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How will we respond to our major demographic shifts?

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Steve King, the City of Wenatchee's director of Community and Economic Development, has been making the rounds  in recent months sharing some sobering statistics that show the scope of the economic and social challenge that we will face in Chelan and Douglas counties in coming years.

He shared his insights at the recent TEDx Wenatchee Valley event held at Wenatchee Valley College that brought diverse leaders in the valley together to start thinking about how we might work together to transform our communities to thrive in the long term.

King has looked deeply at the data and has developed some important insights that we ignore at our peril. 

There are two major challenges - the distribution of income and the huge bubble of kids under 20 who are moving through the system. In a healthy situation, the incomes would roughly mirror a bell curve, King points out. But that's not the situation today, where we have half of the households earning less than $50,000 and half the households with greater than $50,000. An extraordinary number of households are under $10,000 in annual income. 

Of $2.6 billion in income for the two counties, $2 billion goes to the households above $50,000 and only $570 million to the other half. That disparity in income distribution, coupled with a surging bubble of children under 20, should cause all of us who care about the long-term future of the valley a fair amount of alarm.

Unless we find ways to create economic opportunities that will create a more balanced future, the concentration of wealth of the top and the limited opportunities at the bottom are going to cause wrenching problems for our communities. It's fundamentally unhealthy to have significant poverty alongside significant wealth. 

As King points out, a critical factor is productivity. The state average for per capita gross domestic product is $55,000. The number for Chelan and Douglas is a whopping 40 percent below the state average — or $33,000. In fact, King says, the Wenatchee valley happens to be among the lowest in productivity of any metropolitan area of the state. 

King points out that there is a huge cultural shift happening between the generations. We tend to think of culture through the prism of our changing racial demographics. But there's also a tectonic shift in the values of the young generation. They tend to be less materialistic (thank goodness), more collaborative, want work that allows them more autonomy and flexibility, and most of all they want to make contributions not be cogs in the wheel of bureaucracies. 

Our community and our economy needs to be rewired to create opportunities for the next generation.  This is a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity for us to create our future.

Doing that will require vision and creativity. Fortunately,  there are discussions on this subject taking place about how we can better connect the dots. That's what the TEDx Event was designed to inspire.

The next 10 years are going to define our greatness for the next generation. We have to face into these challenges and take action rather than just hope things change for the better. This will require a whole community conversation rather than just some elected officials sitting in a back room deciding our future. 

The most important thing we can do as a community is cultivate a long-term perspective with a strong sense of the interdependence of our communities. We need to stop looking at issues from a narrow perspective and think about the broader implications. 

We will have to rewire leadership for today's challenges and reach out to non-traditional leaders to build capacity. 

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TEDx Wenatchee Valley web site