Two generations copy

RESEARCH BY THE UNITED NATIONS SUGGESTS THAT WE are rapidly becoming an urbanized world – by 2030, as many as 70% of the planet’s population will reside in cities. And, increasingly, cities are becoming younger by the year, as younger generations migrate to municipalities in search of everything from education and work, to culture and a place to build a family. It is a relentless tide that has the capacity to reset the framework of history.

But not the town I live in. London, Ontario is gradually on its way to greying the landscape. In 10 years, one in every three Londoners will be over 55. It’s a wonderful city, but data reveals that we are increasingly losing the younger demographic to other cities, especially once they graduate from college or university. Understanding this for the challenge it is, numerous groups in the city have been struggling mightily to reimagine our community in ways the way would not only keep young minds in your midst, but actually attract those from other places. Failure in this pursuit will clearly result in a loss of economic innovation and growth.

Yet, as we enter the political season of civic elections, the pursuit of political office can often result in efforts and language that can undo much of has been built. When one older councillor and candidate for mayor, Joe Swan, opted to label one of his opponents, Matt Brown, by concluding, “He’s very young, and he’s very naïve,” he began a war of intergenerational words that is the worst thing for our city in a time when the entire community needs to come together for the future.

I have no desire to cross swords with Mr. Swan, but must he take politics in this direction by creating an age wedge?  Must we go there?  Can ours not be a city for all of us?  Three of our longest-serving mayors – Tom Gosnell, Dianne Haskett, and Anne Marie Decicco-Best – were actually younger than Matt Brown is now when they first donned the mayor’s mantle. Mr. Brown is a one-term councillor who had sat on numerous community boards, and, before he was elected, was accredited with being an engaged community player.

I presume Mr. Swan is saying that he has the very experience he believes his opponent lacks. Yet he was caught with a number other councillors in secret meetings that the Ontario ombudsman felt were foolhardy and undercut the confidence of the community – eventually costing taxpayers $100,000 in legal expenses. What’s so wise and seasoned in that? A study of the average age of those councillors caught in the embarrassing act is highly revealing in itself. Age doesn’t necessarily equate with common sense wisdom.

By singling out Mr. Brown in the way he did, Mr. Swan also happened to send a clear shot across the bow of all those younger activists who, along with their older counterparts, have been struggling to unify a city that has been divided. It remains a foolhardy gesture to get so personal against another opponent when all that the people of London are asking for is a more collaborative and respectful kind of political management. There should be no room in our civic politics for personal comments that neither match the facts nor the spirit of accommodation desired by the community.

“It takes a very long time to become young,” said Pablo Picasso, and London is living that challenge every year. We are in danger of losing our young talent, with its compassion, energy, innovation, and, yes, wisdom. We are a city desperately in need of becoming young and ambitious again if we are to secure our own future. The secret for any mayoralty candidate in any city of the world is to  recapture the youth and vitality that once made their cities great and can do so again.

We should always thank those candidates who put their name out there for the difficult task of the highest elected official in the municipality, and I appreciate Mr. Swan’s willingness to step up to the challenge.  But we can undertake this democratic exercise respectfully, despite contrary visions, and in a manner acknowledging that wisdom is not the exclusive possession of any age group. If, as Albert Einstein put it, “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change,” then our need for the next generation to show up is essential to our own survival as a community. True wisdom understands that distinction. Any great city must dare to be young enough to be different.