Most of us accepting
reality of the 'new normal'
Wednesday, February 08, 2012 7:36 AM
There was a somewhat somber mood at the Minnesota Newspaper Association annual convention two weeks ago. It wasn't gloomy or pessimistic, just a bit more subdued as people seemed to acknowledge that there is no magic tonic that will return the economy to the boom years from a decade ago.
Although it may seem defeatist, it is probably a positive outlook since newspapers, like other businesses, need a realistic plan rather than mere wishes to maintain viability in the face of a sluggish economy.
I see the same outlook in many community organizations as well. At one time, there was a feeling of waiting the recession out until things return to normal before making plans. The thought was that the slow economy was just temporary.
Now, I see groups forging ahead even with the realization that resources or any type of outside aid will be scarce in the coming years. They are making plans for a better future, even if it won't look the same as it did in the past.
One of the speakers at the MNA convention who put this all in perspective isn't a news person at all. Tom Gillaspy, who has served as Minnesota state demographer since 1979, gave a session on "Minnesota and the New Normal."
He pointed out that although things are getting better since the Great Recession hit in 2008, we will not be returning to the economy we grew accustomed to in the late 1990s.
Instead, we are moving to a "new normal," he said, and those individuals, firms, organizations and regions that best understand the implications of that move and the forces driving us toward the new normal will best be positioned for long-term success.
Although all the details are complex, there is one trend that has been obvious for decades that is fueling these changes. It is no coincidence that our crisis, which, by the way is national and global, not just Minnesotan, corresponds to the time when the first baby boomers turned 62 in 2008.
That there will only be more of the baby boomer generation aging right behind that first wave is why there is a new normal. State spending has been and will continue shifting from education and infrastructure to aging issues, which includes health.
The state budget is already heavily weighted to long-term care and that will only magnify at the expense of K-12 education spending and other areas, said Gillaspy.
By 2020, there will be more residents ages 65 and older than there will be children ages 5 to 17. Perception hasn't caught up with reality, but since the 1990s, the most common type of family already is an empty nest family.
Although the labor force is declining in numbers, employers are filling jobs on a less than one-for-one basis because they are focusing on productivity to ease pressures of reduced markets and revenue.
Businesses have come to the realization that the way toward economic growth is increasing productivity because just increasing their labor force isn't sustainable. However, if successful, that economic growth won't look like growth in the past, or maybe even growth at all.
Gillaspy says the new normal probably means: Slower economic growth; labor and talent will be scarce resources; a single-minded focus on productivity; chronic government deficits and cutbacks in service; worries about how to pay for past promises; more frequent disruptive events and innovations; but, also, looking on the brighter side, a whole new set of opportunities.
Not many people are looking at the opportunities yet. In fact, many are stuck in one of the early stages of moving from the old normal that Gillaspy outlined at the session.
He noted that the trend has been apparent for decades. All one had to do was look at the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, which started with births in 1946.
Few wanted to face the consequences of what this population surge would mean when it came time for this massive number of people to retire and live out their post-employment years in need of so much more care services.
He named two people who warned of the impending problems - Dave Durenberger in the 1970s and Tim Penny in the 1980s. What's interesting is that neither one is accepted by their parties today. Durenberger, a former U.S. senator, was basically thrown out of the Republican party for supporting an Independent party candidate in the last election. Penny, a former U.S. representative from the First District, ran for governor as an Independent party candidate six years ago rather than with the DFL, of which he was a member while in office.
The reason these two are not accepted by their parties today says more about the state of our elected officials, who would seem to be in one of the early stages of moving away from the old normal.
Gillaspy outlined five steps in moving from the old normal. The first is denial, followed by anger, or blame, then bargaining, in which people say they will change if it all goes away, the fourth stage of depression, or a feeling that we are all doomed, before the final stage, acceptance.
Gillaspy said that many people in the early stages say that if we just go back to our old-time values that are conservative, or liberal, depending on their philosophy, things will return to the old normal. He emphasizes that the situation isn't about values at all.
However, the parties are more rigid than ever, hanging on to a return to their values from the old normal with no tolerance for new thinking or compromise.
The state demographer says we need to reorganize and adapt to the new reality. Those who do that will be successful. Those who wring their hands, and say, "woe is me," won't.
He also says the old argument about either increasing revenue or cutting services isn't valid either as there is a third option - doing things differently, or, known in some instances as redesign. This is a process that increases productivity, making services more efficient.
Fillmore and Houston counties are involved in one redesign initiative. They are part of a 12-county group that is exploring redesign of human services departments with innovation to jointly provide services. The new operating plan could be a model for the entire state.
Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud is one member of the steering committee. He noted, as reported in a press release, that, "The employees who meet the human services needs of the people of these 12 counties work hard on behalf of all of us. Their focus on continuing a high level of client care into the future, even if it means they must evolve, is laudable. As they investigate what changes they must make to stay effective, they deserve our support as well as our gratitude for tackling these tough issues on our behalf."
Other local groups outside of government are also involved in redesign, although they just don't realize it or aren't calling it that. They've accepted the fact that our lives are changing and they are adapting to the new normal as they search for a better life for our communities even as they acknowledge fewer resources means we won't be going back to the boom years of the recent past.
We don't necessarily need to give it a name. But, I feel there really is a subdued optimism springing up as local people make plans for our communities in this era unlike any other we've experienced.
In short, they've found the path for long-term success.