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THE ELEMENTS

Earth, wind, fire and water… forces of nature that remain immune to mankind’s ability to fully control, much less predict. While allegations, distrust and pettiness continues in Washington D.C., millions of people are dealing with the stark realities of hurricanes, tropical storms, floods and wildfires.

These natural disasters provide a stark contrast to name calling, posturing and other elective foolishness that passes for leadership in America.  Those who have lost their homes to wind, flood or fire are unconcerned about building a wall, jousting with North Korea, climate policy disputes or whether the Iran nuclear deal was strong enough. They need drinking water, food, shelter and the opportunity to recover.  Maslow was right, when push comes to shove, the focus is on basic needs required for survival.

As of this writing, the 22 separate fires burning in California are down to 15; 5700 homes and other structures have been totally destroyed; over 40 are confirmed dead and well over 200 remain missing. The death toll will surely rise. Over 100,000 have been evacuated but fires continue unabated, even with over 8,000 firefighters working 20 hour days and the very best aircraft, trucks and technology at their disposal. This week, high winds, enormous fuel stocks and arid conditions promise to continue a disaster that will have consequences far beyond 2017. The cost, yet to be estimated, will run into billions.

In addition to California, Montana, Oregon and Idaho fires, all of which will have serious economic consequences and produce untold human heartache, the U.S. has encountered a hurricane season unlike any on record. While early predictions were for a mild hurricane season, there have been at least  14 hurricanes and tropical storms so far this year. The season, stretching from June 1 through November 30, continues to produce unsettled weather and unique patterns that are establishing a new baseline for future expectations.

The most revealing data was represented in a graphic comparing the size of Hurricane Irma to Hurricane Sandy which hit the Atlantic coast in 2012.  Due to demonstrably warmer ocean water, hurricane Irma was fully three to ten times larger than Sandy (or Andrew, Katrina or Harvey) with a diameter much broader and longer than the entire state of Florida.

The growing concern, expressed by meteorologists during the storm, is that warming oceans are producing larger and more violent storms- a phenomena predicted over ten years ago. This bodes ill for the millions who live on or near the coast or on a Caribbean island, and places the entire Gulf and Atlantic coasts in jeopardy. And, by the way, as of 10/12/17 Ophelia is building in the Atlantic- the 10th consecutive hurricane this year.

 So What?

Compounding human suffering and loss of life, there is a growing uncertainty regarding how one might live, build a business enterprise and thrive in areas prone to wildfires, tornados, floods and hurricanes. While tornados are highly localized, floods, wildfires and hurricanes cover hundreds of miles, cutting a broad swath through farms, cities and rural areas.  Nothing is immune to a 175 mile per hour storm that dumps a trillion gallons of water.  Or a fire, such as we are seeing in Napa and Sonoma Counties, that consumes entire cities, farmland, residential communities, businesses, parks, and infrastructure.

Cost of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Nate (landfall on October 8) is expected to exceed $200 billion. But those costs are associated with rebuilding structures.  There are significant hidden, or at least neglected costs associated with resident out-migration, loss of workers, businesses that close their doors, and the many unknown people and enterprises that elect to not visit or relocate to those affected areas… especially those that have had serial incidents resulting in death, disease, hardship and costly recovery efforts.

Over the next several years, tourists might elect to avoid denuded, recovering St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands or the Dominican Republic. Turks and Caicos is ruined…why visit? The loss of this primary revenue source will further devastate the Caribbean Islands hit by recent storms and will certainly cast doubt on those areas’ ability to return to anything resembling what was previously normal.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast of Texas and southern Louisiana, hit by Harvey, will also incur huge rebuilding costs and will experience at least some out-migration of families and businesses. There is already a skilled labor shortage, and it will only get worse. Full recovery may take over five years. Keep in mind that several areas of southern Louisiana have not recovered from Katrina (2005), which killed over 1,800 and has to date cost over $108 billion.

For the U.S., there are several serious underlying questions. With the American Society of Civil Engineers U.S. infrastructure grade remaining at a weak ‘D’ and the price tag to just bring America’s infrastructure back to acceptable safety/ operational standards is projected at $1.2 trillion, how will this nation afford an additional $200 billion?  And, what if the elements similarly exhibit their fury in 2018 with more hurricanes, floods and fires? Even more reason to rethink rebuilding. Why spend the money if it will just happen again and again?

Benefits to DIY companies, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, local contractors, and both skilled and unskilled laborers notwithstanding, the downside to insurance companies, general business communities, tourism, and families will continue to escalate as long-term affects become manifest. FEMA, by all accounts, has done reasonably well. However, as prepared as it was, that agency has drastically insufficient funding to cover its costs. Likewise, fighting fires across the west is tremendously expensive and not a single local fire department, state or federal agency has adequate funds. So, at a time when blather about reduced taxes is sure to escalate during Q4, wise, prudent business thinkers should wonder where the money will come from to pay for all the cleanup and recovery efforts—just to get back to some semblance of normal.

Citizens from every strata and circumstance have rallied to help. Money, manual labor, equipment, supplies, blood, and every conceivable contribution has provided a silver lining during serial disasters. But, once the initial adrenalin subsides, and the news becomes old, who will be there to help? Where will the money come from? How will this season of the elements impact national and regional economies? How will the stock market ultimately be affected? We believe there must be a holistic view, with better long-range planning and budgeting, integrated with realistic calculations involving weather patterns. If more fires, floods and hurricanes are the new normal, and similar seasons lie before us, will we be ready? Or, even though they are predicted, will we react with annual surprise?

With over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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Vision and Veracity

The circus atmosphere surrounding many of America’s presidential election cycles has a tendency to abate once a new administration is in place and the rich talent pool of established veterans is assembled. Regardless of party affiliation, Washington has many seasoned, motivated patriots who are caring, connected and deeply dedicated to prosperity, security and global harmony. So far, a pattern of deflection and chaos has prevailed.

There is a much more profound game afoot here. While discontent, distrust, allegations and paranoia seem to be the primary drivers of this evolving administration, questions about trade, public health, infrastructure, international respect, climate change, and economic well-being loom ever larger. This is not to say that four months is enough time to foster major events or significant change, but one would expect more clarity about where we are going, key priorities, why they were chosen and how the country will proceed toward established goals. Whipping up generally nonsensical health care legislation in the House is not ideal progress.

The Senate now promises to eviscerate the House offering and replace it with something more workable, at least according to those senators willing to share. Unfortunately, the committee assembled to accomplish this has no women members and seems destined to battle over party-centric ideology rather than real improvement in the ACA. One would think they would take note that every major hospital, medical professional, physician, senior citizen and social services organization in America has criticized the House bill.

The deeper question here is about vision. While symbolism, rhetoric and bombast might for some reflect progress, it merely obfuscates the lack of vision, planning and long-term strategic intent. No corporation or voluntary organization would dream of managing its affairs in this way. Blather about putting coal miners back to work, bringing millions of manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and demanding greater trade equity from established trade partners is both vain and foolish. Even neophyte economists will explain why and how an economically connected planet, costs for natural gas vs. coal and predictable economic cycles must guide policy decisions and, one would hope, promises.

Historians will look back in not too many years and marvel at the idiocy of building a wall between two friendly nations that are socially connected trade partners and long-time collaborators. While there are some issues with immigration, the data clearly show a decline in illegal immigration over the past several years and the value of a cooperative policy framework that works for the people of both countries. A 1,900 mile wall will cost well over $20 billion—money that could be spent for tax reform, education, health care, better airports and seaports, greater cyber security, and a reduction in the number of substandard bridges and roadways. Misallocation of precious resources at a time of growing federal debt is not only unwise, it is ignorant and unethical.

Instead of laughable pontifications and promises, is there a sensible long-term vision? For instance, how will America address the destruction of the seas? The ocean’s bounty, once a miracle of evolution, is now in peril. In the November/ December 2013 edition of Foreign Affairs, oceanographer Jeremy Jackson termed the destruction of global ocean habitats “the rise of slime.” By that he meant that once complex oceanic ecosystems and food chains featuring large animals have devolved into simple systems dominated by microbes, jellyfish, and disease (see Great Barrier Reef). Reported by Alan Sielen, this article should be enough to galvanize the international community into action.

Is the new administration even aware of this enormous force that is now impacting the entire planet? More critically, where is the leadership required to deal with not only the oceans, but education, atmospheric pollution, pandemic safeguards, financial regulation, true and lasting healthcare reform and economic inequality? If you need another exclamation point, see the Time Magazine special report on infrastructure (April 10, 2017) entitled, ‘Dear Washington, We need to rebuild. Can you get your act together?’ by David Von Drehle.

Politics is not voodoo, with incantations, hexes, and illusion. We assume that politicians are elected to seek the best common good for all constituents. Keith Allred, prior to running for governor in Idaho a few years ago, directed a superb apolitical organization called The Common Interest. Its sole purpose was to foster bipartisan support for policies and legislation that would have positive impact on all citizens…focusing on the value gained for all people rather than special interests. Importantly, the primary driving force for all of that organization’s work was truth. Sharing information with a commitment to total honesty was the central value that provided a platform of openness and trust.

The ideal of veracity in all things must be embraced by both the administration and Congress. Organizations that fact-check news can vouch for most of its accuracy. So too can those organizations reviewing the accuracy of what comes from the White House. In other words, the word ‘fact’ is a self-defining word that is easy to verify.

Challenging those who deal in data (CIA, FBI, NSA) or report current events (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Gannett, the Associated Press, etc.) is a fool’s errand. Certainly, there are editorials and opinion pieces, but those are separate from news reporting. As most working people already know, it is best to remain faithful to the truth…due to the ease with which credibility and trust can be lost. And, once lost, it is difficult to recover.

Inflamed rhetoric, policy discontinuity and factual disconnects are rapidly leading to global distrust and, more critically, loss of respect among valued allies. As previously reported in this space, many economists believe that the U.S. is in a natural economic cycle that is responding to resource depletion, an aging Baby Boomer population, product and industrial life cycles and rapidly advancing global competition. Some have recently predicted 2 to 2.5 percent GDP as the norm in the years ahead. Good managers assess reality (read Confronting Reality by Bossidy and Charan), then develop strategies and action plans. There is no denial, deflection, blaming, gaming, or incoherent grievances.

America needs a wise, thoughtful and workable vision. There are good people in Washington on both sides of the isle and more than a few good ideas. The Tip O’Neills, Henry Kissingers, and Everett Dirksens may be gone, but ample talent, drive and spirit remains. My question is, Will those individuals pander to their parties or to America? Will they rise above the pettiness, pranks and discontent and actually do something that matters, long-term, for all Americans?

With over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Off and Running to…?

After less than twenty days post inauguration there were already skirmish lines forming all over the American landscape. Even approaching 100 days, most issues have been due to the new president’s style, mannerisms, and behavior while others are grounded in edicts, threats and executive orders that foster deep concerns for the future.

Perhaps the most telling event took place far below the radar of most citizens but heralded what might become one of this nation’s most profound platforms for evolution and, in some ways, revolution. As reported in Time Magazine in late January, one of the nation’s most influential Republican industrialists, Charles Koch, hosted a gathering of 550 powerful business leaders to discuss their level of support for the president’s various platforms, edicts, orders and actions that do not bode well for the American economy. As quoted in Time, Koch stated, “We cannot be partisan. We can’t say, O.K., this is our party, right or wrong.” His point throughout the conference was that many promises and opening actions launched from the Oval Office are contrary to good business practice and cannot possibly end well for the U.S. The most prominent point cited at the conference was the growing erosion of trade relationships, economic partnerships and global networks that many business leaders have developed over the past three to four decades.

In addition to the business community’s view that no one ever wins a trade war is a parallel view that cutting taxes, huge infrastructure projects, more military spending and the goody bag of promised changes would do nothing but drive the U.S. toward economic recession and potential depression. Among serious, experienced global business leaders there is resistance brewing. These are not seat of the pants operators, but America’s best, who operate according to strategic plans, are collaborative, understand diplomacy, and embrace the long view. Any business owner would have serious questions about how $1.2 trillion in infrastructure projects will be financed. New taxes? That would be curious in light of the promise to cut taxes. In other words, business professionals are already wondering how all the promises can be kept and who will pay.

In this context, we are moved to look over the horizon and make predictions regarding several areas that will be in flux during 2017 and beyond. Among the most remarkable phenomena is the current administration’s lack of understanding that we live in a republic that has evolved over 240 years. The new administration is not a ‘business turnaround’ where a new group of managers is brought in to reorganize a company according to their personal experience and perspectives. While certain changes in government would be welcome, there are processes, procedures and protocols that must be followed if the republic is to remain strong. The most obvious and already brewing dichotomy is between what was promised and what is possible, practical and wise. The potential for conflict and a continuing circus atmosphere is high.

There is high probability that the prospect of regulatory shifts, more government spending and a pro-business atmosphere will energize the economy. However, the question is how long it might last before reality strikes. As stated previously in this space, what goes up always comes down. Regardless how it is postured, we live on a connected planet with interconnected economies and it is both foolish and myopic to believe that America can force anyone to do anything, outside of armed conflict. The current economic environment is one of escalating competition, growing collaboration, and evolving symbiotic relationships. This is how the world works and other countries will continue to evolve, compete, and battle for economic relevance. America must do the same. It can’t dictate all the rules.

Sooner or later (bet on sooner), citizens will understand that the U.S. is not weak, vulnerable, passive, struggling, or economically doomed. This country has a vibrant economy, millions of new jobs have been added since 2010 (227,000 in January, 235,000 in February and a 4.7% unemployment rate), thousands of new business enterprises have been formed, new alliances have been created, and far fewer live in poverty. More, violent crime is down, new trading partners are at the table and consumer confidence has been quite high over the past two years. At some point, the citizenry will no longer buy into negative rhetoric. It’s difficult to complain when there is so much to celebrate.

Unfortunately, over the next year or several years, there may be less focus on national parks, the environment, occupational safety, free speech and equality. Immigration could be crippled for years, which could have a negative economic impact and health coverage, even if the Affordable Care Act is partially unraveled without a valid upgrade could dwindle for millions who now have coverage. In this review, keep in mind that policy evolution is how reform tends to happen…it is incrementally improved, not totally removed. It has taken years for Civil Rights and American with Disabilities legislation to become what it is today…improved rather than discarded.

I have noted earlier that bombast, threats and jingoistic retorts do little to improve relationships or forge alliances. Even small trade wars will negate years of improving global relationships and possibly devolve into global recession. Trust and mutual respect are integral elements if America is to build trading relationships that strengthen its economy while fostering long-term opportunity. If Koch and his colleagues are concerned, we should all be concerned.

There are enormous forces in play but it appears that some individuals do not understand that other countries have the sovereign right to compete, grow, seek and participate. Every sign points to continued slow global growth with many struggling economies. America will also experience slow growth, but it will be steady and sustainable if it is not derailed by foolish policies and the erosion of trading and security relationships. Unfortunately, there is significant potential for polarity among U.S. citizens, especially if the economy struggles, healthcare is restricted, there is stagnant job and wage growth and inflation begins to escalate.

2017 will see a new centering of America but it will be driven by polarity, at least until wisdom and leadership prevail. It will be a comical, frustrating and troubling period that will test this country’s will, values, and spirit. The vast majority of Americans treasure dignity, harmony, good will, diplomacy and true leadership. Sadly, the new administration has so far not reflected any of these characteristics, but you can bet they will become more precious in the months ahead.

With over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Buckle Up

Whew! Am I glad that’s over! With all the misdirection, acrimony, illusion and pranks that became hallmarks of the presidential election, it is a wonder that things are generally peaceful as we enter mid-December. While wading through all the silliness and emotion, we still managed to get through the election and begin the process of returning to normalcy—or some facsimile thereof.

It remains a mystery as to how the electoral process became so volatile at a time when the data clearly show many positives. The unemployment rate is below 5 percent, corporate profits are up, housing prices are up, personal debt is down, savings are up, the housing market is strong, gas prices are relatively low and crude remains below $50. The auto industry is fully mobilized, the dollar is extremely strong, over 3 million people have worked their way out of poverty and, as of today, the DOW is above 19,700. Does anyone recall where we were eight years ago?

As noted previously, along with many positive data points, there are also troubling indicators that seem to fan the embers of discontent. Trade imbalances are high, immigration questions remain unanswered, security is an ongoing battle and both infrastructure and education have huge, looming gaps that must be addressed. The most interesting question pertains to how this dichotomy between positive and negative progress is so different from historic norms and why so many view with such jaundiced eyes the negative without acknowledging the positive? Perhaps it is merely human nature to focus on the bad and ignore the good, but regardless of the election outcome, America would have entered 2017 with enormous momentum and promise.

The specter of ‘populism’ has emerged as a newly energized and potent force for change. Of course the central unanswered question is whether that change will be positive or negative. Along with the U.S., Greece, France, Germany, Austria, Spain and a host of other countries have seen a resurgence of popular causes, mostly characterized by hostility toward elites and established institutions. But there has also been a trending toward nationalism, protectionism, racism and isolation. For those who study history and the evolution of societies, this is confounding and troubling.

A brief review will showcase Latin America’s experience with populism, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Peru and others, where that populism led to revolt against historic norms and institutions and resulted in governments run by individuals who destroyed the fabric that sustained economies, social structures, industrial networks and cultural harmony. When evaluating countries that enjoyed major shifts via a populist revolt one will mostly find rampant poverty, economic shambles, social discord, and leaders who won support from the masses without the slightest concept of how to manage a government.

Ongoing research is now reflecting that the emergent populism that is fomenting change in America does not have economic roots even when rhetoric would point to inequality as a causative factor. Surveys are now telling us that it is something deeper and more symbolic, with the primary determinant being evolving American demographics. This, coupled with other noneconomic factors—gender, race, religion, location, family history, the environment, health, etc. has provided the genesis for discontent, paranoia, and distortions of reality. Or, at least the ignorance of other, more profound and positive forces that typically provide greater balance, perspective, economic opportunity and long-term cultural sustainability.

In other words, people are demanding higher wages, fewer regulations, lower taxes, less government, more jobs and greater border security and expecting newly elected leaders and the ‘government’ (which they feel is already too intrusive) to now deliver on those promises. But the underlying driving reality is that America has experienced a profound shift from 1946 to now and is continuing to evolve as other countries catch up to its economic capacity, industrial capability and competitive spirit. Growth in the U.S. and most western societies has been slowing for several years due to global competition, resource depletion and broad product availability across nations. While a populist platform might demand U.S. trade protections and negotiating more stringent trade agreements, reality tells us that free markets will ultimately decide who buys what from whom. There will be few options to ‘legislate’ economic behavior across borders. People will seek products from the best possible source and will trade with those sources. If U.S. companies are not competitive, the market will sort it out…not congress, and certainly not the president.

The deeper message here is that enormously powerful forces are at play across the global landscape. America is strong and capable, but must understand and adjust to variables it can’t control while managing those it can. The time for rhetoric and bombast is over. For America, this New Year will dawn with opportunities to pursue prudent options that take advantage of its many strengths. The question is whether there will be the insight, patience, tolerance and true leadership to take advantage of its current status and stature.

As with recent years, I see many avenues that could lead to prosperity, security, and sustainable enterprise. And, as always, it begins with each person’s unique vision, ability and willingness to focus on their own families and businesses with sensible strategies and thoughtful implementation plans. Regardless of the current wave of populism, life comes down to good will and acceptance, hard work, focus, and the Golden Rule. 2016 gave us quite a ride but now it’s time to buckle up for a New Year that promises to be exhilarating, challenging and very interesting.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.jpgWith over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Rhetoric, Reason and Reality

Sociologists and cultural anthropologists have warned us for some time that the defining characteristic of the future will be ambiguity…that sense of uncertainty and anticipation that breeds anxiety and apprehension. These descriptors are not the best foundation on which to build trust and long-term investment strategies. Neither are they the characteristics we seek when contemplating going to college, pursuing a graduate degree, raising a family or starting a new enterprise. This environment inhibits passion for the future while depreciating much of what we have worked so hard to accomplish over the past several decades. And, if you are a Boomer, recent political and economic rhetoric does little to lift the spirit.

For close to twenty years, there have been admonitions that this particular decade, especially since the 2007/8 recession, would be transformational. Discussed often in this space, every sign has pointed to a period in global and U.S. history that would result in enormous worldwide competition, declining resources, growing populations, climate change, higher expectations, aging populations, fewer craftsmen and skilled workers, and growing concerns about water. This is not new. Since 1946 the world has struggled to regain its balance; global infrastructure had to be rebuilt, institutions re-established, and governments restructured. In historic terms, this has all occurred at an enormous pace and, for many countries, while it has ebbed and flowed, both trajectory and pace have continue to soar.

Fear, isolation and nationalism have become centerpiece topics in the recent political circus. While committed here to an apolitical stance, it is difficult due to the misinformation, misdirection, posturing and absolutely vacuous rhetoric that saturates the nightly news. In fact, America is strong. Any review of the data will show that it has a strong defense and a stable, if not fully robust economy. Wages have not kept up nor have the type of new jobs that we are used to based on historic expectations, but this is a different time…there is a transformation taking place and we are just now at the front end of this period of massive change.

The answer is not to build walls, punish immigrants, segregate religions or conjure rationale for divisive action. The path forward lies in this country’s ability to understand the emerging world, harness its amazing opportunities and create a new foundation for progress.

There are amazing new technologies that will totally transform power generation, automobiles, mass transit, communication, computing, construction and agriculture. The ability for virtually anyone to learn, understand and pursue knowledge is opening portals to new business enterprises and relationships that could bring geometric progress. Unfortunately, due to a myopic media, much of this has been overlooked while buffoonery, antagonism, incoherence and ditzy logic rules the day.

Does anyone understand that growth is never constant? That it is non-linear and that the plot always turns? Is there recognition that the U.S. has enjoyed a long, successful run that is not remotely close to being over, but is merely recalibrating? And, that there is never a forever accelerating and inclining progress curve? The U.S. is the only country that recovered relatively quickly from the Great Recession and, while full recovery is elusive, this country is in far better shape than any country in the world. Why then, when there are so many positive economic and social indicators, is the focus on those that remain negative?

One might wonder if future historians will be puzzled by the gloom and doom rhetoric when, by all objective measures, the past three decades have been the best in history, especially in terms of human well-being. While Samuel Huntington warned us about the impending clash of nations, what has actually occurred is a confluence of civilizations and cultures. Never perfect, this blending of global cultures has been accelerating for the past two decades. Consider China twenty years ago. Those of us who worked there can attest that the mid-1990’s were amazingly different than today.  And the model for China’s development?  The United States…even if the Party can’t admit it, Chinese historians and sociologists openly admit that it was the U.S. model that motivated that country’s passion for development.

There is an amazing worldview that is being obfuscated by the clueless, often savage attacks reported by the media during this political campaign. Those still caught up in ideological debates about communism, democracy, theocracy and other forms of governance seem unable to grasp that the planet has evolved to one driver – capitalism. Certainly, there is a small percent of religious fundamentalists (mostly Muslim, it would appear) who remain far outside the norm, but most populations have, in some way, embraced capitalism and have joined the global market. To forge a major platform without focusing on the vast majority of countries and their populations is idiotic. Yes, there are threats to America. They are known and are being addressed. But what about our future? What cornerstones will be used to build a nation that is sustainable, prosperous, engaged, admired, and progressive?

For the record, there is irrefutable data that verifies that the vast majority of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims are totally compatible with and supportive of the modernizing world. In populations of millions, there may be only 15,000 thugs who are more comparable to gangs than religious sects. They are the outliers; they are dangerous, but they must not be the basis for America’s foreign policy.

Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Post-American World (W.W. Norton, 2008), provides multiple anecdotes that demonstrate the accelerated pace at which other countries have tried to catch up with America. Even in the overleaf, there is a comment that states, “The current political debate in the United States is utterly out of touch with this broad development, obsessed with issues like terrorism, immigration, homeland security, and economic panics.” Keep in mind that this was written eight years ago and acknowledged then that, when dealing with pure fact, that the world has merely been catching up with the U.S. As a country, America is not in decline, it is merely seeing other countries finally grow into more competitive positions. Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their 2011 book, That Used to Be Us, cited many of the same facts and drew similar conclusions.

The real message as we approach mid-year, is that bluster, misinformation and predatory, corrosive rhetoric does not reflect the true nature of America. If we are to avoid decline and implosion, we must keep in mind that people gravitate to four things: clarity, direction, truth, and a dignified, harmonious leadership style. For the next five months, all eyes will be on this country. One would hope that, during an election spectacle that warrants worldwide coverage, we will demonstrate a leadership style that reflects the true and enduring nature of America.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie1.jpgWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Boomer Talent

Much has been made of the fact that 2015 was the peak year for the number of Baby Boomers reaching age 65. While not remarkable by itself, it reflects the enormous number of older Americans who are at or near retirement age. But to infer that Boomers are destined to call it quits at the traditional retirement age of 65 signals a serious misunderstanding of our generation.

A recent edition of Pacific Standard (September/October 2015) contained an interesting article entitled, The Aging Advantage. This article, by Bonnie Tsui, focused on the career of Barbara Beskind, a 91year old designer at the San Francisco design firm IDEO. The story was not so much about her remarkable career, brilliance or mental acuity as it was about the value of her experience, knowledge and ability to contribute.

From experience and research, it is clear that older workers have great value. It is also clear that there is an interesting social phenomenon in the U.S. that diminishes the perceived value of those past a certain age. In most other developed societies (and many that are less developed), older citizens are highly valued but in America, they are often seen as a burden or irrelevant. Research over several decades reveals a significantly different message.

Throughout most industrialized nations the number of older citizens is increasing. While unremarkable in itself, this cohort is growing percentage-wise while there is a corresponding reduction in the number of younger, employable citizens. In China, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and many other countries, including the U.S., there is growing concern that there will be an insufficient number of new, talented workers to replace those moving toward retirement. More importantly, the loss of institutional memory, technical skill and deep knowledge is accelerating at an astounding rate. Within this context, most organizations give little thought to the rich networks of contacts built by older workers over four or five decades. Once retired, these workers take these amazingly complex and valuable networks with them and they are lost to the organization forever.

Clearly, those between the ages of 55 and 80 collectively possess a treasure of information, skill, awareness, perspective, knowledge and contacts. They have enormous skill and a proven ability to accomplish complex assignments. Consider the amount of on-the-job training, professional development, education and experience that is accumulated over 40 to 50 years of work. Does that just disappear when one reaches ‘retirement age?’ Hardly. What seems to be missing is the recognition that the sum total of all the training and development, education and experience is a potent and valuable capital asset. Unfortunately, this asset is wasted by the vast majority of public and private organizations.

According to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, recent studies at the Center show that older workers are more emotionally stable, have fewer conflicts, are more prone to collaborate, are better mentors, and deal with intense challenges with more patience and equanimity. They are helpful, productive and less prone to workplace politics. In many ways, older workers have already built their careers, so are more willing to help younger workers build their own careers. The challenge is getting younger workers and management teams to recognize the value of this latent and underutilized asset.

Most Boomers enjoy working with younger workers. While there are troublesome idiosyncrasies, such as their constant toying with cell phones, Facebook and Internet searches, the energy, spirit and inquisitive nature of young people is a powerful force. Mixing older and younger workers can produce highly innovative results while building collaborative cultures that promote mentoring and a natural transference of knowledge and skill. More critically, older workers become comfortable with sharing their long-established networks and introducing early and mid-career employees to acquaintances throughout their communities and industries. What is generally misunderstood is that these introductions provide professional credibility that would have not been possible without first being legitimized by the senior worker.

Older Americans are already here. They are in the workplace and are active in the community. They know how to get things done, have great contacts and have little use for workplace politics. While there are exceptions, there is overwhelming evidence that older workers are able to learn as well as their younger counterparts, are great problem solvers, and tend to know what to do when tasked with an assignment. Above all, they are experienced. There is very little they have not seen, learned how to do or had to overcome.

The message here is that America’s older workers are an untapped resource that is being overlooked and often cast aside at a time when every organization needs thoughtful and capable can-do talent. No private or public organization can afford to lose its contact networks, support systems, or deep institutional knowledge and unique skills. But, it is essential to understand that these networks and skillsets reside with people, not organizations. Give some thought to new ways to fully use and integrate older workers into the evolving fabric of your organization. If productivity, insight, harmony and preservation of institutional memory is valued, seeking seasoned talent and effectively using existing older workers will be a wise investment.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out multiple times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare private and public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Count Our Blessings

The blessing theme was marred late in 2015 by the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the ensuing aftermath of revulsion, blame and resistance to accepting immigrants in dire need of support, food and shelter. One of the most unsettling things about the growing antipathy toward migrating people is the massive number of young children who have nowhere else to go. It is difficult to hold them accountable for atrocities they can barely comprehend, even if witnessed firsthand. There is no easy answer and no glib response will suffice. It just seems to be another testament to a global cauldron fueled by sectarian animosity, religious entitlement, historic grudges and a clash between civilized, future-looking populations and those with little to embrace. Even vestiges of their cultural heritage are being erased by forces immune to reason, trust and good will. This too will pass, but at what price and over what period of time? Difficult to say at this point, but the plot always turns, even if too slowly for so many who need immediate assistance. Sending dispossessed people home is a non-solution because so many don’t have homes. They are truly walking in the wilderness…pretty strange for the modern age and the New Year 2016.

While the Paris and San Bernardino attacks cast a dark shadow over the holiday season and did not provide the classic run-up to Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years, the solidarity reflected in global responses must be taken as a positive indication of at least the prospect of more collaboration among nations against a common foe. Whether a grand scheme is created or fractious interventions continue, a more robust response is certain. Let’s just hope it begins to turn the tide and doesn’t create more uncertainty, retribution and blame.

Even factoring recent events into the yearend equation, I don’t see a gloomy year ahead. As this country has experienced for some time, there will continue to be bumps and bruises, convolutions and diversions, and a measure of economic fluctuation, as we’re witnessing during a current market dive. But overall, the interactive world will remain mobile, engaged, cooperative, and committed to progress. Those of us fortunate to be American citizens will continue to enjoy economic growth, emerging opportunities, ample goods and services, and many, many options. GDP growth should be above 2.5%- some predict around 2.8%; inflation will grow to above 2%, perhaps as much as 2.3%, which is well above the current 1.2% for 2015. Unemployment will continue to decline from the current 5% to a range of 4.4% to 4.6%, signaling steady economic growth, that is, if not spectacular, still reasonable. Commodity prices are languishing and will continue into 2016 but this also reduces manufacturing costs and keeps inflation low.

Crude oil prices are a major driver of economic progress, and crude prices are predicted to remain between $45 and $50 per barrel as we move through 2016. With massive supplies, we are now at a 12-year low at $33.88 a barrel but there is good reason to believe that crude prices will remain in the range of $40 to $50 for the next twelve to fifteen months, providing a solid base for consumer spending (3.2% annual rate), more investment (housing 6.1% annual growth rate), and lower operating costs across all industries. The Fed raised interest rates a bit in December and if things go reasonably well, will surely raise rates again in 2016 but it won’t create many problems. A greater concern is the movement toward a higher minimum wage, which will impact small business and boost inflation. Over time, it may also be good for the general economy. Overall, our economy is more stable than any other country and the U.S. continues to serve as the bedrock for global investment and economic development. This should continue through 2016 and well into 2017, unless there are major worldwide upheavals. With so much riding on stability, this is unlikely, no matter how many skirmishes, ambushes and attacks occur. Interventions will move to an entirely new level to preserve some semblance of world order.

That said, incursions and test case scenarios are escalating. In addition to the Middle East circus, China and Russia in particular will slowly test the will of other sovereign nations, especially the United States. Whether building made-made islands in the South China Sea or disputing territorial rights with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, China will rattle its saber to test the resolve of the U.S. and her allies. However, China’s internal economy is sinking (thus the current market doldrums) and will continue to decline and domestic issues will divert its attention inward, as the enormous Chinese population seeks more freedoms, a greater voice, jobs, property ownership and less government meddling. There are too many problems there for China to spend much time or money gaming the United States. Russia will continue to make plays in the Artic and meddle in Eastern Europe and Syria, but it may also be forced into joining a more sustained, coordinated effort against ISIS. South America remains a quagmire of debt and only Brazil is digging out after years of recession. While still marginal, it is a regional leader and may see actual growth in 2016. With some luck and reasonable weather, its drought will ease and decent harvests will boost GDP.

Turning attention homeward, I see opportunity for growth and development. As noted in other articles I authored last month, it is time for new thinking, exploration and evolution to a progressive way of managing our affairs. Whether business, government or our personal lives, the convergence of technology, trends, culture, and information will bring new opportunities to those adventurous enough to seek them. Baby Boomers are working longer, Millennials are competing like crazy; new enterprises are being created and new horizons are constantly being defined. In this context, however, there also remains enormous problems with social inequality and fiscal inequity; there are more people below the poverty line than ever before in American history; educational performance remains low; far too many people have inadequate retirement savings; and, of course, Washington politicos are about to launch another totally inane election cycle. But who would want to trade all this? It is, after all, our country, our struggle, our future.

There is much to do and we have the resources to undertake any challenge. The question is, do we have the resolve, capacity, and deep commitment to think, plan, adapt and move into a New Year that has promise mixed with equal measures of sadness, anger, frustration, and anticipation? Are we ready to move forward regardless of known and unknown challenges? And, are we able to set aside latent anxieties and embrace the inherent beauty and wonder of this nation? I believe the answer is yes.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies and private organizations.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).