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Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

This short essay may imply a tinge of retrospection that may result in revelation or at least casual rethinking. We launched into 2014 with anticipation of a reasonably productive year and maybe some real progress in several areas. The good news is that that economy does appear to be gaining overall strength even though it will no doubt fluctuate a bit as the world turns. While I embrace a measure of optimism and continue to assume the best, I am somewhat troubled by continuing reports of unemployment, underemployment and, perhaps more worrisome, the growing number of people dropping out of the workforce. The latter phenomenon skews employment numbers but the emerging stories behind this mass abandonment seem to signal a deeper, more pervasive malaise.

The central and most troubling social questions are, ‘What were people thinking all those years when times were good? Did they plan for the potential of a downturn or for the prospect that their job might not last forever? Did they save money, live within their means, and acquire additional skills while times were good? Did they pay attention to the many campaigns encouraging retraining or take advantage of myriad retraining programs?’

Stories abound of struggling breadwinners underemployed in minimum wage jobs, if they can find work at all. Displaced workers lament they have looked for months or even years for work after having been displaced or abandoned by their former employers. There is no way around the fact that this is sad and troubling. However, when one begins to explore the deeper circumstances contributing to the current dilemma, it becomes clear that many of these people were good folks who never, ever thought, ‘What if?’ Many purchased homes they really couldn’t afford, had little in savings, splurged on every conceivable toy, did not seek new knowledge and skills, and for years generally ignored admonitions to, ‘live within your means, save, and prepare for a challenging future.’

The ongoing debate over extended unemployment benefits is illuminating the plight of millions. To be sure, some were victims of scams (which, with good counsel might have been avoided) or medical emergencies that drained precious financial reserves, but on the whole, these were rarer than you would think. Others had grown up in environments that did not promote education, advancement, or a bright future. But millions of the citizens now struggling were complicit in their predicament. The underlying debate over unemployment benefits is now subtly addressing the value of continuing benefits to those who did not actively participate in their own preventive measures. Will these benefits merely extend the malaise or, worse, promote it? Are we creating a broad, deep stratum of America that takes little or no responsibility for their own misfeasance or lack of foresight?

Those advocating ongoing assistance for those actively seeking retraining or repositioning for the future are addressing this social challenge. This country must take care of those who cannot care for themselves, protect those who are unable to protect themselves, and extend a hand to those who have experienced unavoidable catastrophes. However, there must also be a clear message sent to those who have consistently had the means to change their lives but have chosen not to do so.

Another round of unemployment benefits was prudent under the circumstances. The future, however, will belong to those wise enough to recognize the value of knowledge and skill acquisition in stable or emerging industries. Education and continuous training is essential in a global market that is increasingly technical, computer-driven, and skill-specific. Those who for the past several decades have lived for the moment are now caught in a whirlwind of new concepts, technologies and expectations that are difficult to grasp, let alone master. So, with a nod to Darwin, they are passed over for those more adept in this rapidly evolving world.

There is no castigation or admonition here. Reflection and a retrospective view can, at least on the surface, seem cruel. But the real message is that most of us, at some point, and often at many points in our lives, have choices. It is said that to become wise, you have to have been unwise. The real test is whether we, as individuals or as a society, will have the wisdom to see the future and have the discipline to make sensible personal and collective decisions that prepare us to thrive in the 21st Century.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie

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. 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).