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The Stories We'll Tell: A Short History of the Future

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Whose Future? | Photo: Bing Creative Commons License

Dowell Myers, a professor at the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy, presented his new Social and Economic Southern California demographic data at the South Bay Cities Council of Governments annual conference last month.

Myers' research questions how we imagine Southern California.

His data also illustrate how greatly the generations depend on one another, and especially how cities will depend on a smaller number of grown children to replace aging baby boomers. (A glimpse of his research can be found in my earlier article: Front Porch Time Machine: Tomorrow's South Bay)

The disjunction between the data that describes present Southern California and the stories we tell ourselves about our home has never been wider. The gap between what we are and what we say we are is at least twenty years wide, according to Myers.

We still tell ourselves (among other stories) that we are young, that migration from outside drives development, that the foreign born are increasing, that government services are a burden on the taxpayer and the property owner, and that Southern California is post-racial as a result of our "diversity."

None of our stories are completely true and some of them are completely wrong.

We're aging quickly... too quickly for younger members of the population to fill all the slots as contributors to the state's economy. We're not growing nearly as fast as once predicted, and nearly all population change today is Californians having more Californians. The wave of foreign-born immigrants peaked in the 1980s and has dropped precipitously since. We want our suburban comforts, but we've subjected cities and counties to draconian tax policies that have eroded the quality of life in many neighborhoods.

We're all "diverse" now... except at the voting booth, where age and Anglo ancestry will continue to decide the state's public policy issues well into this century. How will politics and society fare, asks Professor Myers, when 14 million older Anglos expect to be supported by a smaller cohort of working-age Latinos?

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For more than 150 years, the builders of Southern Californians depended on climate and a seductive sales pitch to lure new buyers to whatever El Dorado was currently on offer -- be it orange groves in 1890 or suburban house lots in 1990. But that kind of selling to that kind of buyer is about played out. As Myers notes,

Most significant of all is the growing dominance of homegrown Californians, who will constitute a majority of all whites younger than 75, all blacks younger than 65, all Latinos younger than 45, and all Asian and Pacific Islanders younger than 25. The importance of being homegrown is that these people are rooted here. They have been California-educated by California taxpayers, and they may be the answer for California employers and home sellers. The homegrown Californians will carry the future like never before.

The Gold Rush and the Donner Party -- the bright story of unearned success and the bleak story of failed audacity -- aren't relevant anymore to narratives of California. Building a Franciscan mission church out of Styrofoam and poster paint when you're nine can't renew the false nostalgia that California history was written to protect.

Joe Mathews, in a recent essay for Zócalo Public Square, laid out the need for new stories of what it means to be Californian. He wrote:

Anthony York, writing for the Grizzly Bear Project, pointedly asked, "Can the idea of California survive the transformation of what it means to be a Californian?"

That's the question behind Myers' data. California isn't exactly California any more (and that goes double for Los Angeles).

If the stories we tell ourselves (as Joan Didion said) in order to live here are at least a generation out of date, of what use are they in shaping the policies that will determine our quality of life in the future?

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