COVID-19 and Human Work
Work and Learning

COVID-19 and Human Work

As COVID-19 has spread, many Twitter users have embraced #WhenThisIsAllOver. One person optimistically wrote: “We’ll hold hands more often, hug tighter, dance closer, love more. We’ll judge less and appreciate all the little things.” To that, I would add: “We’ll work, learn, and serve each other better, too.” That’s my narrative for what’s coming next with #HumanWork.

In addition to lending new meaning to social distancing and reminding us of the incalculable value we place on human relationships, this crisis has surfaced connections between work and learning far beyond how we share internet bandwidth while the whole family is stuck at home.

What we’re seeing is the acceleration of a trend in which work and learning blur—and this evolution must happen if our society is going to meet the demands that increasing use of automation and artificial intelligence will place on us. As the economy shifts, how we structure work and learning must lift up what makes us human, including our ability to recognize and meet challenges that lie beyond the capabilities of smart machines.

At the same time, longstanding stresses—for example, profound inequities across race, ethnicity, and income in who has meaningful work and learning opportunities—will come into sharper view. We must directly meet these challenges. In a story in the upcoming issue of The New Yorker, which chronicles life with a focus on the city hardest hit by COVID, Harvard University historian Jill Lepore notes that the fictional stories we tell ourselves about contagion focus far more on the loss of what makes us human than on actual loss of life. Work and life are becoming integrated in ways that pose a similar existential threat.

For the foreseeable future, we will be faced with family obligations, emotional issues, and financial threats as jobs disappear, schooling is interrupted, and lives are forever altered. We know from the recession more than a decade ago that many low-skill jobs will never return.

Over the long run, we will need to develop a new learning system that will prepare people for this new reality and for the future of human work. For too long, schools and colleges have followed a traditional progression of K-12 education, then on to college or an apprenticeship or industry certification program, and finally on to work.

Our current economic calamity, with stock market volatility we’ve not experienced since the Great Depression, shows how inadequate our existing systems are when it comes to ensuring people’s success. Work and learning are becoming inseparable, and more will be expected of colleges and universities, workforce training programs, and employers. And, to live meaningful lives and maintain a vibrant society, we will expect more from one another in terms of service in the form of compassion and relatability—which are inherently vital parts of human work.

We can no longer think of education and training as separate types of learning that should never meet or be reserved for certain people and not others. Education should prepare us for the changing nature of work. Training on and off the job that engages us over our entire lives should equip us with the skills most relevant to finding and keeping meaningful work. Such a shift will mean greater use of high-quality online learning that meets the needs of today’s students, many of whom are working full time, supporting families, or are the first in their families to receive an education after high school. The shift will mean more pathways to credentials of value, whether these are college degree and certificate programs, industry certification programs, or options we have yet to imagine.

If the country invests in ways that help people develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities they will need to ready themselves for the work that only humans can do, more opportunities for social mobility and civic participation will exist for everyone—not the least for people of color and for individuals from low-income families who struggle the most now.

Writer Masha Gessen, also writing in The New Yorker, says that “Estonia may be the nation best prepared for the consequences of the pandemic, both economically and socially.” Why? Because under former President Toomas Hendrik Ives, who learned how computers work as a high school student in New Jersey, Estonia embraced life with smart machines.

Nearly every home has broadband internet, and Estonians are comfortable working and learning online. Gessen interviewed Ives by Skype at Stanford University, where he’s sheltering in place (and must feel like he’s been thrown back in time). Meanwhile, in Estonia, his countrymen are confident of a better future.

“Estonia declared a state of emergency March 12,” Gessen wrote in their account of how human work is taking shape there amid the global crisis. “The next night, two companies, in cooperation with the government, launched a 48-hour idea-collection session, called Hack the Crisis. Five of the ideas would receive startup funds of up to 5,000 euros, for immediate execution. … At least two participants proposed writing apps that would connect volunteers with people in need of help during the state of emergency. Another proposal was for an app for wearable devices that would react to risky gestures, such as face-touching. Still another was for a program for ‘rotating or swapping workforce between companies’—for example, enabling tourism-industry workers to shift to working in e-commerce. The proposal included legislative changes and an online platform for organizing the swaps.”

There’s no reason the United States can’t attack its challenges with the same gusto. The pandemic will subside. If we seize this opportunity and make wise use of the trillions in relief Congress is poised to shower on employers and higher education, a better path lies ahead.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “Human Work: In the Age of Smart Machines.”

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