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Don Cunningham: Population Data Reflects Lehigh Valley’s Young, Growing Workforce

By Colin McEvoy on August 14, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 9, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It was a very odd moment of generational intersection in our family.

I was coaching third base. My former steelworker father was coaching first. And my 15-year-old son — who one of his teammates had dubbed the “slowest skinny kid” he’d ever seen — was on second base in a very close, low-scoring Senior Little League baseball game in Bethlehem.

By all laws of baseball, a single should score a runner from second base. Factor in the uneven outfield ground and the less-than-perfect fielding that was customary in this league of 15- and 16-year-olds with big hearts that couldn’t make high school or travel league teams but still had a desire play, and the percentages were on my side.

I sent Brendan home. When the dust settled, he was out.

The kid in left field made a perfect play. Picked it up clean and threw a strike to the catcher.

At that point, my frustrated first base coach came across the field yelling, “Who the hell sent him? Who the hell sent him?”

I yelled back, “Who the hell do you think sent him? I’m the third base coach?”

While the kids were dusting off their uniforms and leaving the field to switch innings, we met around pitcher’s mound. The home team’s fans went silent. Our parents were more familiar with these exchanges.

“Dad, you know who sent him,” I yelled.

He paused. And, in his attempt to diffuse the situation said, “Well, he should have run faster,” and walked away.

‘The other team’s manager and I were high school baseball teammates many decades earlier. He’d gone on to play in college and the minor leagues and was now coaching his sons. He was amazed.

“In all my time in baseball, I’ve never seen the third base coach and the first base coach of the same team get in a fight on the field,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.

In some of the best days of my life, my dad and I coached two of my sons for five years at Lehigh Little League in west Bethlehem — most in the senior division, the age where parents no longer battle to coach. I was recruited to take a team. I asked him to help.

Ostensibly, I was the manager and he was the assistant. The reality is I’m never in charge when he’s in the room. His style is what you would call “old school.”

He played football at Liberty High School in the early 1960s, graduated, went to work in the steel mills, and got married. My parents were 19 when I was born.

I just missed being in the same generation as them. They were born in 1946, the first year of America’s Baby Boom, which ended in 1964. I was born in 1965, which became the first year of Generation X.

Official or not, our generations have now been cojoined in comparison with those of the kids we coached. The Brookings Institution last month released an analysis of U.S. Census data showing that the millennial, Generation Z and younger generations make up the majority of the U.S. population.

The mighty Baby Boomers have been supplanted.

Combined, the younger generations comprise 50.7% of the U.S. population with 166 million members. The oldest millennial is now 39. The Baby Boomers, Generation X and older generations combine for a smaller and declining 162 members.

Brookings declared: “With their numbers exceeding those of the baby boomers, the millennial generation is poised to take over influential roles in business and government.”

When generational numbers are this significant, it’s not long before the teenager you decided to send from second base to home plate is deciding whether to put you or grandpop in a home — or at least where employers will locate and what the economic landscape will look like.

In the Lehigh Valley, population figures are consistent with U.S. numbers. The latest Census Bureau data shows 50% of the Lehigh Valley population is now 39 years old or younger. It’s 51% in Lehigh County and 48% in Northampton County. Lehigh County has the fourth-highest percentage of millennials and Generation Z population among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Those two generations now make up 42% of the Lehigh Valley workforce. The Baby Boomers represent only 25% of the region’s workers.

This is good news for the Lehigh Valley economy. Companies go and stay where there is a young and growing workforce. It also changes the types of businesses in a market, reflecting new skill sets and interests. For example, my dad’s idea of going out to eat was McDonald’s or Maryland Fried Chicken a few times a year. My kids wouldn’t touch those places, but they’ll go out twice a week.

Like so many other Boomers, my dad has relocated to the warmth of Florida. His coaching days are over. What he taught, however, even in his unorthodox style, lives on.

Frankly, I’d give nearly anything for one more season of our three generations on the field. And, don’t tell the Old Man, but next time I’d hold the runner.

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