July 2016

Op-Ed: The Demographic Revolution – Turning Challenges into Viable Economic-Development Opportunities


George Cappannelli


It’s been said we are entering a time in history unlike any before. The all-too-real implications of climate change, a still-fragile world economy and a divisive U.S. political environment that blocks even modest attempts to address these and other challenges are pretty much writing the story of our time. To compound matters, there is another game changer that will continue to impact our individual lives and the well-being of our cities for the first 75 years of this century. Unfortunately, in our youth-obsessed and age-averse culture, this game changer doesn’t even make most people’s list of major challenges.

It is called the Demographic Revolution, and over the next several decades it will result in approximately 50 percent of the U.S. population and in most industrial countries being 50 years of age or older—at the same time—for the first time in history. In Santa Fe, the percentage of older citizens is even higher. Our city’s average age is 18 percent ahead of the rest of New Mexico, and some studies suggest that approximately 62 percent of our population is already 50 and over. 

Of course, anyone who spends even a single afternoon in the City Different is aware that a lot of folks walking around our beautiful streets, dining in our many good restaurants, shopping in our distinctive stores and attending our wonderful, diverse cultural events are clearly representatives of the second-half-of-life crowd.

But what does this actually mean, and how does this age-related trend impact our ability to create the kind of future we all want? The first thing to understand is that the Demographic Revolution is being driven by three primary factors: increased longevity, decreasing birth rate and a shrinking tax base. As a result, one of the most consequential things happening is that the number of aging citizens in Santa Fe, when combined with the number of children, adults who lack the skills to qualify for jobs in the new information/service economy, and those who are at risk because of health or other factors, will soon make the “dependent” side of the economic equation much larger. This means that young and middle-aged workers will become the primary income generators and will find themselves trying to pay for the services and needs of all other segments of the population from a shrinking tax base. This, as you can imagine, will be a daunting task.

As serious a scenario as this is, however, there is some good news. While some in our city seem inclined to just talk about the future and hope that the City Different will somehow magically avoid these and other challenges, some of us have begun to suggest a more proactive approach. We suggest that we come together as a community in a new way, roll up our sleeves and actually begin implementing real solutions to our systemic challenges—education, poverty, crime, ethnic/cultural and religious divides, and more. We suggest that we finally admit what has been obvious for a while; that is, government alone cannot do all that needs to be done to meet the needs of the people and that, as a well-known national talk show host reminds us, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” And, of course, we think that it would be especially wise to get to work turning some of the challenges arising from the Demographic Revolution into new economic-development opportunities. 

And now for more good news: The majority of these economic-development opportunities are right in front of us. Indeed, if we take our cue from Lao Tzu’s counsel and remember that, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and if we make this next step focusing at least some of our attention and energy on these opportunities, we can begin to support our city in moving into a new period of economic, social, artistic and cultural vitality that can contribute to the quality of life of all of our citizens.

What are some of these opportunities? First, we would be smart to pay attention to the wisdom passed down to us from Seneca the Younger, who lived from 4 B.C. to 65 A.D. “If you don’t know the harbor you are heading for,” he said, “no wind is the right wind.” So let’s make sure we get really clear about our destination. Let’s craft a new, empowering vision, mission and set of core values to guide us forward. Let’s also read the writing on the wall that tells us that we need to create a new public/private sector model of collaboration and cooperation—more nimble and responsive—that will allow us to follow management expert Peter Drucker’s sound advice: “If you want to know the future, invent it!”

This future, of course, should include a focus on all of our systemic issues. Due to the limits of this article, however, I have narrowed the focus here to some of the opportunities that relate directly to the Demographic Revolution. Doing so does not imply that I believe the list of things we can and should do is limited. Instead, the list should be expanded to include ways to improve all areas of our lives. It should, actually, be as limitless as our imaginations and as real as our resolve and our willingness to truly improve life in our city.

A few other things we can do to succeed in the Demographic Revolution: We can stop denying the demographic shift and start acknowledging the truth that is staring us right in the face. Our aging citizens are not liabilities; they are valuable assets. Yes, instead of treating aging as some kind of unnatural disease or malfunction that we can avoid, mask or cure with an infusion of young people, let’s embrace our shifting demographics, turn them into a powerful and viable economic, social, artistic, cultural and ecological enhancement vehicle, and use this vehicle to actually keep and attract young and talented people to Santa Fe.  

Let’s also stop spending so much of our precious time and energy thinking, talking and procrastinating about things and, instead, let’s actually start doing more of the practical things that will help us to gain greater momentum. Let’s also stop waiting for government to issue a regulation or give us permission to make our city better. Instead, let’s make necessary and effective changes in our businesses, organizations and institutions, in the way we participate in government and, most especially, in the way we “show up” in our individual lives. 

If we do these things, plus introduce innovation in healthcare, housing, transportation, careers, civic engagement and more, we will not only contribute to the economic viability of our city; we will finally and actually begin to attract that whole new generation of skilled and talented young professionals and their families who can and will support our aging population and also lay the foundation for a new and even more vibrant future. We will also attract more financially stable individuals who are looking for the best place to live out the new third chapter of their lives, who will not draw down on city services. They will instead bring new energies, new ideas and new dollars to spend in our city.

So what do you say? Are we ready to invest some of our limitless imagination, contribute some of our natural optimism, our demonstrated ability to innovate, put in at least a few shovels full of genuine compassion and understanding, a good dose of love, plus our sizeable stash of experience and wisdom to help this city that we all love take its next steps toward creating a new future in which we can all thrive and inherit our dreams? If you are, visit www.agenation.com/thesantafeinitiative. Although still in its infancy, in the next few weeks you’ll be able to explore the results generated by first Santa Fe Dialogue, held June 16. The event was hosted by AgeNation and 1 New Mexico and sponsored by Sunrise Springs Resort. Then, in the next few months you will learn more about some of the terrific things already being done in our city by some really wonderful and committed folks and organizations. Lastly, you’ll be able to track some next steps we can takeindividually and togetherto invent the future.


George Cappannelli is an expert on individual, organizational and societal change, an executive coach and consultant who has worked with hundreds of organizations in both the private and public sectors.

With his wife, Sedena, Cappannelli co-founded the company AgeNation. The Cappannellis co-authored Do Not Go Quietly, A Guide to Living the Life You Were Born to Live for People Who Weren’t Born Yesterday, winner of nine national book awards. They are also co-founders of Empower New Mexico, a 501(c)(3) that supports people and organizations serving vulnerable sections of our aging population. Contact: George@AgeNation.com or visit www.agenation.com/thesantafeinitiative




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