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Gary Horton: Change may be hard, but it's good

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: September 15, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: September 15, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The smartest "regular guy" I know from the housing industry decided in 2007 to use the recession to re-establish his family priorities.

When his mid-level executive position in a regional development company was unexpectedly eliminated, he thought outside the box. After considering his options, the man dramatically moved his family to Costa Rica and purchased a six-room bed and breakfast by the beach.

The high-stress executive became a low-stress innkeeper and now, every couple of months or so, he sends us enviable pictures of him and his young sons surfing in the Costa Rican sun. He's generally having a blast while so many of his housing buddies have been left to struggle amid the housing rubble.

This friend writes that this dramatic change in his otherwise overturned career trajectory has been one of the most rewarding things he's done in his life.

"In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until we ultimately become enslaved by it," novelist Robert Heinlein said.

We've got to have specific goals guiding us, overriding the day-to-day habits and assumptions upon which we become so dependent and accustomed. We've got to look past routines, jobs - past our habitual lives to our bigger life picture, especially today as so many struggle to make sense of financial and professional lives disrupted by profound recession.

Where do we really want to go, beyond just the day-to-day of our jobs or routine? What priorities are really most important, and how and when will we get them done?

The biggest risk to our well-being in this deep recession is doing what we've always done: Hoping an eventual recovery to "normal" will make everything right. "Next year," we trust, "the economy will come back." We overlook considering the viability of our current skill sets or even the viability of our industries while waiting for Obama, Bernanke or God himself to return what we had before.

Yet without a plan directing our own destinies, we may very well become haplessly enslaved to doing what we've always done - even while what we've always done may be obsolete when a recovery eventually arrives.

Not that bold action plans and clearly defined goals are easy to craft. At ground level in Santa Clarita, it's almost impossible for ordinary folks to comprehend the full extent of the economic shift around us. As SCV residents, we understand earthquakes. Been there; done that. But financial earthquakes and global economic tremors are understandably outside our experience. We've not been here before, and we struggle with the tools to respond.

Unfortunately, this shortcoming of understanding doesn't free us from the repercussions of inaction. Enslavement in our routine may be a soothing place to dither one's days when life's ducks line up and fly straight in a row. But for America's collapsing middle class, our ducks are getting scattered and tattered. "Clearly defined goals" are needed to free us from the past when the future is changing so quickly around us.

Life itself has changed since the recession began in 2006, and even in full recovery, profound differences will surely remain - perhaps for the balance of lifetimes. Middle-class life will no longer be an American right one earns simply for being here. Homes, toys and trappings of the American Dream may well become just dreams for those for those whose plan for their future is waiting for "normal" to return.

Twenty years ago, we bought into globalization and millions saw their middle-class lives downgraded as manufacturing was sent off shore to China and Mexico. Yes, we bought cheap stuff at Wal-mart, but millions ended up working cheaper, too, as our middle class eroded at the fringes.

Now comes a bigger wave as developing countries compete with us in the professions. The combined miracle and nightmare of the worldwide Web brings Americans the challenge of hard-working, well-educated, low-paid competition for the white-collar job inside your company's walls. From medicine, to service centers, to tax and legal processing, the hoards that took our manufacturing jobs are now invading via the Web, threatening white-collar gigs.

How do you remain viable when you're competing globally for your job? What if your function is simply the next to be automated and replaced by a computer?

"We are the ones we've been waiting for" might be our best answer to this recession.

My smart housing buddy hit the total reset button and is having the time of his family's life in Costa Rica. We can't all be that adventurous or mobile, of course, but we all have to look at our personal options and capabilities beyond today's routine and assumptions. Amid so much tumult and change, what's your personal plan for viability and renewal?

I suspect in the end, all this upheaval is for the best. The world owes no man a living, and we weren't born with a guarantee of 40 or 50 years' uninterrupted, unchanging employment. If things never changed and if society was never challenged, we'd all still be dialing landline rotary phones and watching civil rights protests on our 21-inch black-and-white TVs while we fretted about Sputniks and invading Ruskies.

Challenge and change is constructive - but oh, we'd better stay ahead of it with a well-considered plan to adapt.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port!" appears Wednesday in The Signal.


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