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Don Cunningham: What Obituaries Say About Our Community and Country

By Colin McEvoy on February 7, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on Feb. 6, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

If you’re reading this column, congratulations on making it through another December and January alive. More deaths occur in the U.S. during those months than at any other time of the year.

A cold or warm climate doesn’t seem to matter. Statistics are the same in Texas and Florida as Pennsylvania and Illinois, according to Legacy.com, a national online obituary site.

Other than the flu and pneumonia striking hardest during winter, medical explanations for this are limited.

I’m a reader of obituaries. At one time, during my newspaper reporting days, I was a writer of them.

Every Sunday in this newspaper I pore over the obituaries, not online but in print. I spend time on the photos, imagining the life that went with them. I root for the ages of those on the page to be old enough to be there.

I’ve still haven’t adjusted to the family-written, paid obituaries of today that often highlight a loved one’s favorite sports team or other things that may not offer the best remembrance for posterity.

“Dick loved beer and his Philadelphia Eagles.”

“Dorothy loved to knit sweaters for her cats.”

One of my all-time favorites appeared in a Philadelphia-area newspaper: “To relieve stress, Buddy preferred smoking and drinking over yoga, although he did cut a fine figure in yoga pants …”

For most reporters, a turn on the obit desk was the worst assignment. They tried to avoid it. I always liked it.

I viewed each obituary as a short biography. A person’s life summed up for a final tribute. Most of their names had never appeared in a newspaper but their life was a worthy story. The stories indirectly told the history of our community and country.

They still do.

Older folks obituaries call out places rarely used anymore like Chapman Quarries and Cherryville. They pay homage to immigrant parents who came here from Europe, South America and Mexico, a reminder that we all came from somewhere else and that immigration fueled all past economic booms.

Population growth is a critical measure of economic viability. Part of my day is to help ensure that employers have workers and workers have jobs.

The biggest challenge for employers today in growing markets like Lehigh Valley is often finding workers, and workers with the right skills. Barring an economic slowdown or significant job loss from technology, the future will bring greater hiring challenges.

The U.S. population is barely growing. Immigration is in decline.

The recently-updated U.S. Census Bureau data shows anemic population growth of less than 0.5% in 2019, the lowest in 100 years.

In many places, more people died than were born, meaning the natural growth rate is declining. Both Lehigh and Northampton counties grew by about 4%, although Northampton County had more deaths than births the last two years.

The rate of growth in Pennsylvania is less than 1% with only 20 of its 67 counties gaining population. Most of that growth is in the southeast and south-central part of the state. Some counties lost 3% of population or more.

Companies analyze the attractiveness of a region, state or city by the size of its workforce, population growth, education and training in a variety of professions and skills, and the percentage of young people in an area.

Regions that don’t have a growing young population and workers with the right skills won’t keep or attract employers.

The Lehigh Valley is in a boom period. Young people are staying and returning.

The age group between 18 and 34 is 22% of the Valley’s population, 10% more than in 2010. Young people make up 30% of the population in the urban centers, Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.

Unfortunately, the U.S. now ranks 43rd in the world for life expectancy. Far too many young people are dying of drug overdoses, gunshots, disease and suicide. Today’s young are the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

That’s why I root for high ages when I read the obituaries. No age is a good one to go or to lose a loved one. It all hurts. But The Morning Call obituaries of Sunday, Jan. 19, gave a glimmer of hope. With 21 obituaries across three pages it was consistent with midwinter death trends, but 12 of those were in their 90s, five in their 80s and no one was younger than 70.

It was one day of a winning box score.

February 2020 Issue of LVStartup Has Been Released

The February 2020 issue of LVstartup, a monthly e-newsletter about entrepreneurs and startups in the Lehigh Valley, has been released. Click here to see the new issue, [...]

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