prophets – and send the Seasoned ’60s to their maker with smiles on their faces.
We need the Seasoned ’60s to help the Talented ’10s make the future as promising today as it was a half a century ago.
Bill Dodge helps individuals, organizations and communities build their capacities to address tough regional challenges. He writes a column, Regional Excellence, and is writing a book on regional charters. He is the former executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils. Reach him at WilliamRDodge@aol.com.
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