One of the most powerful insights people can have about the future is some vision of the large, slow, powerful changes going on in society around them. I call these mega-trends and theyre particularly influential right now because so many of them seem to be coming together world-wide. Here on Manitoulin our future depends more on understanding the mega-trends at work around us than it does in most other places, simply because were so far out on the economic and social fringe. But wait a minute. Before you dismiss this commentary as a doom-and-gloom forecast, let me say that I think Manitoulin has a very rosy future. Rosy, that is, if were sharp enough to recognize some of the emerging mega-trends at work now and turn them to our advantage. Here are the three most important ones, as I see it.
The Government Training-Wheels Are Coming Off: The fact that the government is no longer willing or able to financially support our day-to-day lives is so obvious that it almost seems silly to mention. Nevertheless, the impact of this trend is so far-reaching that wed all better take a sober look at it. How would it affect your life if you had to pay for all the government services you consume, directly out of your pocket or through the taxes you pay, without any government transfers from more wealthy areas of Canada? This is the direction this country is moving towards, and why shouldnt it? Manitoulin has been heavily subsidized in the past, but now is the time we learned to stand on our own without help. The only way to preserve our current standard of living is to put more cash in our jeans so we can pay for what we want. Lets focus on the ingenuity and self-reliance needed to make that happen.
The Baby-Boomers Have Turned Fifty!: Canadian demographers define the start of the baby boom in this country as the year 1947. This huge bubble in the population turned society upside-down as it moved through various phases of life, simply because boomers made up such a large part of the population at any one time. They turned the 1960s into one big teenage party; the 70s into the find-yourself decade; they were responsible for the explosion in real estate prices all over North America in the 80s and for the popularization of the mini-van during that time. The 90s was the decade the baby boomers put their noses to the grindstone, cut spending and paid off their huge mortgages. What will they do in the next century? Precisely the same thing any typical, well-off 50-year old does – – take time to enjoy life, to spend a little money and to learn while having fun. (Make no mistake about it, despite their idealistic start as hippies, the baby-boomers embraced commerce in later life and have done very well financially as a group. Many are also in line to receive large inheritances from their parents who profited handsomely from the red-hot real estate market of the 80s. In fact, the baby boomers are poised to become the largest group of affluent people this country has ever seen.)
So where does Manitoulin fit in? By shifting its tourism base away from family-style vacations, demand for which is dwindling, and towards very high-quality experiences for people who are now 45 to 50 years old, eager to learn, to eat wonderful foods and to stay in the very best and most comfortable accommodations available in the world, thats how. The perennially poor tourist seasons here on the Island are no fluke. This trend will continue because were becoming progressively more out of step with what the bulk of the traveling population wants and is willing to pay for. Manitoulin could, however, become a favourite spot for tourists of the 21st century if pre-bundled opportunities for learning, adventure and enjoyment were combined into hassle-free experience packages. Thats not happening in any planned way now.
The Emergence of the Electronic Cottage: Most of the new areas of employment involve the computer in some way, and for this reason people living on Manitoulin (or any other little corner of the globe) now enjoy a growing economic equality with people living in larger centres. The results of electronic labour (such as the article youre reading now, or information research services, or consulting services, or financial services, or telephone shopping services, or commercial art production, among many others) can now be exported in the blink of an eye to customers anywhere around the globe, virtually without cost. In fact, Manitoulin has a distinct advantage over more populated centres in this regard because of its low real estate prices and pleasant surroundings. At the moment we havent tapped into this opportunity, but we should. Upgrade the local entertainment scene a bit, get a handful of self-directed entrepreneurs interested in living here, promote Manitoulin internationally, and your kids wont have to move to Toronto after university any more.
The most valuable Island export is not cattle, lumber or transport-company administration services, or even all of these things combined. No, the big-value export is the well-educated, eager young minds that leave Manitoulin every year after theyve graduated from school. And we dont even get a cent for them! Realizing our potential as an ideal centre for 21st-century tourism and electronic industry (and keeping an eye on the mega-trends that shape our little corner of the world) would keep many of the good, young minds here, and attract new ones too. And a varied collection of good minds is the only way that the Manitoulin community will survive and thrive in the future.
— Steve Maxwell is plugged in at his electronic cottage in the backwoods of Burpee-Mills township.