Why return to the ‘old normal’? Let’s come back stronger—together
Work and Learning

Why return to the ‘old normal’? Let’s come back stronger—together

 Volunteers, 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.”

Many of us haven’t been to the office, eaten in a restaurant, attended a play, concert, or sporting event, or perhaps even shopped in person since the COVID-19 crisis fully emerged in March. While we yearn to go back to normal, we should use this disruptive slowdown to burnish our civic square.

Wouldn’t it be great to step into a world in which Americans work together to repair damage exposed by the pandemic, especially racial and economic injustices that are now too visible to ignore?

A roadmap exists. The right conditions exist, too.

Even as we would like to put 2020 in the rearview mirror, an Atlanta-based nonprofit is focused on creating a civic society in which it’s easy to take action. Points of Light revealed the pandemic’s potential to change us for the better in a recent survey, “Civic Life Today: A Look at American Civic Engagement Amid a Global Pandemic.”

The survey, of 1,400 Americans from every age group, concludes there is potential for the “pandemic to serve as a catalyst for a new era of civic engagement.” Some results are truly stunning, and heartening:

  • 95 percent intend to maintain or increase their involvement in civic life.
  • 82 percent believe everyone must be involved in rebuilding our communities and our country.
  • 66 percent believe the pandemic will have longstanding positive effects on the country and on our lives.

As COVID-19 continues to spread and social inequities worsen, we’ve been forced to rethink our norms of behavior and expectations while improvising and charting our paths, according to the report.

My new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” describes a path forward. We need a fresh approach to work, a virtuous cycle of earning, learning, and serving others. In this paradigm, workers do what we are uniquely qualified to do—the work defined by critical thinking, ethical reasoning, personal interaction, and empathetic service.

In this way, people enhance their lives, enrich their communities, and restore respect and dignity to all forms of civic engagement.

The Points of Light report suggests “the physical and mental health aspects of the novel coronavirus have devastated communities and awakened a new motivation among Americans to help people.” This is true across generations—from boomers to Gen Z.

The most striking findings came from Gen Z, the young people born since the mid-1990s. Two-thirds of the survey respondents from this age group said they’ve been involved in several civic activities within the past year. (Points of Light defines civic engagement as voting, volunteering, donating, social networking, using purchasing power to influence corporate behavior, working, serving others, and being involved in social enterprises.) Nearly 80 percent of Gen Zers had taken action since May to address racial discrimination or inequality.

Gen Z, which often organizes through social networks, views social change as a team sport, according to the survey. This generation’s collective action isn’t limited to protesting in the streets or posting on Instagram. Nearly six of every 10 Gen Zer use their purchasing power to influence businesses, rewarding companies that take socially progressive stances and punishing firms that harm people, democracy, or the environment.

But the survey also suggests the generations could learn from each other. For example, older citizens— who tend to vote regularly and in greater numbers than their younger peers—could work more actively to change that dynamic. They could reach out to their younger friends via text or Twitter, linking them to sites that provide step-by-step instructions for registration and voting. They could point their Gen Z friends—or accompany them—to issue and candidate briefings which can help younger voters see that the issues that spark street protests can often be changed at the ballot box.

And the older generations could also learn from Gen Z. Younger people can show their elders that the Internet is about much more than posting family photos on Facebook. With guidance, they can learn to use platforms like Instagram and Snapchat to highlight issues, raise funds, and build networks. Sure, grandpa might not want to use those techniques to spark a protest against Big Oil, but he could employ the same techniques to get folks to show up at the monthly school board meeting.

The methods can vary, of course. But the goal—improving civic life—is shared, and it’s increasingly important in this divided time.

As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s embrace it.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,”is available now. 

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