3 ways to connect a polarized Seattle

Guest Opinion: The changing demographics of our country mean we need a new approach to staging conversations across age and race. Here's how.
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Hilary Pennington, Director of the Generations Initiative.

Guest Opinion: The changing demographics of our country mean we need a new approach to staging conversations across age and race. Here's how.

The demographic landscape of America is changing. Seattle’s is as well. The country is getting older and we are becoming more diverse. By 2042, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older. Today, half of Americans under the age of five are people of color — compared to fewer than 20 percent of Americans over the age of 65. Moving forward, one thing is certain: our generations are interdependent, and we must address their needs in tandem. Our future depends on all of us advancing together.

Unfortunately, the United States is rapidly dividing along lines of age and race. Perhaps the most striking example is the recent presidential election. The majority of voters under age 44 voted for President Obama, while most of those over 45 voted for Republican Mitt Romney. A majority of people of color voted for Obama, while a majority of white voters chose Romney.

These political divides are even more apparent in states where the generation gap is most evident, such as California, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. Without a shared framework for addressing these changes, it will be difficult for us to set priorities and balance the needs of all citizens.

All generations face challenges. Many people in older generations are struggling to afford health care and retirement, and young Americans are increasingly burdened by college debt, falling housing prices and lower earnings. Since 1984, the net worth of Americans under the age of 35 has dropped dramatically — by 53 percent. Our fastest-growing youth populations are coming from racial and ethnic backgrounds that face barriers to educational attainment, yet states that have experienced the largest changes in racial composition spend the least on public schools.

These changes and challenges are apparent in our own backyard, and a group of business and community leaders are gathering this week with the Generations Initiative to focus on the impact of this change. From 1979 to 2010, the population in the Seattle metro region grew at a rate nearly twice as fast as the national average. Along with this population boom, we grew more diverse. In 2010, one in three Seattle metro residents was a person of color. By 2040, that number will approach half — 45 percent.

Soon, the Seattle area, along with the rest of the United States, will become “majority minority,” with a youthful population of color and an older citizenry that is predominantly white. In 2010, 43 percent of youth were people of color, while only 17 percent of seniors were people of color — a racial generation gap that has continued to increase over the years. Seattle does better than most metropolitan regions in attracting well-educated people from outside, but it lags behind others in educating all of its people.

The Generations Initiative, a national effort based here in Seattle, aims to catalyze and support effective responses to the demographic changes happening in the United States. Its goal is to reframe these changes as a collective national asset. Our work is an intensive, five-year effort — funded by national foundations and individual donors — to help pave a productive path forward for our communities and the nation as a whole.

In 2014, we’ll launch a Community Learning Network of 15 to 20 communities that can develop proactive strategies, share resources, and set metrics that will measure effectiveness. Seattle is one of the cities we are studying to understand the complexities of how demographic change is playing out. And our findings here will play an integral role as we build that network.

So far, our work has identified three critical requirements for implementing a proactive, positive management of this demographic shift.

1. We need to reframe how we think and communicate. We need to understand that generational change is not only political. It’s also deeply private and personal. We need a richer understanding of age, race and heritage. Americans are living longer and healthier, and age doesn’t mean what it used to. Terms like “minority” are becoming obsolete. Young people are growing up in families that are not like the ones that raised their grandparents. The generations have different experiences of marriage, partnership and careers, and different ideas about successful family life.

There is no doubt that individual experiences and perceptions of demographic change drive voting patterns and policy-making. We need to shift the conversation from one of division and competition to one of collective fates and prosperity.

2. Communities can lead the way to more effective solutions, but they must proactively address gaps in leadership, providing opportunity for leaders who can speak and work with credibility across a diversity of identities and ages. Communities must re-evaluate their budget priorities to reflect changing needs and balance a range of interests. They must create or re-invent civic venues that foster contact and empathy among groups that have limited experience with one another.

3. We need to catalyze leadership to effect change. Organizations that have historically been concerned with the interest of one population have much to gain from forging relationships with other groups that will help them respond to the new challenges ahead.

This week, leaders in Seattle will focus on how we can work together to build a better future. In order to preserve the quality of life for the old, we need to increase opportunity for the young. By investing in each other, we invest in ourselves.

People often ask me why I chose to address demographic change and begin the work of The Generations Initiative after I left the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I want to help bridge the divides of age and race because I know that we are better off when we work together. And I believe that our ever-growing diversity strengthens our cultural, family and economic connections with each other and the rest of the world. It is an advantage to leverage, not something to fear.

We cannot stand by and watch our age and racial divides harden. For the sake of our economic and democratic vitality as a nation, we must act.


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