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The Commonspace

Mar 2002 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

The Kids Are Alright
By Brian H. Marston
Art by Maddie Earnest

St. Louis has an aversion to youth. Judging by the huge number of young people who move out of town every year to go places where they're more appreciated, the feeling is mutual. It's St. Louis' loss.

pecking order
pecking order
click to enlarge

It's not hard to come up with examples of how young St. Louisans are shunted aside, seen but not heard. Every year, the Business Journal's 40 Under 40 awards are handed out to recognize up-and-coming leaders. The average age of this year's winners was 36 (the median was 37, and the mode was 39). The winners were also overwhelmingly male and white, but that's a topic for another column. On the political front, Michael McMillan, 30, is still the youngest member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, five years after his initial election. As part of his election campaign, Mayor Slay promised to meet regularly with an advisory panel of young people. As far as I know, that hasn't happened.

The "young friends" phenomenon is going strong in St. Louis. The zoo, art museum and many other organizations have separate kiddie tables for supporters in their teens and twenties who apparently need to do some growing up before they're worth listening to. Most boards in St. Louis are remarkably august. Even Metropolis, the supposed bastion of youthful leadership, is getting long in the tooth. The average age of the current Metropolis steering committee is around 35. Age being a relative thing, I suppose that might seem young to people who are older, but from where I'm sitting, it looks suspiciously like middle age.

Youth has many advantages that would benefit an old city struggling to remain relevant. Young people tend to have an acute awareness that the way things are isn't the way they have to be and that the things that suck can change — should change, must change. They still believe that they can right society's wrongs, and they should because they might. In addition to optimism, they have the sort of freedom that comes from not being held down by a mortgage, kids and the crushing weight of obligation. If there's nothing you have to do, you can do anything, which is not to say that young people aren't busy. On the contrary, they have the energy to do more, more quickly than their elders.

Teenagers and twentysomethings have a healthy lack of patience and a willingness to force the issue when it comes to the glacial pace of development in St. Louis. They haven't been disillusioned and jaded by years of losing in the same way over and over again when going up against the powers that be. They're not afraid to question the status quo or say "up yours" to the establishment because they have nothing to lose.

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Too often, the people who call the shots in St. Louis are old men with old money, old connections, old families and old ideas — the same people who got us into the messes we're trying to dig ourselves out of. They're set in their ways, risk averse and conservative — not exactly prized traits in a fast-moving, innovate-or-die world.

Not ones to point out a problem without trying to do something about it, we at The Commonspace are seeking to recognize and reward the most dedicated, creative, inspiring and visionary young people in St. Louis with our 21 Under 21 awards.

We're looking for St. Louisans who are contributing to the civic or cultural fabric of our town. We'll be accepting nominations from now until April 30. Nominees must be under the age of 21 as of May 1, 2002. For more information, see the contest details. The winners will be featured in the "Young Minds" section of The Commonspace, and honored at a June bash. Our greatest hope is that your nominations will give all St. Louisans a preview of the next generation of St. Louis leaders, and reinforce our hopes for the future of our city.

In case you're wondering, Brian Marston is 28, which is widely regarded as the perfect age — not young, to be sure, but not old either, unless of course you're 18, in which case, he might as well be put out to pasture or turned into glue.

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