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Yesterday, today and tomorrow: The challenges of the decades


These are indeed interesting times, but they are not much different, or more difficult, than any other time in the last century.

The first decade of the 20th century saw the introduction of the automobile and the invention of the airplane. It was the birth of modern transportation devices that would expand our horizons and shrink our worlds. With modern manufacturing methods reducing costs and the emergence of the Sears Roebuck and Eaton’s catalogues, it was considered the first decade of materialism and consumerism.

The next decade was mixed with optimism and tension with the rise of many great industrial companies, the founding of labour unions, a new start for a wave of new immigrants, plus all of the stresses and challenges associated with these. And most significantly, there was World War I, the “war to end all wars.”

The ’20s introduced the world to mass production, skyscrapers and buying on credit – things that still mark our world.

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The ’30s brought with it “the Great Depression,” with memories and values that continue to resonate through the stories of our grandparents.

The 1940s brought World War II, and the ’50s were the “happy days” – the birth of the baby boomer generation.

The 1960s was the “decade of love,” hippies, the Vietnam War, and a generation that challenged the social order of the day.

In the ’70s, the maturing voice of the young generation made a lasting impact on society. Space exploration seemed to fuel the optimism that “the sky was the limit.”

The 1980s are often described as “the ‘me’ generation”; a time when personal wealth, personal accomplishment and personal satisfaction seemed to override the collective objectives of the earlier decades. Cable television, MTV, video games and even double-digit inflation are often connected to this shifting focus.

The ’90s were truly the electronic age, changing the way we communicate, do business and socialize with one another.

The first decade of the new millennium has only recently ended and it’s too early to give it a name. Whatever name given should reflect the lost confidence of the decade – our security was shattered with the events of 9-11; our faith in technology challenged with the shuttle disaster; our faith in governments, churches and the economy in general, all seemed in a state of constant erosion.

So, here we are, in 2012. The challenges before us today are no less significant than the challenges at the beginning of any other decade. This decade is one where we sense a significant shift of world power, military might and economic influence. In the 1990s, we exported our industrial labour jobs to low-cost regions, and along with it, a lot of the wealth-creating capability of many people in our society. With decreasing opportunities for meaningful employment, but rapidly increasing electronic entertainment options, it is not difficult to understand the argument that many in society are now “over stimulated but under engaged.”

To me, the biggest challenge of this decade is how to engage the cumulative strength of our nation and people. When people are fully engaged, great things are often achieved. However, when people are not engaged, little is achieved.

Engaging people requires a compelling vision that properly addresses the challenges of the day and points to a desired outcome. You must build faith that what you are doing today will help achieve what you hope to achieve tomorrow. Uncertainty always brings with it an element of fear, but faith and hope have proven to be stronger motivators.

We can take many lessons from the past, but we must be willing to chart new courses for tomorrow, and the courses need to take into account the challenges we face today.

 

This column originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.