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.
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 NewsLanc.com 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.