Education isn't the only field in need of reinvention -- the labor market could use an update, too. Paula Krebs, the executive director of the Modern Language Association, is a proponent of a new Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the 21st century. Though the original WPA program, designed in the wake of the Great Depression, created more than 8.5 million jobs -- many devoted to public infrastructure projects -- Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education & Skills at New America, writes that the country's needs in 2020 are far broader than they were in the 1930s.
But, she adds, "they are every bit as urgent." While a new WPA should contain funding for infrastructure projects, it should also funnel money to local and state governments, so they can share funds with local businesses and nonprofits, in an effort to slow the number of people applying for unemployment benefits.
Krebs says the program can go even further, just as it did in the 1930s. "[T]he WPA also employed writers, researchers, historians, artists, musicians, actors and other cultural figures -- and the work they did had as profound and lasting impact on the nation as the bridges and roads built by thousands of laborers," she writes.
A modern version of the WPA would allow Americans to begin making sense of this new and complex world. And who better to be a part of that journey than young people just launching their careers. Be they artists, historians or writers, recent graduates can help people better understand, through words and images, how our perceptions shape both ourselves, our surroundings and our beliefs -- or lack thereof -- in institutions.
More concretely, Krebs says, "A new WPA would put cultural workers, humanities graduates, in municipal offices and nonprofits, in corporations and health care facilities, to help nonprofit and for-profit sectors alike understand difference and communicate effectively. It would put researchers into museums and libraries to help find ways to make resources available remotely and to analyze the ways those resources are used. It would put unemployed PhDs to work within public school systems, to help overburdened teachers with shaping new remote curricula and with introducing new texts and approaches that will enable students to make a smooth transition to college learning."
This kind of program could also help Americans begin to reimagine both the role of the worker and the workplace. As Joan Williams, founder of the Center for WorkLife Law writes in Harvard Business Review, the American perception of the "ideal worker" -- which encourages people to enter the workforce at an early age, and then work "full-time and full force" for the next four decades, is stuck in the 1960s. It depends on a breadwinner-homemaker sort of arrangement, where one spouse can work a seemingly indefinite amount of hours, while the other sees to the needs of the household.
Six decades later, and the majority of American families can no longer rely on that kind of arrangement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, among married Americans with children, almost two-thirds of them had two working parents. In light of this shift, Williams says parents have had to stitch a patchwork approach to child care together -- and the pandemic, which brought child care to an abrupt halt, threw their entire system into disarray.
But this sudden disruption also created a chance for change. And, Williams believes, now is the right time to restructure the workforce and re-envision the "ideal worker." For example, pre-pandemic, she says many employers said telecommuting was impossible and that all employees had to report to a central office, and yet within days of the pandemic, millions of employees had adapted to remote work fairly successfully.
In fact, according to Gallup, as of early April, 62% of employed Americans said they had worked from home during the pandemic, a number that doubled within less than a month. Interestingly, the same poll found that three in five workers who have been working remotely would prefer to continue working from home, even after restrictions have been lifted.
Williams says this shift in mindset, while perhaps a major adjustment for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, actually complements the preferences of millennials, who have less of an affinity for and loyalty to the traditional workplace. She believes Gen Zers are likely more similar to millennials and will embrace a new kind of labor market -- particularly one that allows for remote work, flexible work hours and potentially even job sharing.
Employers, who Williams says may face increasingly less loyal employees, would be apt to embrace this kind of large-scale change. More specifically, she believes they should consider making telework a permanent feature -- and balancing it with on-site needs of each company. Williams notes, though, that institutionalizing telework will also require some finessing -- since it still largely depends on the existence of child care and a place in the home where employees can easily focus on their work.
There is growing research to persuade employers of the efficacy of models like telework. Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University, conducted a study of a travel company with his graduate student James Liang and found that not only did "at-home workers" report being happier and more likely to stay at the company, but they were also more productive.
Of course, all of this change is premised on the idea that recent graduates have employment opportunities at all. And, in this economy, there are no guarantees. Katherine Howard, who graduated in 2020 from Syracuse University, says, "There is no rulebook on how to begin a career in the middle of a global pandemic," but if there is one thing she has learned over the last few months, it's to be flexible and patient as the country begins to reopen its doors.
As a music business major, she intended to move to Los Angeles after graduation and work in booking live music events. But, as she points out, it is unlikely people will be gathering in large events anytime soon. While Howard says she still intends to move to Los Angeles, she is open to exploring other career possibilities that may not have been on her radar.
And, she adds, there is a silver lining. She will soon be able to add a new skill to her resume -- "how to survive and thrive during a pandemic."
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