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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).