Today’s Fed report reminds us that being poor and less educated presents huge challenges for many American workers
Work and Learning

Today’s Fed report reminds us that being poor and less educated presents huge challenges for many American workers

Laid off worker, stock photo.

See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

One eye-popper in today’s Federal Reserve report, which may not get a lot of attention given the cacophony of daily news, is that only 30 percent of American workers who were laid off from March to July had returned to work with the same employer.

What’s more, an increasing share of those who are still unemployed don’t expect to return to their previous jobs.

The report covers the economic well-being of U.S. households and captures changes in the financial landscape of U.S. families since the start of the pandemic. This finding, in particular, raises an alarm about challenges ahead:

“The April survey found that lower-income workers were more likely to have been laid off at the start of the pandemic. The July survey showed that lower-income adults who were laid off were also less likely to have returned to work in the same job.

“Additionally,” the Fed’s report found, “workers with less education who maintained their jobs were less likely to be working from home than were those with more education.

“Consistent with these differences in work arrangements, workers with less education were also more likely to say that their employer was not taking sufficient precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the Fed concluded.

In short, most jobs are not coming back, lower-income workers are being disproportionately harmed by COVID, and having both a low income and less education are likely to make you worse off—economically, for sure, but also worse off in terms of your overall health and safety during the pandemic.

This is a sobering reminder that we must adapt both workers and work itself to meet the human needs of people doing the work.

The work that only humans can do in the age of automation, robots, and AI will be accelerated by the pandemic and by what employers do to reshape their workplaces.

We must start to prepare people for an emerging ecosystem of human work in which the most vulnerable face the greatest risks. This means ensuring that we capitalize on the human capacities we possess—critical thinking, empathy, ethical reasoning, interpersonal skills, and others—that smart machines cannot replicate.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” which will be published Oct. 6.

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