Kingsport is in the midst of a profound generational shift
Life in a community like Kingsport moves at its own placid pace. We don’t boom. We don’t bust. And we change at a glacial speed. But, change we do.
I first noticed that something was “different” about a year ago. My preferred location for an evening out changed, no longer focused on the nexus of Eastman Road and Stone Drive. The choices available have been expanding. The chain franchises and the venerable locally-owned restaurants are being supplemented by a variety of new establishments, particularly in downtown.
In addition, I had a revelatory moment when I realized that I was now a minority. I used to walk into a restaurant and know a preponderance of the patrons. (One of the joys and curses of living in a small town.) However, I had begun to notice that I knew fewer and fewer of the clientele. Then it dawned on me; the crowd was younger! And, it was true virtually everywhere I went.
There is a change occurring in Kingsport, a fundamental one that portends the transformation of our community. There is a generational shift afoot.
None of this should come as a big surprise, but somehow it does. I have been in Kingsport almost twenty-five years, the duration of a generation. In 1999, when I joined the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in my mid-40s, I jokingly said that I lowered the average age of the Board by ten years. My mentors have retired and my peers are now the Establishment. Today, Gen-Xers and Millennials are represented in the workforce in substantial numbers.
This new generation represents a binary change for us. They are on the other side of the “digital divide.” By this, I mean they never knew a world without computers, the internet or mobile devices, unlike people my age who started with typewriters, rotary phones, and three broadcast TV stations. How we each view the world, its problems and the potential solutions is very different.
I converted from an analog world. As I try to adapt to new technology, I start with trying to make an analogy to something with which I am familiar. A computer was like a “smart” typewriter. Often this limits my ability to fully comprehend and assimilate its full potential. My solutions are backward looking.
On the other hand, my kid’s generation tends to view things in a different way. The world is differentiated. Solutions are discrete, meaning they are broken into a distinct pieces that have a specific answers. There is an “app” to solve every problem. They look to the potential of the future for their answers.
The issue is not whether my observations adequately characterize the two groups or whether one mode of thought or the other is better (whatever that means). The real issue is the recognition that there is a significant difference between the way the two groups view the world and what they want from it.
The fundamental question is, “What are the implications of this phenomenon for our community?”
My generation is still firmly entrenched in power. I fear that like the French generals before World War II, our leaders will be fighting the battles of the last war rather than focusing on where things are going. Are we building the Maginot Line while Blitzkrieg warfare brews around us?
Our kids are taking over the world, yet they don’t seem all that impatient about getting their turn at the wheel. In that respect, I wish the upcoming municipal elections were more representative of the shifting demographics in our region. We need more young people vested in governing.
Their time is coming. What are we doing to prepare our community? Do we have what the next generation wants? Can we use this opportunity to get ahead of the curve and focus on building a future that is attractive to them? Are we capable of changing along with them?
Despite some vexing questions, I firmly believe that there is a world of opportunity in the coming wave. We may have slipped as the retail destination and other communities may have more high-end housing. While perhaps important at this moment, those are vestiges of the past. For instance, how long will bricks and mortar retail developments thrive in a world where more and more of our purchases are done on-line?
We should focus on the harbingers of the future: Urban living; boutique retail; and specialty local restaurants. On that front, we can and are competing.
The question is whether we have the courage to take a risk and let go of the policies with which we have become comfortable. If so, we may be able to create a community that will attract our children back home. However, to do so may shake Kingsport’s conservative mindset to the core.