It seems to be commonly held that 2019 is the end of the decade and thus we begin the new decade now. I hold the minority view that the new decade doesn’t begin until 2021 because the first year wasn’t year zero, it was year one. However, with respect to the ease of round numbers and not wanting to die on this hill, I will concede we have begun a new decade.

With that concession, I do feel the 2020s will be our most important decade. Perhaps that’s how we always feel when a new decade is upon us. Some might say it’s recency bias to believe this new decade is the most relevant, but there are numerous signs to me that it is. We are politically divided to a point not seen in a half-century. Our biggest generation is heading into retirement and the technology boom has fundamentally shifted how business gets done. There is a growing wealth gap, healthcare costs are rising and it feels very much like we’re approaching a breaking point, but whatever precisely that breaking point is, we can’t know for sure.

It’s a lot. It can be overwhelming.

Does that mean the last year or the past decade wasn’t filled with good times? Absolutely not. The 2010s were an incredible time to be alive, both nationally and locally, and there were tremendous stories of success, expansion, renewal and growth. 2019 could be argued to have been one of the most successful years of the last decade in our region.

Yet, as we head into the new year we must expand our vision past just 2020. We can’t look at only what’s facing us in the next three months, three weeks or three days. We need to look at the decade as a whole because there are signals and signs to looming issues we need to keep an eye on. There are certain paths we are headed down as a society and if we don’t like where the path is heading then we need to begin to change course now before it’s too late.

This isn’t a pessimistic view, but rather a realistic one. And truthfully speaking, no great change happens without a plan. In fact, Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) just completed a ten-year strategic plan for the State. The plan is a good one, with some very specific goals laid out in certain sections, and other goals being a bit more visionary than grounded. That’s fine too- you don’t need to know the answers in order to identify a problem. You can point out what is needed, even if you aren’t sure how to get to the result just yet.

Over the next few columns, I want to lay out some my own observations that range from business to cultural issues. Just like the DECD strategic plan, some observations are more grounded with an identified solution and other pieces are just problems I’m recognizing that we need to keep an eye on. Some of these issues might require a change within ourselves, and others might require changes in our community or throughout our state. Of course, these are only my opinions and perhaps there are many other issues you recognize that I don’t, but from what I’ve seen over the last 13 years in running a chamber of commerce here’s a few things I’m keeping an eye on. Below is one example this week and we will dive into others in the weeks to come.

Our Aging Workforce
As alluded to in the opening, our Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. In fact, more people are turning 65 over the next nine years than at any time in the history of our country. This affects the workforce on several fronts. First, in terms of sheer numbers, there are less available workers as we have hit record low unemployment for almost a year straight. You can credit policies all you want, but the signature reason is because people are aging up and out of the workforce, choosing retirement after over 40 years of working.

This also leaves a void in our business leadership. Many of those retiring have worked their way up in their companies and their exits are not only vacating the company but often leaving a leadership void in the company. Even if the employee isn’t a management level employee, there is a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is walking out the doors every month in many of our companies. How are we replacing that?

The outlook for 2030 is good on one-hand and not so good on the other. In terms of numbers, there is a new wave beginning as our second-largest generation are hitting the working age, so the numbers are there. But what about the loss of leadership? How are we training these new leaders? How are we documenting the institutional knowledge from our leaders before they walk out the door? What is the transition between leaders?

Finally, though we have the numbers in our Millennial and Gen Z workers, but do they have the training or the desire to do the jobs that we need them to replace? How has technology changed these industries? How have industries made technological changes to have a smaller workforce?

Think of your self-checkout lines. Your fast food kiosks. Your online shopping. Were these technological advances because the industries wanted to shrink their workforce, or were they because there is a shrinking workforce and they couldn’t stay open otherwise?

Bottom line: we need to begin training tomorrow’s leaders today. We need to talk to industry leaders to find what jobs are needed and we need to connect people to those jobs and inspire them into these career paths.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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