Trends in 2014: Millenials rising, new attention to economic disparities, and systemic change


What can we expect for 2014?

The trends people follow, and which they hope to foresee for the future, depend upon their goals. At Wilder Research, we strive to make Minnesota a better place for all. So, below appear some trends of importance to watch, for those of us in the business of building human capital and improving communities’ quality of life.

Watch the millennials.

Baby boomers have long enjoyed most of the attention of marketers, demographers, the media, and the creators of pop culture. The boomers’ “pig in a python” strongly influenced all aspects of society for the past six decades. In the cradle, unbeknownst to them, they influenced the development of infant products and propelled the sales of child care advice books (e.g., Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care). They filled the bedrooms of houses in newly created, sprawling suburbs. Now, in their sun setting years, they fuel the demand for everything from condominiums to Viagra.

Millennials will similarly shape the culture – partly due to sheer size, as with the boomers, but also by virtue of their unique position to tip the scales of opinion and behavior. In addition, they comprise the workforce of the future (despite, ironically, much tougher job prospects than previous generations). Their competencies, values, and work styles will define what that workforce can do and how that workforce can best do it.

Millennials have grown up with social media and smart phones. As they came of age, so did “video phones” (a tool existing only in science fiction fantasy for baby boomers). Millennials form and sustain relationships electronically, as well as by face-to-face communication. This has already begun to change how we govern ourselves, do business, and form community.

My colleagues in nonprofit organizations will need to respond to this changing demography in order to remain relevant and vital in the communities of the future. We must acknowledge the new ways that people expect to meet their needs – whether rich or poor. We must acknowledge the conditions under which they will donate time and money to our organizations. And we must adapt our actions accordingly.

P.S. Does all this indicate a lessening of the boomers’ influence? I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion; the boomers may actually have the last laugh because the existence of a strong cohort of productive millennials constitutes a crucial ingredient of the boomers’ continued quality of life. So, millennials must be as productive as possible!

Watch the changing attitudes regarding economic disparities

It has become fashionable for leaders in both of our major political parties to decry disparities, albeit for different reasons. While the approaches to reducing poverty and increasing economic stability in the population may differ between the two parties, common recognition of the importance of trends in disparities does exist.

Wilder Research began to sound the alarm more than 20 years ago, using census data, educational outcomes data, and health data to demonstrate significant gaps among racial and economic groups that remain today. Recently, working with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation and others, we have shown how disparities based on race, place, and income threaten everyone’s health and can take years off of our lives.

Admittedly, voters throughout our country have remained mostly indifferent to the growing income inequality in the United States. And here in Minnesota, despite concern among some of our leaders and members of the general public, we have not yet defined a strategy to address racial gaps ranking among the highest in the nation for educational attainment and homeownership. Nonetheless, the issue has high visibility across constituencies. My radar tells me that the viewers of both Fox News and MSNBC will increasingly share common discomfort and concern.

Many economists predict a relatively rosy year. They suggest that the economy will improve, the stock market will maintain strength, jobs will increase, inflation will stay low, and unemployment will decline. Amidst this outlook, will disparities decline? Let’s hope that positive economic conditions actually do permeate our new year, that they mollify any scarcity mentality that might inhibit our voters to take risks and address disparities, and moreover, that they nurture an attitude shift and a resolve to address and reduce disparities.

If awareness and understanding increase, and if attitudes change this year, we might witness positive change in the status quo in years ahead.

Watch for increasing emphasis on system-changing solutions to our social and economic challenges

One-on-one, volunteer approaches to charity will not soon disappear; nor will small nonprofit agencies acting independently to do good for their communities. However, increasingly, we will see broader initiatives formally organized and funded for collective impact.

To improve the education of our children, both Promise Neighborhood and the Strive model (known locally as Generation Next) represent examples of such initiatives, which involve large sets of organizations working collaboratively with school districts and other governmental entities. A new STEM section of Compass, developed as a collaboration of Boston Scientific, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota High Tech Association and Wilder Research, focuses on collectively targeting resources so the next generation of workers will have the skills they need.

Characteristics of such efforts typically include: a common goal or vision to which participating agencies subscribe; adherence to a set of standards for delivery of services; networks for acquiring and sharing information and results; and common core funding and infrastructure for leadership and coordination. Agencies give up some of their autonomy in order participate, but in return they become eligible for some limited funding, have the opportunity to increase the quality of their work through networking with their peers, and leverage the strength of their impacts by working in unison.

Several elements of our changing world propel this evolution of our approaches to community problem solving, for example: the overarching, worldwide effects of globalization; the complexity of the social problems which require resolution; and the new opportunities afforded by modern information technology for the development and management of large-scale collaborative efforts. In addition, these new efforts focus squarely on results. Geoffrey Canada, the original architect of the Promise Neighborhood initiative, exemplifies a “show me the data” mentality.

That “results” orientation suits the expectations among many in the new generation of voters, taxpayers, and donors (remember those millennials) who desire to see their money produce something tangibly beneficial for their communities and their charitable causes. It also satisfies the increasingly louder demands for transparency which nonprofits and government have heard during the past few years.

All the best for 2014.