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My generation! (And its legacy).

I never thought that I would write a column like this. The last time I think I actually used the term "my generation" with any passion was back in the days when my buddies and I were listening to Bob Dylan and not trusting anyone over thirty How times change.

I will confess that thoughts of my generation have come to mind in recent years because I have been reading that the successful manager of today is the one who understands what the different generations within our present workforce all need and want. That insight prompts me to appreciate that within our multigenerational workforce, I belong to the Baby Boomer enclave and that we Boomers (like the Xers and Yers) have our own peculiar idea of what makes for satisfying work. Thoughts of my generation also pop into mind when I look up from my desk and realize that we are now the elder generation of the workforce. (Ouch! That was never supposed to happen.)

But what has really pushed thoughts of "my generation" to the forefront of my thinking as of late has been the urgent discussions that I am now hearing from almost every corner of our profession having to do with generation turnover and the growing loss of Boomers from our ranks. What makes these discussions all the more unsettling is that this mass exodus is occurring at the very same time that we are having difficulty drawing sufficient numbers of new people to replace those leaving.

I, along with several of our recent presidents have written about these workforce challenges in the pages of the Journal. I hope that these writings have helped both to educate and to motivate, because we do, in fact, need to understand and come to terms with the challenge of effectively replacing the generation that is now moving on. When we hear that between 40 and 50 percent of the state and local environmental health workforce will be eligible to retire within five to seven years or that 90 percent of the current environmental health workforce has no formal education in either environmental or public health, or that as many as 12,000 job vacancies may be emerging over the next few years while the numbers of graduates from environmental health degree programs continue to be sparse, we must recognize that we have an important challenge before us that requires our attention and our resolve.

On the professional level, NEHA and a number of other parties are mounting efforts to appropriately address the situation. There is also, however, a very personal side to this story that involves reflecting on what it means to be a member of the generation that is in the process of leaving the workforce. It is that story that I would like to discuss for a bit in the remainder of this column.

For starters, I'll bet that I speak for many of my generational brothers and sisters when I say that I thought that this day would never happen. After all, isn't retirement for old people? That's not us! As the press has repeatedly reported, the Boomers are the first generation to declare war on aging, and it is a generation that loves to challenge convention--even when it comes to DNA-driven biological processes that have defined the aging phenomenon since life's beginnings.

Notwithstanding my generation's attitude toward aging, the fact remains that many of the dedicated and altruistic people of my generation are now moving on to new life adventures. As I have tried to take in the personal significance of this development, I have spent some time thinking about what my generation--that restless, energetic, altruistic, driven, and creative generation--has done to this world. How does today's world compare to the one we set out to change some 40-plus years or so ago (or way back then!)? Has my generation made the world (and the practice of environmental health) better, worse, or the same?

I claim no credentials in anthropology, sociology, or even history. I am simply a thinking person who has seen many things and who is capable of reflection. Please allow this reflective person the chance to offer a few observations on what I believe my generation has done.

I begin with Theodore Roszak's great book from the 1960s, The Making of a Counter Culture. His book profiled who we were but spent even more time talking about our dreams and our determination to realize them. And, back in our heady college days, we were convinced (weren't we?) that we could change the world and transform the very way in which we lived. Didn't we all hear blaring from Woodstock that "The times ... they are a changing."

As we burst forth from college campuses all around the country and began infiltrating the workforce, that determination and those dreams came with us. Many of us continued to also participate in the great movements of the time--from the civil rights movement to the women's movement to the especially pertinent environmental movement. With the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, it seemed we were on our way. Even the vocabulary of our time started to change to reflect our ambitious aspirations. Ideals we championed such as "zero pollution discharge," "clean air," and "swimmable and fishable waters for all" took form in legislative declarations. Policy making seemed attuned to the humanistic and environmentally friendly values we espoused. The times ... why they did seem to be a-changing!

But then ...

Many of us got married. We started raising children. We climbed up to higher rungs of the career ladder and took on more responsibility. As we took on increased responsibilities, we learned more about the rules of the game and what it took to succeed in a consumer-driven society. I dare say that as we began to increase our appetite for consumption, our generation began to normalize and soon after became a powerful and driving force for the further advancement of the GNP. In fact, of the many monikers that have been slapped on our generation, perhaps the most telling is the one that "we live to work."

And now, here we are with our work histories but wondering where the time went.

It's a funny place to be, nearing the end of the run. Forty-plus years ago, we came crashing into the workforce determined to use our jobs as a means to change the world. Now, 40 years later and looking back, we in many ways became our parents after all, and the world that we were so determined to change doesn't appear to look that much different from the world we vowed to turn upside down. At least on a superficial level, our possessions and our lifestyles would suggest that we too have found a way to become just as materialistic, just as vain, just as ideological, and just as divorced from our natural ecology as previous generations were--despite our earlier protests that this would never happen. The wiser among us might suggest that in the end, people are simply people who do the best that they can while making sure that their needs and desires get met--especially in a consumer society such as ours.

But wait, could this really be possible? Didn't we do something different, something right? In the end, were these 40 to 50 years about nothing more than accumulating? What happened to all those dreams of working together (remember the utopia of communal living that we preached?) to change humanity to bring about a better world? How could all that energy and talent have ended up in a mere facsimile of the previous generation and the ones before it? Certainly, we've left some mark, haven't we?

Well indeed, if one takes a deeper look, there are differences between the world we entered as young adults and the world we now bequeath to the Xers and Yers of today. There is far more of a global awareness--which we see only too well in our field, given that we understand that environmental impacts come without passports and that damage in one spot is likely to spill over into many others. We also have significantly advanced technology and, in the process, brought to life the Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon comic strip characters of our childhoods. Our technological advancements have been mind-boggling. Today we can instant-message and communicate with just about anyone anywhere anytime. The advent of the personal computer and our ensuing dependency on it has changed forever the way we work and live. Even some of our social norms look different as the erosion of the institution of marriage evidences. And so on.

But if we can get past the more superficial and obvious levels of everyday life where the impact of technology is so apparent, to those more mysterious and deeper levels of our being where we touch our values and explore how our thinking takes shape (which was also the target area for much of the altruism that drove and shaped our generation), I would argue that, by God, we did hit at least one ball out of the park. It was our generation--"my generation"--that took our social altruism and built from it a culture of diversity unlike anything that our workforce or our contemporary society has even seen before. It is my deep, deep belief that if our generation is to be known for anything, it should be known for unleashing the power that only a well-rounded, mutually respectful, and inclusive discussion can bring to bear on virtually any issue.

Maybe we didn't turn the world upside down after all, but I am convinced that by enshrining the value of diversity and mainstreaming both its concept and practice, we have indeed made this world and the worlds that will follow a better place for all. Congratulations to us.

That's really my main point--to recognize that we have changed the world and the practice of our profession for the better by making diversity an integral part of our thinking, our problem solving, and our valuation of each other. I do, however, have two footnotes that I want to offer as I conclude these reflections on "my generation."

First, not surprisingly, the growth of the not-for-profit sector is now outpacing the growth of either the for-profit sector or the government sector of the economy. Yes, many of our generation invested entire careers in following the money trail. Many, however, have somehow managed to preserve some of that altruism that fired this generation up when it was forged in the 1960s. As a result, we have seen an unprecedented movement of people and volunteers into the not-for-profit sector as Baby Boomers are taking one last shot at advancing a wide range of social causes before they hang it up and leave the work world. Apparently, underneath the riches that many Boomers have accumulated, that yearning for making the world a better place still lives.

Finally, I have a special salute for the Boomers who have spent their lifetimes in the practice of environmental health--and that includes everyone from many of our past presidents to those who have spent a career in the field just getting the job done. Over my years at NEHA, I have heard many refrains. None have been expressed more frequently than the one that goes "You will never get rich working in environmental health," and with that, of course, we are talking about dollars and salaries as opposed to impacts and fulfillment. As the legions of Boomers were diffusing into virtually every corner of the modern workforce some 40 years ago, you--that is, those of you who entered this profession--found a path that enabled you to spend a lifetime making the dreams that we all had actually come true. You have spent a lifetime both protecting our environmental support system and protecting us from environmental dangers. I remember those very callings being expressed in the zeal of that first Earth Day. You stayed with it when surely many other options beckoned you. Congratulations to you and thank you for putting such a good face of this generation on dreamers. As the reality of today's more healthful environment demonstrates, you and your careers have indeed changed our world for the better.

Nelson Fabian, M.S.

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Title Annotation:Managing Editor's Desk
Author:Fabian, Nelson
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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