Higher learning for a higher purpose: Fighting inequality in the ‘human work’ era

COVID-19 has upended the global economy with astonishing speed and severity. Millions have had their work environments drastically changed, or even worse, now find themselves without work and with few options. In contrast to past recessions, certain industries are bearing the brunt of the damage. Sadly, they happen to be ones that offer employment to large numbers of people with relatively low levels of education, including many women and people of color. 

The pandemic has been called the Great Accelerator, and one of the things it’s accelerating is a devastating global surge in inequality. It is happening at all levels. At the macro scale, the poorest countries are the hardest hit, halting or even reversing the remarkable global progress made in recent decades to reduce extreme poverty. At the micro scale, individuals who are able to work remotely are left relatively unscathed, while others have been wiped out—even some whose jobs are considered “essential.” 

This rise in inequality—both globally and in this country—is more than just tragic for the millions who are directly affected. We can see it reflected in the allure of authoritarianism, fearmongering directed at those lower on the economic scale, and the despair and hopelessness of those who feel they have been left out and left behind. The accelerating increase in inequality is dangerous for the future of societies and the planet.

To reduce inequality, we must expand economic opportunity. This is just a fancy way of saying that work matters. People need to work to support themselves and their families, but work also allows people to help improve their communities and the broader society. No matter the job, people find meaning in work. This is the true tragedy of the rise in inequality: Beyond its economic effects, it reflects a society coming apart at the seams. 

But understanding and recognizing the centrality of work offers a way forward, especially because the work of the future is what I call “human work.” 

Human work blends human traits such as compassion, empathy, and ethics with our developed human capabilities such as critical analysis, interpersonal communication, and creativity.

In human work, skills and knowledge still matter, but people apply them to solve problems in ever-changing environments. It’s no surprise that much human work is done in the most unpredictable environment of all—the one involving other people. As AI-enhanced technology extends its reach in fields such as health care, education, retail, and hospitality, people are needed more than ever to focus on the human element. A lot of the work of the future involves helping and serving others—using technology and other resources to understand and help solve people’s problems. 

To prepare people for human work, we need to change many of our assumptions about education, training, and employment. To begin with, the notion that education is finite, or that learning and work are strictly sequential—that one goes to college or technical school first, and then goes to work, staying current through experience and occasional training on the job—that idea has long been obsolete. Yet, this is still how most of our education and training systems are designed.

For starters, “student” and “worker” are not two different kinds of people; today, in most cases, people play both roles simultaneously. In today’s economy, and even more in tomorrow’s, learning and working occur simultaneously, and both are necessary throughout life. The “one can done” era is over.

Also, for workers to land good jobs and advance in their careers, they must understand the knowledge and skills they will need. For employers to find people who can perform well in their jobs, they must clearly describe the knowledge and skills those jobs require, and they must be able to determine, with some specificity, what job applicants and new employees know and can do. Perhaps most important, workers need this knowledge as well, so they can take advantage of every available opportunity to build satisfying careers.

In an era when people can be thrown out of the labor market suddenly with no realistic chance to prepare, everyone must keep learning throughout their life and career. Likewise, full transparency about the abilities and skills that jobs demand is essential so everyone has a fair chance to do meaningful work.  

Clearly, all of this presents a huge challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Indeed, there are numerous examples of employers, colleges, and universities doing all these things to assure the success of students and workers. The problem is that these practices must become the norm, and that requires structural—systemic—change.

But everything that has happened in 2020 shows us how quickly things can change. Now is the time to start making the systemic changes that will help prepare everyone for human work—and thus reduce the inequality that holds us all back.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.