Saturday, January 22, 2011

Greed is good? No, balance is better

In Springfield, an ongoing debate involves what the city can do to attract more young professionals. The city recently commissioned a local group of young professionals, The Network, to study what that age group wants out of where they live.

The Network’s report noted that, in addition to jobs, the city needs to offer a diverse, inviting environment. Among the particulars outlined were recreation opportunities, including trails, and a limit on public smoking.

Public reaction to the findings reveals what I think is a fascinating split between generations and a very clear-cut picture of how the working world has evolved (devolved?) in recent decades.

A handful of guest editorials and online comments in the Springfield News-Leader scoffed at the findings, suggesting that all of this bike trail flibbity-flabber is absolute nonsense, and that a citywide smoking ban is just another excuse for more gubmint and taxes. Jobs! That’s all the young people want! Who cares about all that other non-job frou-frou?

Well, as a young guy (as defined by The Network and every other metric), I argue that the job is probably the least of a young professional’s concerns.

That isn’t to trivialize jobs — far from it. In fact, I fully realize how hard it is to find one these days. The economy is terrible, and the streets aren’t exactly paved with classified ads and “Now Hiring” signs. Because of that, many more job-seekers than who might otherwise be inclined to do so are seeking employment wherever they can find what they want.

But despite that — or perhaps because of it — quality of life has become a more pertinent issue than in the past. It’s not uncommon for many of us to decide to move to a chosen city and then seek a job. Economically speaking, that can be a pretty foolish thing to do, but those who do so illustrate that their desire to live in a specific place overrides career concerns that may be best served elsewhere.

My generation’s figuring out that if you’re going to have to move anyway, and job security is a museum exhibit, then you might as well head to where you think you’ll be happiest no matter what happens.

And that’s why quality of life matters even more than jobs. Jobs come and go in a heartbeat in this economy, and vesting all of our comfort, security and happiness into one is a potentially destructive proposition. You might find yourself out of a job one day, but you’ll never find yourself without a need for personal fulfillment or social stimulation.

No one wants to find themselves unemployed in a place where they have nothing to do and no one with common interests with whom to bond (and network).

Springfield has considerable obstacles in attracting young professionals, which will only get worse as the economy improves. And while the city deserves kudos for making a genuine effort to lure them, I think a sea change has to occur before the area becomes a competitive playing field for upwardly mobile careerists. That might take a while, maybe even a generation.

Springfield has a reputation for being a nearly all-white city of Republican Bible-thumpers. That’s well-deserved, but there are plenty of diverse, open-minded people to be found if you know where to look. I’ve found and befriended many.

The bigger impediment to progress lies with those who view this effort as an insidious plot to remake bucolic Springfield into San Francisco, New York or one of those other hellish dens of iniquity. The Queen City of the Ozarks, they say, is just fine as it is. (City officials seem to disagree, but whatever.)

There seems to be a generation gap at play with this objection. Older, more conservative Ozarks lifers see San Fran, New York and other metropoli as exactly what Springfield shouldn’t be, epicenters of corruption, vice and crime. Younger generations are more likely to see those places as culturally vibrant hubs, and want Springfield to adopt their best characteristics. And given that young professionals are the future of Springfield’s economic machine, city officials must take heed of what they want.

In order to do this, we must toss preconceived notions of what it means to be a young professional. The term “young urban professional” gave rise to the epithet “yuppie” back in the 1980s. Yuppies still exist today, frozen forever in time as wealth-accumulating, social-climbing, brand-slinging uber-capitalists.

But as a whole, my generation of young professionals can hardly be considered yuppies. We live in a very different economic reality than our counterparts in the go-go 1980s. Success has a much less static or material definition than it used to, and someone flaunting wealth and status is seen less as the epitome of the American Dream and more as a disconnected douchebag.

The events of recent years have burned into many young peoples’ minds the moral bankruptcy of capitalistic greed and the reckless neglect of the environment and humanity that often goes along with it. That awareness has helped shift the national idea of what the Good Life entails.

I’ll admit that when I was younger, I wanted to be a millionaire. I wanted to have a high-profile job, my own house, several cars, a sexy wife and a jet-setting existence. I figured I’d be set with all of that by the time I was 23. As a tween and teen, I fantasized about that future often, and figured I’d be able to achieve it as a college-educated professional athlete and/or business owner. Never in those fantasies did I ever imagine any hardship, setbacks, injuries, emotional constraints, etc. I also never thought much about where I’d live, presumably imagining living in some suburb of the city where I’d play ball. I was a Brewers fan, so I figured I’d live in Milwaukee. I never thought for a moment that I’d be averse to cold, or prohibitively far away from family and friends, or otherwise be isolated from the things I would like to do outside the ballpark.

Over time, as I grew into a greater social consciousness and a more realistic perspective on life, my definitions of all that changed. These days, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to be rich. As they say, mo’ money, mo’ problems. I want to be happy in my own way, and dealing with the pitfalls of having lots of money is not how I want to spend my time.

Highlights that stand out for me in my four years in Springfield include long, meandering bike rides on the Ozarks Greenways trails and year-round flag football on Sundays. I suspect that once I leave, those will be the two memories that stand out the most. They were fun, unique and, most importantly, they were things I pursued in my free time. I always made time for these pursuits. They made me no money (and at times they cost money), but not having those experiences would have severely diminished my well-being during a time of career advancement. And I hope that wherever I wind up next, I can undertake similar pursuits. I refuse to live anywhere where that’s not possible.

So, yes, it does matter that my city has bountiful recreational opportunities. Yes, I want a smoke-free city. Yes, I want to live where life’s open well past the normal business hours of 9 to 5. Yes, I want as many different kinds of people taking different steps in the walk of life as a city can fit. And yes, I want the kind of city that will make me feel welcome no matter who I am or what I do.

Springfield has a long way to go in that regard. But groups like The Network and the city officials who listen to them — not to mention my generation in general — give me hope that progress is possible. And inevitable.


Anonymous said...

That's nice Ian & worth posting in the Newsleader.

Michael said...

The tiny fraction of people making six-figure incomes or better don't have to worry about whether or not they've got everything they need or want near them--they can afford to go get it wherever it is. But for the overwhelming majority of folks, that's not an option. So yes, if you want to attract people to come and live in your city, take the jobs that are on offer there (and, by the way, pay taxes into the municipal coffers, shop in local stores, and patronize local businesses), then said city needs to provide the options that people want to have--or they won't be attractive enough to bring in the new bodies.

It's a trade-off. If you can't provide top-dollar salaries, offer good benefits and you'll still be able to attract quality employees. No, Springfield doesn't have to become the San Francisco of the Ozarks to be attractive to a younger set. But it has to provide them with what they're used to--and it helps to remember that this is not the 1950s, when hardly anyone roamed much farther than a couple hundred miles from home on anything like a regular basis. In a globalized economy, you're going to have people moving around regularly, and over very long distances. If they're accustomed to things like free wifi, a Starbucks on every corner, bike trails, and smoke-free bars and restaurants, then your city is at a competitive disadvantage if it doesn't offer those things. I won't even go into the question of DP benefits, marriage equality, etc.--but those things are also increasingly important to the younger generation, and locales that don't offer them will inevitably suffer as time marches inexorably forward.