This blog item is republished from April 2009. It prompted a thoughtful comment from Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, about a call for more democracy in small towns. It is “food for thought” in our town, too, in light of the recent election results. I hope people will re-read it. I think about it often.
Thanks for sharing this insightful article. In the last 6 months I have spent a great deal of my time traveling to the small town in the Sierra Nevada usually catalyzed specific requests to help identify economic strategies to adapt to the recession. There are about 150 communities with populations between 100-2500, and 30 with populations between 2500 and 30,000, in our region. I am hearing about the “decline of civic infrastructure” everywhere I go.
I am noticing that in many cases “decline” may be the wrong word. There is another cultural and demographic trend playing into the change we are seeing: we are witnessing an intergenerational transfer of power within our civic infrastructure concomitant with our recession.
The traditional economic power centers in our small towns (chambers of commerce, economic development commissions, large single employers and old line multi-generational families) supported the more traditional economic development strategies of growth for growths sake and many younger people are seeing that as a failed strategy.
The intergenerational transfer is driving key changes that civic leaders should be aware of and could adapt to in order to improve results.
1) There is a strong desire for greater ‘democracy’ driven by discontent with the old order in our communities. Many younger business people and community leaders, more attuned to the values of a younger generation, want a greater say for more people in civic processes. Many people believe that unresponsive government has disempowered large segments of our communities, business organizations have valued the status quo over change, and we have allowed oligarchic decision-making processes.
2) There is a growing respect for and acceptance of diversity in class, ideology, political philosophy, gender, race and thought. New leaders are put off by divisive language and personal attacks often seen as a lack of respect for equity.
3) There is a changing definition of leadership with the old order possessing a command and control leadership style where power is rarely shared unless forced and position and turf is jealously protected. The younger leaders preferring a collective leadership model where power is deeply shared and decisions are more collaboratively developed.
As the WSJ aptly points out, civic leadership has been concentrated in too few hands. I suspect that we have also allowed the baby boom generation, my generation, too hold too much power for too long. We need to learn how to share power.
If we can embrace a key business and ecological theory, that diversification of a system creates resilience and increases adaptability to new conditions, we may be able to turn the current recession, and 20% correction in the global economy, into an opportunity for civic improvement.
The following quotes are from an August 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review titled The Next 20 Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes will Evolve, by Neil Howe and William Strauss:
Defining the baby boom generation (born 1943-1960 now age 47-64), “…Boomers loudly proclaimed their scorn for the secular blueprints of their parents—institutions, civic participation, and team playing—while seeking inner life, self-perfection, and deeper meaning.”
Defining Generation X (born 1961-1981 now age 26-46), “…Xers learned early on to distrust institutions, starting with the family, as the adult world was rocked by the sexual revolution, the rise in divorce, and the R-rated popular culture. …..After navigating the sexual battlegrounds of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals as young adults, Xers have dated cautiously and married late. Many of them have begun to construct the strong families that they missed in their childhood. In jobs they prefer free agency over corporate loyalty, with three in five saying they want to be their own boss. They are already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in American history; their high tech savvy and marketplace resilience have helped America prosper in the era of globalization.”
And their final conclusion on Gen X, “Gen X political leaders will seek pragmatic, no-nonsense solutions and will argue far less than the Boomers ever did. Having grown up in a time when walls were being torn down, families dissolved and loyalty ties discarded, they will focus on reconstructing the social frameworks that produce civic order. They will waste no time on the obviously insoluble and won’t fuss with over the annoying. To them, the outcome will matter more than the method, money or rhetoric used to get there.”
Gen X, empowered by the election of the first Gen X President, wants results, resilience, a shift in American values and the return to sanity in our politics and leadership ethic. This is exactly the sort of pragmatism and energy we should empower to overcome the stagnant leadership and self-serving turf wars that inhibit many small towns. If we can connect the Gen X desire for democracy, diversity and shared leadership maybe we can finally start making some progress.