A season for everything


Published: Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.

There's a school of thought that we should get used to the sluggish economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment of recent years, that this is the new normal.

So it's comforting to hear someone describe this period not as a permanent state, but as a cycle of U.S. history that turns like a season.

Yet it's scary to see the current period compared to a long winter, similar to the tumultuous years around the Revolutionary War, Civil War and Great Depression.

"Winter is a period when bad news piles on," Rebecca Ryan writes in her new book, "ReGENERATION: A Manifesto for America's Next Leaders."

I had the chance last week to talk with Ryan, who is speaking Thursday at Innovation Gainesville's economic forum at Santa Fe College. As the founder of Next Generation Consulting, she's helped cities recruit and retain young professionals.

Her book touches on issues that make cities attractive to that crowd, but it also puts our current period and generations into historical context. Using a concept introduced by the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, Ryan describes the idea that U.S history passes through 20-year periods that follow the same cycle and conditions as the winter, spring, summer and fall.

The bad news is we've been in winter since the 9/11 attacks. The good news, for the patient at least, is spring should come around 2020.

Reading Ryan's tome brought me back to my angsty high school days, when I picked up the Strauss and Howe books "Generations" and "13th Gen" to try to figure out my place in the world.

The latter title is because the generation born between about 1961 and 1981 was the 13th generation in American history. I fall in that group, more commonly called Generation X.

We're known as a cynical bunch, but Ryan's contention is that our pragmatism can help the country get its priorities straight. One of the big problems she describes is a lack of equity between generations.

"America is on track to become a nation of well-cared for older folks and underprepared young folks," she writes.

The numbers are striking: The U.S. spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children. The ratio rises to 7 to 1 if just looking at the federal budget.

I agree with those quoted in Ryan's book, who think we need a sober dialogue between young and old about how to best allocate resources.

That doesn't mean little old ladies should be denied their Social Security checks, but it might mean cutting benefits for rich old ladies to preserve them for everyone else.

Given our current stalemate in Washington, it's hard to envision a grand bargain on the budget that includes long-term entitlement reform. That might remain the case for a while, but Ryan expects the national tone to eventually move away from selfishness and toward the common good.

So what does all this mean for Gainesville? Ryan gave the city kudos for moving forward with plans to advance Innovation Gainesville, at a time when the economy is causing other cities to pull back.

That means Gainesville will be well-positioned when the historical season makes its turn. Longtime Floridians might not relate, but the promise of spring is the best way to get through winter.

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