Jeff Hawkes of the Intell and I both attended a meeting Monday morning. We walked away with the same concern—our community appears unsustainable unless we encourage and enact true innovation—but with opposite ways of framing it.

In his column yesterday, Jeff writes, “…we had better start to worry if young people in general begin thinking their future and Lancaster County are not compatible.”

I would put it differently:

We had better start to worry if young people’s future and Lancaster County’s future are not compatible.

The way Jeff frames the issue is not unique. It is the favored way of addressing the issue among the majority of the county’s established leadership. They are worried about how people my age (I’m 26, and in economic development conversations, “young people” refers to people roughly 23–35) perceive our community.

I, on the other hand, am worried about the reality of our community.

Waiting rooms: the new meeting spaces for community leaders? Photo by Flickr user SirTwilightKing, under a Creative Commons license.

Right now an important reality about our community (Lancaster County) is that the leadership is aging. Monday’s meeting was a summit of everyone involved to date in the ongoing process of developing an “economic development and sustainability plan” for the county (dubbed “Lancaster County: Our Economic Future – Strategies and Indicators”). I sat at a table with a few older gentlemen involved in municipal government across the county. Since I wasn’t explicitly invited into this conversation, I will withhold names. They were swapping updates about mutual friends (who were themselves aging community leaders). It began when one of them (a borough mayor) said he ran into so-and-so at a doctor’s waiting room recently, and the two had held a conversation on the state of the county and where it is heading. The mayor remarked that waiting rooms are becoming ad-hoc meeting rooms for county leaders. The other men at my table affirmed the truth of his observation and laughed.

I didn’t laugh. You might say I threw up a little bit in my mouth.

The aging of our leadership is disturbing enough. What adds insult to injury, though, is that many of today’s policy-makers and leaders were tapped out as up-and-coming leaders when they themselves were in their 20s. As they have aged, they have remained focused on their agendas and visions for making our community better. You have to admire their intention and their efforts. These folks have worked hard for decades in a bona fide effort to better their communities.

Let me also be quick to say that I in no way wish to demean older folks, whose contributions of experience and wisdom are grossly neglected by our society as a whole. And, “older folks” is also a poor description of many of our current leaders—yes, they are generally two decades or so older than me, but they are hardly “old.”

Still, the truth is that they do not have any legitimate claim to represent the population they are so concerned about. They are not the young, creative, talented people which they acknowledge our county is both losing and failing to attract. (It is labeled a “brain drain,” but really it is a drain of vitality in more areas than just the mental one.)

So, I want to raise a significant question: Is the problem that there aren’t young leaders? Or is it that our current leaders are letting us down?

In my opinion, it’s the latter (though in many cases is it accidental, not devious). Leadership entails raising up consecutive generations. It is not a neat matter of doing more mentoring—it is a matter of choosing, rather than passively refusing, to pass the flame on to new generations.

There is a strong pool of young, talented, creative leaders already in our community. Not nearly enough, but they are here. They are struggling to get a foothold and to be heard when they should be eagerly lifted up and given megaphones.

A letter from an anonymous (why anonymous?) writer at is much more simple-minded in its analysis: “Lancaster fails because in recent years it has been foolishly and tragically lead by an ignorant, self indulgent, short sighted establishment, whose members usually support one another!”

Short-sighted? I can probably agree with this, but it’s not always because they do not try. The “establishment” simply needs younger eyes with fresher perspectives. Maybe I am too trusting, but I disagree that the problem is ignorance or self-indulgence. Asking our current leadership to think like young members of the creative class is like asking me to think like an older, third-generation Lancastrian. I can make a good-faith effort, but you know I won’t nail it.

There were a total of 4 young people at Monday’s Planning Commission meeting: myself, Emma Hamme, Brandon Porinchak, and Shanon Solava-Reid. Brandon and Emma are talented community leaders, but they were there not as invited participants but rather in support roles as part of the Planning Commission staff. I was there because I overheard about the process, butted in with my two cents on the issue, and persisted in asking to be included. Shanon is to be commended for making a place for herself, and doing an excellent job, at the Lancaster County Community Foundation.

It is telling that I was only able to stay for half an hour of the 2-hour meeting, because in the end I’m still just an assistant in my organization, and I was called back to the office to prepare materials for a meeting the next day. When I left, the average age of the participants still in the room must have gone up about ten years. The sad fact is that the room more accurately represented the current leadership after I left.

7 thoughts on “Lack of Young Leaders, or a Lack of Leadership from the Rest?

  1. Hey, Dan–

    It’s been my experience, being a relatively younger leader working with older leaders, that while the older leaders are constantly -looking- for ways of “reaching” the younger generations, they often dismiss any thoughts or ideas which might do just that as silly or stupid. In particular, any suggestions regarding the “online community” are usually met with scoffs and outright disbelief that such a thing can even exist. Other suggestions I and others of my age and younger have made are met with condescending smirks and retorts of “Well, you’ll understand how things work when you’re older.” It’s quite discouraging, and it leaves you wondering if they’re trying to reach the younger generations to include them, or to simply assimilate them.

  2. Ken, your points are ones that I always need to be reminded of. I hope that my concerns come across as just that–concerns–and not as alarmist. I agree in wanting such a study (in fact, during one of the meetings in this planning process, I asked if the study could include a look at “whether the ‘establishment leadership’ is really as old and white as it is perceived to be.”

    At the same time, it seems that the current concern (about losing creative young people) is historically unique, precipitated by two things: 1) the emergence of the “knowledge economy,” and 2) the clear economic advantage held by competitor regions who can attract this specific young demographic.

    Jeff, thank you for your insight, too. I think we both hear a lot of lip service without meaningful action backing it up. A real desire to include young people would mean giving them (us) true decision-making authority and truly heeding their advice–even with it means taking a perceived risk.

  3. No real input or answers on this because I’m not overly familiar with the leadership situation in the county. However, I would make the observation that perhaps this is a)not all that new of a situation, and therefore b) not really a cause for alarm.

    I say this without any real study of the facts, but anecdotally I would bet if you look back..we’ve probably had generations of “aging leadership.” When I was working in radio as a news reporter over 20 years ago here in Lancaster County, I was in my early 20s. And I was clearly always the youngest person in the room at City Council and County Planning Commission meetings, etc. By far.

    I’d love to see a study of the age of local leadership over the past 50 years to see if, in fact, may have actually stayed the same, or even gotten a little bit younger.

    Sometimes the perception is different than the reality.

  4. You extend a lot of grace in your article and exhibit a lot of optimism. Two more good reasons for leadership in Boroughs, Townships, and the County to include young talent!

    Being a curmudgeon myself, I have a bit more cynical take. I wonder most of the time if the older leaders simply do things the way they do them because it has always been done that way. Party politics, for example. I wonder if many of the aging leaders remain in leadership just because it is comfortable to do so as they approach retirement age. Stay where you are so you don’t have to scramble for another job. And I wonder if half the resistance to change isn’t simply inertia and weariness — “it is just TOO MUCH TROUBLE — besides, I will retire soon, let someone else deal with it.”

    I would personally challenge twenty and thirty-somethings to enter races for public office — start on a local level. There are many people like me who would welcome a fresh face, new ideas, and an energetic, optimistic take on the future of the area.

  5. Hi Daniel. Thanks for opening the door for dialogue on this issue. Leadership is something I think about often. For me it is a question of who has authority and power. Based on experience there are plenty of opportunities to assimilate in our region. Assimilation does not lead to power and authority. I would be interested in perceptions of leaders in our community under the age of 40.
    For me it is beyond inclusion as referenced above. I want to engage. And I want to engage in a way that is authentic, involves diverse people and initiates a path for sustainable change.
    When I look around at young leaders I see people who create a vision that 99% of people have never conceived. I liken it to creating a new reality.
    Maybe this is what the leaders in our communities did 20-50 years ago, I do not know.
    I often wonder if the current “systems” work. Are current laws, policies, etc currently in place truly beneficial? And who are they benefiting? I am often disillusioned by solutions that rise to the top and the ineffectiveness of decision making practices.
    I believe younger leaders are more comfortable with risks, challenging the status quo, working with technology and engaging with diverse individuals than their older counterparts. Young leaders do exist in our community, and yes more are needed, whether they are recognized and appreciated I believe is insignificant to our future as actions speak louder than words.

  6. Interesting post Daniel,

    I believe we have many wonderful young leaders in our community who are still looking for their voice.

    “They are struggling to get a foothold and to be heard when they should be eagerly lifted up and given megaphones.” This is a really good point – it’s very clear to see that the reason they are not lifted up, the reason they are not given megaphones is because older leaders are scared to hear the truth.

    Those young leaders who are out there should not be afraid of just taking the megaphones and making themselves heard instead of waiting for someone to hand them one.

    The sooner we start recognizing, encouraging and including them the better for our community as a whole.

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