It’s getting to be that time of year when we at ASSEMBLY start gearing up for Assembly Technology Expo (ATExpo), which we sponsor here in Chicago each September. Doing so now has reminded me of just how much has happened over the past 12 months.

I’d like to interrupt the current recession for a brief interjection: Wow!



This time last year we had a president nearing the end of his second term; the financial crisis was just beginning to unfold (like Godzilla slowly emerging from the murk midway through a B horror movie-amorphous but very threatening!); and oil prices were going through the roof. Politicians were still arguing over whether the fundamentals of the economy were sound; Ford was bragging about how much progress it was making with its turnaround plan (it had actually begun turning a profit); and there was fear of a strike at GM. Remember the GM strike? It did eventually happen, right in the middle of ATExpo. It seemed pretty scary at the time. Ah, what an innocent time it was!

Speaking of the past year, how about this spring? Remember when the economy was in free fall, jobs were being shed left and right, and people weren’t even answering their phones anymore? Times remain tough. The future is far from certain. There’s still a good deal of hardship to come. But the present feels downright nice in comparison.

I mention the past year for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, because it’s been a heck of a ride. Maybe it’s because I majored in history as an undergrad, but I can’t help looking around at everything that’s happening with a sense of awe. These are truly epic times. If you ever wondered what it was like to experience some of the things you read about in history class, just look around you. You’re in it.

The other reason I mention the past 12 months is to draw attention to how far we’ve come. It’s one thing to say that economic hard times also bring opportunity. It’s quite another to put in the hard work necessary to make those opportunities happen. It’s one thing to trumpet the wonders of the free market when times are good. It’s a whole other matter doing what it takes to ride out the inevitable downturns, to cope with the “creative destruction” that is such an integral part of real progress.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the significance of the “green shoots” currently popping up across the economy, not to mention some concern that Wall Street is letting its greedy gut tell it where to go as opposed to its brain. However, the simple fact is that these green shoots-new business ventures, private sector initiatives throughout the broader economy-are happening, and they simply will not all be snuffed out. We at ASSEMBLY hear it over and over again. People are sick and tired of the recession. They want to work, and by gosh they’re going to do it. People are coming up with new ideas, quoting projects and figuring out how best to catch the wave as the economy once again gathers steam. These people simply will not be stopped. That’s what they do, and by God they’re going to do it.

Just look at the headlines-for every gloom and doom story about layoffs, for every talking head on cable television pontificating to the rest of us about the financial markets, there are two or three stories talking about some new technology or startup throwing its hat into the ring.

Michigan may very well become a global center for advanced automotive battery manufacture. An assembly plant in Cleveland of all places is now building super-efficient engines for Ford. Wind farms are sprouting up throughout the country, and those same green technologies that were once scoffed at by investors are now attracting millions in startup capital. Heck, just this past week there was a story about how Toyota is thinking of teaming up with GM to build hybrid vehicles in North America. Imagine reading that a few months ago!

All too often, things like the free market are thought of only in the abstract. But the free market is a very real and tangible thing. It’s countless individuals all getting up each morning and going to work to improve both their own lives and the lives of the people around them.

It’s also easy to become bedazzled by all those financial people in their fine suits, to forget that they are simply a means to an end. They talk about “adding value,” but in fact, they are merely greasing the wheels and providing fuel for the engine that is doing the actual adding. You can’t drive to work in a hedge fund. Derivatives alone won't fill an empty stomach. Never forget that all the financial products in the world don’t mean a hill of beans if you don’t have people doing the hard work of actually putting all that capital to good use.

That is the true genius of America, the fact that-notwithstanding the occasional high-profile hand-wringing over whether folks these days measure up to their grandparents-we both like work and are damn good at it. Ultimately, so long as people are willing to work, so long as they don’t give up, they will find a way to do what simply comes naturally to them. If there’s one thing this recession has shown, it’s that this fundamental aspect of the American character hasn’t changed a bit.