Extended Interview: Ebenezer Aka

August 2012 “View from the Brain Trust” feature

1. Metro Atlanta’s population is projected to top 7 million by 2030. What do you think is the single most important thing that should be done to prevent that growth in population from making our traffic congestion even worse that it already is?

The population problem is a transportation problem and vice versa. Atlanta planners and policy makers must find ways to tackle the spurt in traffic-related issues that accompany a growing population and growing demand for personal automobiles. Of course, traffic congestion and air pollution should get worse with the expected increase in the Atlanta region’s population and the additional traffic it will produce or generate. Traffic congestion has great, vicious effects on the mental and physical health of the urban population (the physical and mental torture of urban travel), as well as family life.

Atlanta’s perpetual highway construction and road widening cannot handle the congestion and consequent pollution  — unless the city establishes a regional transit system and intermodal transportation (for limitless transportation choice) that could use more rail service for long hauls and trade centers. These actions can considerably alleviate traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change problems that have become important political issues in recent times.

The single most important thing is to establish a combination of intermodal transportation and a regional transit system; that will likely go a long way toward promoting economic growth and improving the quality of life of Atlanta region. Atlanta should strive to become a sprawl-less and sustainable city that enhances and integrates the economic, social, cultural, and environmental wellbeing of its current and future citizens. In other words, Atlanta policy makers should formulate bold and workable policies for sustainable development. Key solutions for the traffic problems should include a more efficient and responsive administration to deal with day-to-day and long term traffic problems, transparent and sustainable traffic and vehicle policies (and their execution), better infrastructure, dedicated public transport, and, finally, adequate judicial law enforcement.

2. Demographers predict that Atlanta—which has a high proportion of Gen X and Gen Y residents—will experience an “age bubble” in the coming decades. How will this cohort influence the future of Atlanta? Do Gen X and Y look for different things than their Baby Boomer predecessors, and if so, how will this affect growth, development, and/or culture in Atlanta?

Atlanta has a high proportion of Baby Boomers (people born between 1943 and 1960), Generation X-ers (people born between 1961 and 1981), and Generation Y-ers (people born after 1982). The Baby Boomers are currently the parents and grandparents of X-ers and Y-ers. These generations see things differently, and, inevitability, they cohabitate in today’s workplaces. Generation Y has many names such as Millennials, Echo Boomers (the offspring of the Baby Boomers and their large numbers), Net Generation (this generation lives on the Internet, tied into management of data and social networking involving Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc), First Digitals (those who grow up almost entirely within the Digital Era), and the Trophy Generation (a moniker or nickname given to this generation as a result of their childhood experience — that everyone who participates in an activity (i.e. sports) should be awarded a trophy or prize, which creates an idea that every person is special).

Generational tensions and criticisms exist around the use of technology, work ethics, and morality. For example, Generation X is known for its low view of morality and lack of direction, since they grew up during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Generation Y thinks that Generation X is a bunch of whiners, while Generation X sees Generation Y as arrogant and entitled. Everyone thinks the Baby Boomers are self-absorbed and workaholics, since they grew up after the Second World War and the boom years that followed.

Generations (both employers and employees) believe that the difference in work ethics across the generations causes friction, lower morale, and an increase in employment turnovers, which hobble their ability to produce wins for the businesses. They are not playing well together at all. Baby Boomers and Generation X prefer to communicate via phone or face to face, while Generation Y prefers to communicate via blogs, IM, and text-messages. These differences create communication abnormalities in workplaces, which could be easily misunderstood by Boomers and Generation X-ers.

All the generational differences and their impacts prevail in Atlanta, and they affect workplaces and all fabrics of life. It sounds like everyone hates their parents, and parents have little faith in their children. The Baby Boomers are aging and nearing retirement or are already retiring. Their large numbers will have effects on the labor force and labor supply, pushing both into a downward spiral. The large number of retirees will affect the availability of retirement benefits (especially pension protection), which may have a destabilizing effect on the city’s economy. Generation Y-ers have problems with company loyalty due to their culture of not staying too long on a particular job; this often threatens a company’s productivity, stability, existence, growth — and indirectly — the city’s overall economy. With the current economic downturn, their work ethics will likely delay Atlanta’s economic recovery and its growth and fiscal health in the future, especially when the Boomers are finally retired. To bridge the extant generation gap that threatens Atlanta’s fiscal health, business managers and government officials should devise aggressive and innovative ways to minimize conflicts and miscommunications among different age groups in workplaces, in order to get everyone amicably working together for greater productivity.

3. Georgia has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the country. What do you think is the single most effective thing we can do to reduce this epidemic (and thus the associated health concerns and costs)?

Childhood obesity rates have been skyrocketing in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of U.S adults and one-third of children are now overweight or obese, and those numbers are expanding. Health experts conclude that 75% of obese children remain obese as adults. Children are now contracting adult diseases — such as type-2 diabetes, other metabolic diseases, and cardiovascular diseases — due to oversized portions and poor food choices. Childhood obesity has a larger impact on children from low-income and minority families — especially in the areas of poor healthcare, limited access to healthy food and sports facilities, and fewer opportunities to stay healthy. Moreover, direct costs of treating obesity-related diseases and indirect costs of obesity (such as missed workdays, disability costs, and future earnings losses) amount to billions of dollars.

Current data on obesity and related healthcare costs are the main concerns that should motivate and encourage Atlanta to embrace a healthy lifestyle. The concern of our lifetime should be eliminating the scourge of our children’s expanding waistlines. It is believed that prevention is better than a cure, thus, childhood is the optimal time to encourage healthy habits kids can practice for the rest of their lives. There is a link between fast food consumption and obesity. To reduce this epidemic, Atlanta should ban junk food advertisements during children’s programming on the television channels it controls. Parents should ensure that their children combine an active lifestyle (physical exercise) with healthy eating habits that avoid high calorie foods. And policy makers must ensure and encourage fresh, healthy school lunches and vending machines with nutritious options. City officials should also promote a similar agenda outside schools, especially through the media. The above concerns and policy prescriptions to combat and reduce the scourge of obesity are in keeping with the fact that “a healthy nation is a wealthy nation,” which is equally true for Atlanta.

4. Projections show that metro Atlanta will soon be a majority-minority region, and in the coming decades our demographics will shift even more, with a growing proportion of Hispanic and Asian residents changing the region’s historically black-white biracial composition. How do you think this new multiracial and multiethnic mix will affect culture and politics in the region?

The “typical” face of Atlanta region is changing and changing fast, from the region’s historically black-white biracial composition to a growing proportion of Hispanic and Asian populations. Atlanta’s multicultural and multiethnic mix creates institutions (especially market places) that include diverse employees of various races, nationalities, physical appearances, personal habits, training, competencies, experiences, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and disabilities — all with various political and religious beliefs.  Cultural, political, and socioeconomic interactions in the region now involve people of different ethnic backgrounds who have different social, political, and religious values and beliefs.

In order not to be left behind, Atlanta’s institutions should change to accommodate the recent socio-demographic differences. As a matter of fact and urgency, diversity training should be given constantly to school management and its teachers, politicians and other government officers, and employers and employees to avoid discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping (also to encourage fair play and affirmative action). People from other countries, who are not yet legal citizens (especially those in higher education majoring in much-needed fields such as science and technology), should be encouraged to acquire legal citizenship. This will undoubtedly help fill much-needed job positions, create much-needed jobs, and prop up the fledgling city’s economy.

One of the down sides is that the new multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic mix of Atlanta is witnessing a digital and technological (even language) divide. Thus, funds should be made available to train all groups, especially the minority and low-income groups, which will benefit the present and future socioeconomic growth and development of Atlanta. To ensure full participation in the socioeconomic development of the city, Atlanta should go bilingual, if it has not yet, to accommodate Hispanic immigrants that do not speak English. Finally, in order to remain one of the leaders in the areas of commerce, influence, and compassion, Atlanta must realign itself with the emerging demographics. The region must find a way to value diversity by capitalizing on the cultural strengths and sensibilities of individuals from other cultures in work places, schools, and political and religious matters.

5. When you think about Atlanta’s future, what worries you most?

What worries me most about Atlanta’s future is its ever-increasing population through migration and immigration, especially after hosting 1996 Olympic Games and the recent economic, political, and religious crises in other countries. The attendant increase in multiculturalism and transportation problems, if not properly and adequately addressed, might stifle the socioeconomic growth and development of Atlanta and its environs.

6. When you think about Atlanta’s future, what are you most optimistic about?

I am mostly optimistic that Atlanta has the skills, knowledge, resources, and willing political environment to tackle the above issues and problems, and will continue to be one of the most viable cities in U.S, especially in the Southeast.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Atlanta should be ready to deal with the looming problems of its aging population and their impacts, especially on how to provide the much-needed services to this ever-expanding group. Such services include transportation, healthcare, and housing. Atlanta policy makers should also be overly conscious of the future impacts on its economy, such as the combined influences of both Generation X-ers and Generation Y-ers, especially when the Baby Boomers are no longer on stage.