We discussed the conditions that led to it, as well as issued raised by it, such as lack of employment opportunities and increasing demands on the fragile health care system. By the end of the column it painted a bleak picture. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
It is true that a great surge in numbers, especially over the next ten years as this group reaches maturity and start families of their own, could potentially spark crises over housing shortages, job scarcity, or political mismanagement. But there is another, more hopeful point of view.
It is quite possible that the boomer generation will lead a Renaissance of island culture. With so many islanders moving to the mainland, it increases public awareness of island cultures and issues. Years ago, when I first moved to Saipan, few people from my hometown had ever heard of it. Now they speak of it with familiarity, as if they had been there themselves. They read the Marianas Variety and pay attention to contemporary issues relevant to the Pacific, such as the South China Sea crisis. Before, when such things came on the news, they would have changed the channel.
Beyond simple awareness, mainlanders can learn from islanders. You will find that most Americans are curious about other cultures and viewpoints. Americans are eager to try new foods, listen to new music, hear new stories and legends. There is a market for island folk history if someone fills the need.
The two areas that are most concerning, and which will make the difference between success and failure for the boomer generation, are education and jobs. The education institutions in the islands must step up to meet the growing demand, both in terms of quantity and quality. Schools like PSS and colleges like NMC, University of the South Pacific and University of Guam cannot conduct business as usual. Already, island students enter the workforce at a disadvantage. Island schools simply do not have the resources to compete with large school districts in big, mainland cities. And no one is demanding that they do so. But they must up their game.
A performance gap is one thing, but these children need to be given a better head start than they are getting now. NMC will never be UCLA and no one is asking them to be, but there are ways island high schools and colleges can fight for a more even playing field, starting with improving graduation rates. When an islander puts in their application for a job, we want the hiring agent to think, “Oh, they should be good,” not “Well, if we can’t find anyone else.”
For years, Mexican workers have made a reputation of being hard working and very dependable, especially in fields relate to outdoors, such as landscaping and construction. I hear people say, “If you are going to build a swimming pool, you should hire a Mexican company.” Islanders can do the same, but perhaps in other fields. What can islanders build a reputation for? What can they do better than anyone else, to the point that someone says, “If you are looking for that kind of work, you should hire a Pacific islander”?
As time goes on, the demand for literate, skilled workers will only increase. The days of dropping out of high school and still managing to get a decent job to raise a family are over. Islanders who try that strategy will live a life of failure and disappointment. Parents and teachers, we see the largest generation of islanders ever born. The problems they bring can put unbearable pressure on society that will crush it, or their hard work and resourcefulness will save it.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.