Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Generational Gap in Civic Life

"We need more young people."

It is an oft repeated concern among members of "The Bubble", observing that the 10% who do 90% of the work are commonly between the ages of 45 and 65.  There have even been organizational manifestations of this concern in the creation of twentyfivefortyfive and the Community Foundation of Howard County's Leadership Council Award.

As a member of the targeted cohort, I can tell you that the only concrete strategy for luring more "young people" has been to ask "Do you know anybody?"

And this is a point of continual frustration for me.  Token representation will do token work.  At one time, I bought into the "do you know anybody" strategy and recommended a half-dozen "young people" to the boards upon which I served.  Without fail, the occupation, family life, or general disinterest of my nominee would wear out their participation, leaving egg on my face.  "Oh Tom, we wanted a young person who would do a good job.  You must have misunderstood."

At a recent Board meeting for one of those nonprofits, I pushed back.  I noted that demographic representation is not enough.  You need someone with passion.  If that person is 80 years old with passion for doing good, they are worth a half dozen 25-45er's who think this is a throwaway networking opportunity.  And if they are 22, with barely a financial network to leverage, but a restless desire to get involved and help their community, you bring them on-board.  Not because someone "knew somebody", but because you couldn't get them to stop knocking on your door.

As a community, the work of getting the next generation involved requires much more work than playing tag.  We need to look at how the younger generation is participating in civic life and meet them there.  Respectfully, we spend far too much time shining a spotlight on those with the deepest pockets and not enough time looking at what those with little to no discretionary income are doing to make this a better place to live work and play (and that goes across all generations).

But our need for younger participation in civic action is unquestionably true.  Young professionals and new families experience the same space in a way that is completely different from those at the peak of their career who see Howard County's high cost of living as a comfortable landing spot.  And the 45-65 contingent make well-intentioned, but horribly off-base, presumptions about what the next generation wants based on the reflections of what life was like in the 1980's and 90's. 

And that is the base concern here.  Younger community members and their mentors alike need to stop seeing inexperience as something in need of correction.  It is a prize in perspective to be encouraged, elicited, and utilized.  We are a very intimidating group of leaders.  The sooner we recognize that, the more "young people" we're likely to recruit.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!