Published in Economic Development

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Definitions matter.

BY Sunday, December 19, 2021 07:05pm

For generations, Grand Rapids was known as the Furniture City, a nod to the area’s legacy industry that specialized in employing craftsmen to turn lumber plucked from the state’s hardwood forests into high-end furnishings. 

The quaint definition fit the era, but when the region’s economy moved on, it was time to redefine Grand Rapids and modernize with the times. 

Just as we no longer consider Grand Rapids a center for expertly made expensive home furniture, we similarly wouldn’t associate Kalamazoo with being a hub for celery production. Or Muskegon for its lumber mills. 

Even Holland is no longer quite the same conservative Dutch haven as it once was. (As someone whose paternal great-great-great grandfather Gerrit Van Dijk was alleged to be “the first white man to chop a tree in North Holland” around 1848, I must say: It’s about damned time.)

Instead, the West Michigan region’s identity these days is mostly articulated by its quality of life attributes: the proximity to nature, the relatively affordable cost of living, the quality of our cultural arts institutions, the tastiness of our beer. 

While it’s true we’re a hub for office furniture, the automotive supply chain, medical device manufacturing and to some extent health care innovation, West Michigan doesn’t necessarily have a cultural identity around any particular industry anymore.

And that’s OK. It’s a testament to how a city or a region’s identity evolves over time. 

The shift in how the people define the region also parallels how the workforce sees itself these days. Younger generations of people no longer identify themselves by the job they have, but rather by the balance of their lives, the quality of their experiences and perhaps, most importantly, their happiness. 

In an interview with MiBiz Senior Reporter Mark Sanchez for this Crystal Ball edition, Phil Gardner, the director of the Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, described this “subtle shift” in how people in their 40s and younger approach work, as well as how they differ from the long-dominant Baby Boomer generation:

“Boomers are all-consumed by work and identify themselves by the work they do, particularly Boomer men. They controlled the course of the workplace for so long and everybody had to follow suit. But the younger generation that is coming up didn’t identify as strongly with their work identifying who they were. It doesn’t mean they’re slackers or they don’t want to work. It means that they want to put a balance with other things in their lives…”

People are marshalling forces brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, a broader cultural awakening and a growing movement of acceptance and social progressivism among younger generations to wrest control away from others and define their own individual identity. (Also: Shouldn’t that count as a major win for personal liberty?)

Just as regions and cities in West Michigan have shifted from an identity tied to industry to one more aligned with quality of life, so too have its workers. What defines people isn’t the uniform they wear or the title on their business card, but whatever descriptor they choose to embrace.

Admittedly, this may seem ironic coming from an ink-stained wretch such as myself, who’s lived and breathed journalism since before I could legally drive. But even I’ll cop to some noticeable cracks emerging in my armor of newsprint over these last 20 months that have led to a “subtle shift” in how I see myself.

There’s even some parallels here in the state’s new broadly focused economic development policy. As this edition went to press, the state Legislature just approved creating a $1 billion fund for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to use to incentivize new business investments, in a move one lawmaker described as “future proofing Michigan’s economy.”

While the incentives clearly are aimed at preserving Michigan’s place in the automotive industry, lawmakers eschewed taking a prescriptive approach with the incentives, leaving them open-ended so economic developers could compete with other states for transformational business opportunities, regardless of industry.

In essence, their approach was: Why hitch your incentive package to one economic wagon when the defining industry of the future may be dramatically different from what defines you today? 

While we all can — and should — debate the merits of this new form of corporate welfare, at least the legislators left enough room for their future counterparts to identify how it should be used. 

As we look ahead to 2022, here’s hoping we move the needle and make progress in redefining Michigan’s economy for the prosperity of our future generations.


Joe Boomgaard


Read 1372 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 13:47