We are stardust.

We are golden.

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden.

– Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

Conventional wisdom has it that the 2016 election cycle has been about anger. Issues, platforms and policy proposals have certainly taken a back seat to shouting, sign stealing and character assassination. Emotion has far outweighed reason throughout the process.


My own sense is that anxiety has been the overriding factor. “What ifs” and “If onlys” have been bouncing around uncontrollably inside everyone’s skull. We have approached Tuesday as if it were a slowly approaching natural disaster – a flood or a hurricane – rather than the regular exercise of our democratic rights. And this thought leads me to the truly dysfunctional nature of our state slogan, “Maine: The way life should be.”

Whatever its value may be as a branding tool for attracting visitors, this slogan is the polar opposite of what we need as a touchstone to guide our public life after today. Many in Maine are so angry today precisely because, for them, life in Maine is manifestly not the way it “should” be. And, more importantly, the thought of “X” (fill in the blank with the name of the candidate who triggers your fear and loathing) assuming power tomorrow simply exacerbates this “Now we’re really heading to hell in a handbasket” anxiety.

Therein lies the tyranny of the ill-defined but emotionally overpowering idea of “the way life should be.” If there is any one thing we citizens of these United States should have learned over the 240 years of our experiment in self-governance, it is that there is no “way life should be.” There are, instead, millions of “ways life might be” – if we but give ourselves the freedom and encouragement to try them.

To my mind, the single greatest problem facing our state is the declining participation in the labor force of males age 25 to 54, particularly those without high school diplomas. In 1970, over 95 percent of this cohort of men was in the labor force. In those days, even 90 percent of those who didn’t finish high school were working or actively looking for work. And, not coincidentally, one in three nonfarm jobs in 1970 was in manufacturing. Perhaps this Maine was “the way life should be.”

But no more. Today, barely 8 percent of nonfarm jobs are in manufacturing. The workforce participation rate of 25- to 54-year-old males with more than a high school diploma is rapidly falling toward 90 percent; the rate of those with only a high school diploma is falling toward 80 percent; and the rate of those without a high school diploma is barely 60 percent.

Over 34,000 of Maine’s prime-working-age men aren’t even looking for a job. They surely know that Maine is not “the way life should be.” And so do their aging parents, hanging on in the rural counties where so many of these men live.


What these anxious and angry people don’t know is how Maine “could” be. Maine is now becoming and, in certain sectors, could increasingly become more of a growth center for manufacturing – but not for those who didn’t complete high school, and probably not for those without some form of work experience and skill certification.

The same can be said for many other arenas where demand for workers is now expanding and will continue to expand, such as research and development, information science, industrial design, robotics and project and human relations management.

My point here is not to claim that a Pollyanna-ish optimism can suddenly replace both the angry cries to build walls and rip up trade agreements and the fairy-dust promises of free higher education and roads to everywhere. It is, rather, to reaffirm the idea that we here in Maine, all of us, are indeed “stardust” and that we can in fact “get ourselves back to the garden” – as soon as we stop insisting that the nature of that garden is clearly and exclusively defined as something that existed in the past.

We need, instead, to return to our state’s earlier, nobler slogan – Dirigo, “I lead” – whose purpose is not to provide a brand to attract others to us but an appeal to call up in ourselves the courage to face an unfamiliar future with resolve and confidence.

And, most importantly, it is a call – especially after such a divisive election – to define ourselves not as a small tribe of “real” Mainers repelling alien invaders, but as a confident team of competitors determined to continue our exploration of this wonderful place we call Maine.

Consulting economist Charles Lawton, Ph.D., can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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