The Most Recent Decade

Gary GruberLearning for LeadersThe Most Recent Decade
December 14 , 2012 /

The Most Recent Decade

At the conclusion of the most recent decade (2000-2010) I have learned what works and what the critical variables are in the education/learning equation.  And it has taken me back to the beginning.  I call it the full circle of success – common vision, common values, and common purpose.  If we are to succeed in our schools and elsewhere in our country, we must learn how to build collaborative energy, how to listen carefully to what is and what is not being said, how to ask questions that are penetrating and honest, how to discern the real from the superficial, and how to help a group move forward with a purposeful, shared vision.  That group could be your school or college, your company, your division, your task force or wherever you find yourself at work, hopefully following your passion and purpose beyond yourself.   That is what has worked for me.  I commend it to you for your careful consideration as you continue on your own journey of lifelong learning.
In June of 2000, there were 97 million mobile phone subscribers in the United States; by the middle of 2010, the number had increased to 290 million. There are WiFi connections everywhere, even at your local Starbucks and McDonald’s, airports, shopping malls, and in some cities as well.

The web site with the most traffic in 2010 was Facebook with the number of subscribers in 2000 at zero and in 2010 it was 116 million.   Social media now includes many sites like Twitter, Linked-In, MySpace, Google+, Ning, and numerous others. Rather than replacing embodied connections between real people, our devices supplemented and extended them, an electromagnetic nervous system to match the physical infrastructure of transport built in the twentieth century, a network of connections, intersections, and switches.  The big difference, of course, is speed.  An email can travel 10,200 miles in less than .2 of a second, .012 to be precise.  That’s equivalent to 85,000 Miles per second, 5.1 million miles per minute or 306 million miles per hour!

Oddly enough, after a decade of wild growth in invisible telecommunications, where one lived and worked mattered more in 2010 than it did in 2000. Travel and transport remained basically flat throughout the decade. Total vehicle miles driven, while an impressive 3 billion miles in 2010, were only up from 2.7 billion miles in 2000, a period during which the population increased from 288 to 318 million—meaning the average American drove less in 2010 than in 2000.   However, for me that was not true as for the past seven years I have lived 110 miles from the airport and needed to fly frequently for work.  I drove many more miles in the past 10 years than in the previous decade.  For me personally, at this stage in my life, highway and byway travel is much to be preferred over air travel these days as many others who are frequent flyers can also attest.  Air travel in many instances is cumbersome, crowded, uncomfortable and fraught with lines, an inept TSA, and unhealthy, re-circulated air in the steel cocoon aloft.

At 9:45 tomorrow morning there will be roughly 4,500 commercial flights in the air, just as there were on 9:45 the morning of September 11, 2001—no change despite a decade of economic and population growth.  And mobility, the hallmark of twentieth-century United States culture, declined throughout the decade and reached a post-war low in 2010, with less than 10% of American households changing their address.   That is still a fairly large number.  We have changed our own address four or five times in the past ten years.

At a Q gathering in 2010 (events that explore the common good in a pluralistic society), urbanologist Richard Florida observed that young adults meeting one another no longer ask, “What do you do?” They ask, “Where do you live?” More and more people will change careers in order to stay in the place where they are, connected to family, friends, and local culture, than will change residence to stay in a career. The 20th-century American dream was to move out and move up; the 21st-century dream seems to be to put down deeper roots. This quest for local, embodied, physical presence may well be driven by the omnipresence of the virtual and a dawning awareness of the thinness of disembodied life.  My own preference reflects this trend as I came to New Mexico in 1994 and have stayed in the same region for the past 18 years, far surpassing any other location in my previous life, except perhaps the first 18 years of my life when I lived in one town and three different houses.

I moved from New Jersey to Albuquerque in 1994, then to Santa Fe in 1996 and 7 years ago we moved to the country to enjoy a spacious and beautiful 6 acres on a river overlooking a mountain.   Regardless of our preference for somewhat rural living, cities, the places where both connection and local presence can thrive simultaneously had an extraordinary renaissance in the first decade of the 21st century. The revival of American cities was underway in 2000, but it reached its full flowering by 2010. Of course not every single American city flourished in the last decade, but those of us old enough to remember New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or Houston circa 1990, and others, including but not limited to Portland, Columbus, or Phoenix, can only be astonished at the way economically fading and often crime-ridden city centers have revived as centers of commerce and creativity.

The challenges often associated with urban life, meanwhile, had ignited a movement to the suburbs that may well accelerate in the 2010s. The frontiers of justice, mercy, compassion, and reconciliation are now in the suburbs, places where connections are harder to sustain and local culture is thinner and less appealing than the cities. Some suburban environments will reinvent themselves, but multi-generational poverty, crime, and gangs that provide a substitute social network where others have failed are already as common in Westchester County as in the Bronx, in the San Fernando Valley as in Compton. The most radical and difficult place to raise a family by 2020?  It may well be the suburbs, regarded by some as being their own ghettos of separation and isolation.  A recent market study by a group in Philadelphia revealed a continuing shift in population as young families with young children are again seeking urban environments.  This has significant meaning for those who live and work there and what I have learned is that these young families would rather help create a sustainable community rather than spend an enormous amount of time commuting and transporting children along grassy, tree-lined streets from one place to another.
[See Tim Keller’s Q talk on “Grace and the City” and Joel Kotkin’s on “The Future of the Suburbs.”]

Almost everywhere in the most recent decade, cultural majorities collapsed.   We learned that predominantly black neighborhoods became half Hispanic. White rural communities saw dramatic immigration from Asia and Latin America. City centers became internationalized. Mercados and Asian food markets sprung up in suburbia and in exurbia. Drive down a thoroughfare well beyond the 285 beltway in Atlanta, and you will see shop signs in a dozen different languages. White Americans were still a bare majority of the population by the end of the decade, but in delivery rooms they were already only a plurality, the largest of many minorities.

We are all minorities now. Evangelical Christians are a minority, as are liberal Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists. The establishment of Will Herberg’s 1955 book Protestant—Catholic—Jew is now a minority. Barack Obama is a minority, but so was Sarah Palin. Republicans are a minority—so are Democrats, and so are independents.  We now live in a country defined by its minorities many of whom feel marginalized and no longer capable of wielding influence and power but it doesn’t keep them from trying.  The most recent Presidential election was a testimony to the vitality and importance of minorities and how some leaders connect better than others

There may never have been a society in history that was as culturally, religiously, and politically diverse as the United States is today—except perhaps the Roman Empire. There are few models for how such a diverse community can sustain itself, and plenty of models for failure. Perhaps the most hopeful model is a community that arose at the edges of that Empire and eventually spread to its heart, among whom there was “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”     This community, in case you don’t know, was the Christian church.

That religious and spiritual community has survived but its ongoing existence will continue to be a minority in a largely secular society, much as it has been throughout its history from the first century onward.   I was part of that community in a professional role for at least ten years and while withdrawing from it officially, I still find meaningful points of connection that inform, inspire and sustain me personally.

I have watched the technologies of connection and the commitment to place define ourselves into more and more tightly homogenous subcultures, refuges both virtual and real from the heterogeneity of our society. Republicans became more Republican; Democrats became more Democratic and the divisions became so fractious that any forward movement was paralyzed. Many people turned from traditional sources of news to the Huffington Post—CNN lost ground to Fox News. A president elected on the premise of unity presided over two years of ever-sharper rhetoric of division and seemed unable to change the game. And then we hit the skids in 2008, yet to recover.  It was not at all clear, as polarization accelerated, that anyone could convince any large number of Americans that they had anything crucial in common.  My earlier vision of common or shared vision, values and purpose seemed only to disintegrate further into oblivion.

When people in the next decade are trying to convey a picture of the this most recent decade, they will use the self-portrait shot from a digital camera or cell phone held by one hand extended away from the subject. We look out at our own hand, perhaps squeezing another friend into the frame, composing our face in a smile or a laugh. We are shooting each other and more recently ourselves as well, as witnessed by weekly gun-toters totally out of control.

I watched the visual presentation of the self accelerate in this most recent decade. We see ourselves most often in mirrors. But mirrors do not show us what others see—they show us a mirror image with right and left reversed. The difference is subtle but real, and symbolic of a deeper reality. Now most 20-year-olds have seen thousands of images of themselves as others see them.  They simply hold up their cell phone and click.   In this recent decade people learned to shape and groom their image for public consumption. Body modification, augmentation, reduction, smoothing, straightening, whitening, and tanning, not to mention tattooing, became normative. The closing years of the decade gave us the word “manscaping” which means shaving, waxing and making smooth to the point of unreal.  That says a lot.

I witnessed another culture shift from more formal to what we regarded as professional appearances that are definitely informal and casual.  Men untucked their shirts, women wore pants, actually they have for a long time, billionaires wore jeans. The most powerful CEO in America was universally known as “Steve.” Indeed, informality was now a sign of privilege, only low-status workers wore uniforms. And the ubiquity of the camera meant that everyone, including celebrities, politicians, business leaders, people who in past decades would have been insulated by privilege, were caught off guard, meaning that status now accrued to those who could be most artfully informal, rather than those who could protect themselves from view.

Most of the institutions where I have worked over the past 50 years had years of tradition and they often struggled to stay relevant to an informal culture. Cable-channel comedians with open collars overshadowed tie-wearing network news anchors.  Think of the differences between Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings and Jon Stewart and Bill Maher.   Journalistic codes of integrity and objectivity gave way to entertainment and sensationalism. 
 Marriage, with its vows and formal attire, became for many young people a distant aspiration far on the horizon, while cohabitation became the accepted gateway to adult relationships. Even among some of us in the older generation, an LTA (living together arrangement) with an S.O. (significant other) was more than merely acceptable, it was desirable.  In our own case it was our own children who encouraged us to make our commitment to each other in public which we did through a ceremony on a beach in San Diego with all of them present.  We did that without benefit or burden of any governmental involvement and it wasn’t until we went to London that we had to make it “legal and official” with a piece of paper and a civil ceremony in a municipal court.  Otherwise my wife would be limited in how long she could stay in another country but as my “dependent” she could be granted a visa accompanying my own work visa.  I continue to learn the benefits and burdens of government regulations that impinge on my life much more than is comfortable and it certainly does not inspire confidence in the system.  Quite the contrary!
Wealth was ever more disconnected from real assets. Countries that pumped black gold from the ground acquired vast resources of sovereign wealth that went looking for high returns.  One of the most amusing and telling bumper stickers that I saw after our invasion of Iraq was “How Did Our Oil Get Under Their Sand?” 
The most storied and prominent financial firm, Goldman Sachs, ended its century-long system of limited partnership and became a publicly traded company. Hedge funds made billions by trading not shares, but shares of bets on the future price of shares, and derivatives far more exotic. Our mortgages, once the most boring and staid of financial instruments, were sliced and diced, traded and sold and the housing market tanked in many places making all that borrowed money subject to recall but rendering the price of the house significantly less than what was owed.  The term became quickly, “under water” or “upside down.”
As one Wall Street executive said, as long as the music was playing you had to keep dancing. As money swirled, prices of oil, food, housing, and labor spiked, then collapsed, then threatened to spike again. Those who could trade on volatility often made untold fortunes; those actually needing to buy and sell real goods often suffered.  What I learned during this period was that greed, corruption and power could easily take us down the toilet while we sat helpless watching the swirl in the toilet bowl.   I preferred Ghandi’s quote that “there is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.”

I learned that there was a shift in this most recent decade in that one of the greatest challenges for leaders, such as CEO’s of corporate and non-profit entities, was managing complexity.  Heretofore, the challenge was designing, implementing and managing change.  And change is still very present as a chief concern.  However, we were now dealing with multiple, complex systems that required enormous investments of human capital to stay either on top or ahead of what is coming down the road.

One prime example is within the field of medicine where there are at least 16,000 things that can go wrong with the human body.   There are over 6,000 drugs that can be prescribed to deal with these issues and over 4,000 surgical procedures.  To get it exactly right, at the right time, with a correct diagnosis, the precise and most appropriate treatment and accurate prognosis is nothing short of miraculous and amazing that it works as well as it does and often as it does.  That requires an immense amount of intelligence, understanding, and application of procedures all working together for the benefit of the patient.  Similar concerns exist within other disciplines and fields as well including my own field of education although I believe we are woefully lacking in significant measures of reform and updating our methods and practices.

Yet all this complexity also contains the seeds of hope for a better outcome. The human brain, after all, is also complex, interconnected, embodied, improvisational, constantly being rewired—simply put, the most complex system known in our universe. The culture of North America in the 2000s took several not inconsiderable steps toward having those same qualities as the brain. It is not without risks, not without loss, and with every expectation of grave difficulty ahead. And yet in the most surprising places what was emerging could be called intelligence. Of course, intelligence needs to be married to wisdom—and in surveying the history of that most elusive of all cultural goods, wisdom, we can only conclude that the 2000s left us neither worse nor better off than human beings have ever been.
So what have seven decades of learning taught me to understand and to appreciate, to celebrate and enjoy and to use most readily in my profession and my work?  I have learned most of all that it is about who I am, not simply about what I do.  I learned that there is an important distinction between my work and a job.  My work is what I care about the most and my job is what I have to do in order to get to my work. My work has been with people, organizations and communities, helping them to also learn about who they are and how they can get closer to their dreams of what can be.  And it’s about becoming, that we are always in process of becoming more of a human being, not a human doing.  What I do is about who I am.  That means developing and growing our humanity, our human spirits and being in touch and in tune with the natural world such that we not only knowwho we are and what we’re about but that we place the highest premium on the sacredness of each human being, starting with ourselves.  That yields tremendous results.

Please share your thoughts and opinions