A higher minimum wage will matter, but bringing real meaning to work must be the ultimate goal
Human Work and Learning

A higher minimum wage will matter, but bringing real meaning to work must be the ultimate goal

COVID-masked woman picking up a coffee from shop counter.
iStock / Alessandro Biascioli

This week’s planned walkout by fast-food workers, demanding a higher minimum wage, highlights the need to push livable wages to the forefront. A higher minimum wage is essential. Overdue. And right.

Boosting low-end wages also can be a means of achieving something more substantial—something that merits even more attention. In a pandemic-weary nation, helping low-income workers earn fair wages is a step toward improving their well-being and quality of life.

Workers want and need more money, but they also profoundly crave meaning, purpose, dignity, and social mobility, among the non-monetary benefits of doing work that is human. More money is a necessary but not sufficient condition for bringing meaning to everyday work.

In the weeks ahead, we will hear more debate of President Biden’s call to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour from a meager $7.25, where it has been for more than a decade. This change would lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Some economists assert that raising minimum wages will increase unemployment, but considerable evidence exists that more people can find employment even as the federal minimum wage goes up.

When the economy leaves people behind, they often have shorter lives and do poorly on other social indicators. Work offers personal satisfaction and a range of other rewards. Our labor can give us a sense of purpose. Gallup found most workers, even those who earn minimum wage, say they want financial stability and meaning from work. Both are essential.

For the economy to absorb a higher minimum wage and recover, making satisfying work more widely available, everyone from policy leaders to ordinary workers must recognize that the pandemic has caused fundamental shifts. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell recently noted, “We’re recovering but to a different economy. It is one that will be more leveraged to technology, and I worry that it will make it even more difficult than it was for many workers.”

The spread of COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of technology, often enhanced through the use of artificial intelligence. The work of the future will be human. This work will involve serving others—that is, working alongside smart machines to solve people’s problems. Workers will have to apply critical thinking and ethical reasoning, collaborate, work in and across teams, and understand the customer experience.

Human work offers the satisfaction of having substance and consequence, but it is available only to people with the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities. As we redesign systems to develop those essential traits, we will need to focus tightly on racial equity to ensure everyone benefits from an economic recovery.

The pandemic has intensified racial inequality in education, employment, and income. It is clear the pandemic has devastated workers at the lower end of the economy, including many women; people who are Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American; rural communities; and immigrants. They will struggle to regain their places in the economy as the pace of automation accelerates in lower-skill jobs. But we will not achieve just, fair outcomes in learning, and work unless we directly address racial inequities.

Assuring that millions of adults have what it takes to do human work is the nation’s challenge. Work is evolving, and people cannot take a break from learning and developing skills.

Community colleges will be critical to continual skills development. They offer flexible opportunities for learning that will help workers meet changing workplace demands. More community colleges should adopt “credential-as-you-go” models to ensure students earn certificates and industry-recognized certifications as quickly as possible on their way to associate and bachelor’s degrees. Recognizing intermediate steps with value to employers gives students tangible rewards as they find longer-term meaning in work.

States can play a vital role in how the nation gets people back to work. That starts with eliminating false distinctions between education and training. For starters, states should require that education and training programs—including on-the-job training by employers, apprenticeships, and workforce programs—lead to credentials recognized by employers and today’s separate education and training systems. States also should ease the burdens working students face by making available supports such as childcare services, meals, transportation, and housing. Students who are working need this help to stay enrolled and earn degrees and short-term credentials. 

We also should increase federal funding and focus on this approach by merging functions within the U.S. Department of Education and training programs within the U.S. Department of Labor. While we are at it, we should combine workforce programs within the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Commerce, and other agencies in a new Department of Talent. Outdated policies and institutional inertia that keep education and training separate prevent people from developing the knowledge and skills they need to move beyond minimum-wage jobs and live even more-satisfying lives.

Workers can help themselves, too. Everyone from displaced workers in industries hit hard by the pandemic to immigrants to adults leaving jails and prisons must be empowered to build their skillsets to work alongside automation, AI, and robotics in the new talent economy. People should work independently and with their employers to draft personal roadmaps that pull together their plans for future learning, earning, and serving. Like a financial plan, these roadmaps should lay out near- and longer-term goals and the steps to achieve them.

Meaningful work is essential to people and our society. A new, livable minimum wage is a start on the path toward dignity that workers both demand and deserve. The country’s support for working adults has fallen behind. Everyone should be empowered to learn and grow, and making that possible by paying them more is only the start.

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