Future Fit – Trends

Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future.

Roy T Bennett

Some of you may have been surprised when I started this series of posts by seemingly turning my back on resilience. Actually, I haven’t, but I’ve come to believe that the word itself – like sustainability – has become so buzzworded that it’s lost its punch. And those of us with an expansive view of community resilience – bouncing forward and bouncing back – haven’t really helped.

But there’s also another reason to re-think resilience, prompted by cancel culture and “wokism:” our society has become fixated on our past. In a post a few years ago, I mentioned a give-and-take I’d had with Minneapolis’ then-Chief Resilience Officer. She was determined to establish blame for past racism before she’d even think about helping those on the bottom raise themselves up – resolutely looking backward while stumbling into the future.

Sadly, we have seen too many of our cities seemingly shamble down a similar path to Nowhere. Portland, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco … all looking backward, while putting their futures at risk. Nowhere do I see leaders of our major cities positioning them to survive and thrive in turbulent times – to become Future Fit.

Becoming Future Fit starts with asking “What are the trends that are likely to impact our community’s future?” Then “What might their impacts be?” and “What opportunities may be there for our community?” And finally, “How do we prepare the community to avoid negative impacts and to take advantage of the opportunities?”

In the rest of this post, I’m going to look at current trends that are likely to color our communities’ futures.

“White out.” I was part of the leading edge of the Baby Boomers. Even through the Great Recession, we continued working – in essence blocking – the following generations. Well, covid has put a stop to that! We have already seen a mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workplace, to be replaced by … well, we’re not sure if there will be anyone there to replace us. Labor shortages are already exacerbating supply chain woes, and hurting productivity.

“ ‘Why’ out.” A more subtle impact of the Baby Boomers leaving the workforce is the corporate knowledge they’re taking with them. They not only know how current systems work (or are supposed to work) but why they’re set up the way they are. A previous post “Helping the Future Remember Its Past” pointed out that ignorance of why things were done the way they were in the past could have severe repercussions when future changes are made.

“Show me the money.” Perhaps more importantly, as the Baby Boomers die out over the next decade, over $60 trillion(!) in assets will be passed down to the following generations. Millenials will be looking to move out of their parents’ basements and into their own homes. This could mean that the current tight housing market may stay with us for a while, making it even more difficult for the lower middle class to afford decent housing.

“The Great Game.” This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone – we’re living in a highly competitive environment. And the competition isn’t just local. Whether we like it or not, our cities are competing with their peers around the world. Unfortunately, they’re not doing very well. At a time when technology is king, too many are dumbing down their schools. Teachers’ unions seem more interested in turning out social justice warriors than STEM workers. “Merit” seems to be a dirty word (I somehow doubt the Chinese are gutting their gifted and talented programs.). Ships are piling up around many of our ports because of union contracts that hinder automation (Oh, and it’s because of those same cushy union contracts that many ports can only afford to be open 16 hours per day.). And the moving trucks continue taking loads from San Francisco, New York, Portland and Seattle, moving people and businesses to cities in Texas and Florida and elsewhere.

“Where’s the beef?” And the pork, and the produce and the toilet paper and … We already know it’s going to be a little bleak this Christmas. The empty supermarket shelves and the glut of goods sitting in ships waiting to be offloaded are merely indicators of a much greater problem: our supply chains only work if we have the workers to make them work – and we don’t. In my area, the cost of construction of a new house has doubled and only if the builder can get the lumber and steel he needs. At a time when our communities’ infrastructure badly needs rebuilding, material shortages and exploding costs are going to slow the pace.

“Balloons.” The US is currently experiencing the highest inflation since the ‘70s. Housing prices have exploded in many areas. The price of a company’s stock too often has too little to do with the inherent value of the company and too much to do with social media memes. While I don’t pretend to be able to accurately predict whether inflation will ease or not (and especially not the stock market!) I think it’s clear that we are in a phase of unprecedented economic volatility. Bubbles will abound, and pop, and new ones will float into view. The Federal Reserve’s below zero real interest rates have decoupled much of the economy from market reality, hence we have zombie companies that would have long since disappeared in a more rational financial regime (Take Elon Musk, please.). The upshot is the “Little Guys” – retirees, small businesses, the two-thirds of the country who don’t have significant wealth – will fall further and further behind their more well-heeled friends, exacerbating existing inequality.

“Rising tides.” Most of our coastal cities are seeing rising sea levels. While I have little patience with the Climate Catastrophists who want to waste our money on decarbonization, rising sea levels are a growing problem for many communities. However, the highest rates of sea level rise are primarily due to subsidence not CO2. Trying to control CO2 won’t do anything for places like New Orleans or Norfolk.

“Separated by a common language.” Perhaps the greatest impediment to progress our communities face is the yawning abyss between left and right. In the old days (back when dirt and I were both young) Dems and GOPers pretty much agreed on what the country’s problems were. Neither demonized the other; both sides were willing and able to “reason together” to find solutions. Now we are all so enmeshed in our own echo chambers that we question each other’s basic humanity. We can’t even agree on simple questions like “What is racism?”

Each of our communities is being impacted by several of these trends – and the biggest by all of them. We each should ask ourselves “How are these trends impacting my community?” and “Is my community preparing for the Future?” In my next post, I’ll look at things we can do to help our communities become more Future Fit.

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I’ve been a poor correspondent the last six or so weeks. The Boss and I took a long trip (~3 weeks) from Little Rock up to the Dakotas, and then back to the Southeast and home October 1. We both then promptly got Covid. I’ve still got the cough. No fun, but “I’m feeling much better now.”

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