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We Don’t Know Hard Times

Timothy Egan’s remarkable book on the American Dust Bowl era (The Worst Hard Time, Mariner Books 2006) is an exclamation point for those who remain optimistic during the current downturn. From 1929 through 1939 those who had sought their fortunes on the central plains, in industry or in the financial centers of New York or Chicago experienced a series of the worst natural and financial disasters in American history. Interviewed by reporters seeking perspective, those who lived through that time repeat an almost identical refrain – “The current downturn isn’t hardship…You haven’t seen hardship.”

During the past several months, my work with a variety of public administrators, planners, mayors and county commissioners has naturally led to conversations about lost jobs, reduced tax revenues, business closures, corporate deceit, and general public unrest. Because many senior managers and elected officials are first tier Baby Boomers, virtually all have parents, grandparents, or relatives who experienced hard times during the period from 1929 through the late 1930s. For those who heard about dresses and suits made from chicken feed sacks, walking miles to school, and families of 8 or more sharing a 300 square foot dugout in the Oklahoma panhandle, there is a recognition of the current challenge, along with an admonition that hard times haven’t arrived… yet.


Taking the good with the bad…

A central theme seems to be that the best of America came from the worst of times. From the late 1920s through World War II the country was united. The sense of purpose and community were enormous. At the local level, where cultural tap roots seem to grow deepest, the response to hardship is to turn outward – help others, open doors, share, collaborate, and participate.

The message I have heard over the past few months reflects the evolution of America – a slow drift back to community roots and values. Those who have experienced dark times would rather not repeat the challenge – once is certainly enough. But their message to current, and very blessed generations, is to save, recycle, share, care, and appreciate. Irrespective of this current economic decline, if current trends hold, two generations hence will face new challenges unlike any we have seen… such as enormously complex energy, fuel, and mobility challenges. What will those times be like?

Time is shorter than we think to Prepare for these new Challenges. Communities must have the foresight to take action to moderate otherwise inevitable consequences. One such way is to learn the art of scenario planning. This uniquely powerful assessment methodology is now a critical skill that allows us to Prepare for the Future rather than to succumb to it. Given the economic volatility we are living through, there could not be a more relevant time to embrace this process.


With 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. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

One Response

  1. Hey there! I’ve been reading your website for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you
    a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good work!

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