Hispanic leadership can unlock America’s demographic advantage

new atmby William McKenzie

molinaThe advantage that the U.S. economy possesses over its competitors in Europe and Asia is a simple one: its people. Specifically, the relative youth of our population, which ensures a steady flow of workers over the next few decades.

The Economist recently spotlighted the advantage, including the role of Hispanics:

“From Europe to north-east Asia, the 21st century risks being an age of old people, slow growth and sour, timid politics. Swelling armies of the elderly will fight to defend their pensions and other public services. Between now and mid-century, Germany’s median age will rise to 52. China’s population growth will flatten and then fall; its labor force is already shrinking. Not America’s. By 2050 its median age will be a sprightly 41 and its population will still be growing. Latinos will be a big part of that story.”

The youth of our population is indeed linked to the growth of the nation’s Hispanic population. The median age for Latinos in the U.S. is only 27; for the general population it is 37.

Here is what worries me about these numbers: If the Hispanic population and the larger society live in parallel universes, states like Texas will experience serious social and cultural divisions. We already see some of this in the northern and southern halves of Dallas. If we allow parallel universes to persist, we will squander the human capital that stands to give us an advantage.

That sounds like Chamber of Commerce-ese, but the fact is, we need to break down walls. Some of that gets done person-to-person, but the work also requires effective leaders.

That’s why efforts like Dallas’ new Latino Center for Leadership Development stand out. The center aims to train Latinos in the 25-to-40 age range to enter the policy world or seek elected office. It also wants to pursue research that produces a better understanding of Latinos’ needs.

Dallas school trustee Miguel Solis leads the center, which Dallas businessman Jorge Baldor funds. Over coffee recently, Solis explained the mission.

The center will select fellows from the millennial generation to participate in a course on key elements of leadership. As Solis puts it, Dallas can’t simply wait for Hispanic leaders to emerge. Nor can the city wait for longtime Latino leaders to tap the next generation. Dallas needs efforts that intentionally groom those leaders.

The city certainly benefited from Ron Kirk’s election as mayor. Kirk’s leadership showcased Dallas’ rising black professional class. Dallas could benefit from leaders who similarly lead a strong Hispanic professional class into the mainstream.

The center simultaneously is launching a policy institute that will draw upon the expertise of professors at Southern Methodist University’s Tower Center and elsewhere. Together, they will identify issues that matter to Latinos.

Issues like immigration naturally will figure into the research. Solis already has worked with business leaders to press legislators to keep Texas’ law that allows eligible children of unauthorized immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition.

Researchers will look at other issues as well, such as how Latinos view the new urbanism. Walkable neighborhoods are part of that modern, pedestrian-oriented approach to development. What do Hispanic families think about this trend, now taking root in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Oak Cliff? The new urbanism is possibly coming next to Jefferson Boulevard, which now largely caters to nearby Hispanic shoppers in Oak Cliff.

What will happen if Jefferson becomes a version of the nearby Bishop Arts District, with its urban hipster appeal? What will happen to the shops along Jefferson that provide, say, quinceañera dresses? Understanding how Latinos view such issues will help our city break down parallel universes.

Dallas and Texas have capable, modern Hispanic leaders. Solis, along with Dallas’ Rafael Anchia and Fort Worth’s George P. Bush are among them.

Still, a deeper pool is needed, and not just in Texas. Dallas is only a microcosm of the demographic trends across the United States. As The Economist noted, those trends work in our favor, but they won’t if we lack the leaders and strategies to take advantage of them.

This op-ed appeared originally on the Dallas Morning News on June 2nd.

William McKenzie is editorial director of the George W. Bush Institute. Reach him at wmckenzie@bushcenter.org.

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