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Business Innovation The Pandemic

One Year After the Great Reset: Same Storm, Different Boats

A year ago, I wrote an article here at Techonomy welcoming you to The Great Reset, warning of historic economic disruption if we didn’t “flatten the slump” of unemployment, business closings, and municipal failures. (A few months later, the World Economic Forum chose the Great Reset as its theme for the year.) And we all began living through a Phase One drop off the economic cliff into a world of relentless uncertainty.

Today, depending on the Venn diagram of your country, industry, organization, team, health, and personal situation, you are either in Phase Three, with your life rebuilt. Or, you are stuck in Phase Two, riffling along the bottom in a fever-chart of some work and no work, or maybe hoping the life preserver of government subsidy will keep your financial head barely above water. As I said a year ago, as history is our guide, this kind of reset leaves many behind, especially low-wage workers and those in rural areas.

The differences in our lived experiences have been stunning. Many tech companies grew insanely richer, while tourist-dependent and socializing-dependent hospitality businesses and jobs cratered. Programmers reveled in agile-fueled distributed teams, even as hospital workers were hammered by seemingly-endless and exhausting emergency care caused by rogue waves of exponential infection rates. And the stock market, as if intent on demonstrating its psychopathic disconnect from the society in which it’s supposedly anchored, posted record gains.

Perhaps most predictable and most devastating, the fragility of our industrial-era approach to mass education was laid bare. Those with connectivity and connections thrived in the class-zoom and in local pods, while those without them lost a year of learning that will be all but impossible to replace.

“Same storm, different boats,” the Nordic saying goes. Yet far too many people had no boat at all. To paraphrase William Gibson again: We already have abundance. It’s just not very evenly distributed.

Eons ago in January of 2020, the future of work and learning was largely Theory. By April, it had become Practice. So what have we learned in the past year of forced adaptation, for individuals, organizations, communities, and countries?

  • The previous waves of disruption were automation and globalization, but as we found, those are ultimately driven by very human decisions like hiring and purchasing. The true twin tsunamis continue to be the pace and scale of change, and how we deal with them.
  • However, automate we did. Some organizations packed a decade’s worth of digital transformation into a few months. It turns out humans can adapt at exponential speed given the right incentives, such as existential risk for their businesses and jobs. At the same time, and this was gratifying to observe, pretty much every organization learned that humans will actually do their work, as a “management by surveillance” that required onsite oversight gave way to unavoidable pandemic-induced trust in distributed teams. That video-enabled collaboration also brought home the stunning realization that workers are humans, with children and pets and sick parents. Remind me again why we ignored the whole person for so long?
  • Some countries barely registered single-digit unemployment, and their economies recovered rapidly. Denmark, for example, regularly spends nearly 2% of GDP on worker coaching and retraining, so unemployment barely bumped up a few percentage points during the pandemic. But in the U.S. the middle of the work market evaporated. America is still short 9.5 million pre-pandemic jobs, and four million people have been without work for more than six months. Both of those numbers are higher than at the height of the Great Recession in 20TK. (In fact, don’t trust traditional unemployment statistics at all, which are anchored in the Old Rules of Work. Look instead at the Ludwig Institute’s True Rate of Unemployment to understand “functional” un- and under-employment, which it estimates at four times the public numbers.)
  • Despite having so many workers without work, workforce mismatches abound, with the JOLTS report citing 6.6 million job openings. The U.S. manufacturing sector alone has 80,000 unfilled jobs. And those industry mismatches will only increase as hirers demand new skills in geographies that lack enough trained workers.
  • The Greatest Reset will likely be for the learning industry. The unbundling of education that has been predicted for so long is here, starting with adult learning, and working its way down the food chain through higher ed toward early and K-12 education.
  • Perhaps most importantly, as half the world experienced the same reset, we learned how much more connects us than divides us. Case in point: The breathtaking achievement that no historic cohort of humans has previously accomplished–identifying and starting to collectively mitigate a viciously-canny virus in a year’s time.
Image: George Desipris

As societies from New Zealand to China achieve their new abnormal through a twitch response to any hint of the relentlessly-varying virus, and as economies rebuild depending on their own Venn diagrams of economic conditions, we need a new mindset geared toward inclusively managing ongoing change. Whether I’m zooming with a group of high school students in Burundi or a global conference of business executives, I hear the same question on everyone’s lips: What next?

After a hundred lectures and interviews last year, I still have no crystal ball. But here are some of the emerging strategies we can synthesize to help everyone continue to weather the storm, and to prepare for the next one, no matter what boat they’re in:

  • Flexify your employee work location rules. I don’t trust any executive’s pronouncement about “forever” policies. But a recent Fortune/SurveyMonkey survey says a third of workers want full-time office, about a fifth want to stay distributed full time, and about two-fifths hope for a mix. If you empower teams to determine where and how they work based on their own Venn diagram of conditions, they can design their own schedule and location each workweek. And whenever possible, hire people where they want to live and leave them there.
  • In fact, change the entire way you think about hiring and developing. Leave behind old risk-mitigation strategies like up-requiring jobs that simply don’t need a college degree. Focus on the problems you need solved, and the human skills needed to solve them. Open your company’s training resources to the world, as IBM has done with its Skills initiative, so workers can know and learn what you hire for. Create apprenticeship programs. Don’t just remove bias from hiring, development and promotions: Make bias impossible, through inclusive co-design with affected workers, populations and communities.
  • Help our young adult and older adult education systems shift into community-based “learn-to-earn” and “earn-and learn” models, incorporating real-world problem-solving and paid training. Build deep connections between your industry and the learning industry. We still need lots of liberal arts majors. But that system has to help them find or create meaningful, stable, well-paid work – “good jobs” – or all the risk will continue to fall on the student, and our $1.7 trillion student debt overhang will hamstring our economy. And inside your organization, encourage lifelong learning as a deeply-embedded mindset by every single worker, starting with you.

The Great Reset has given us our new start date. But the mantra hasn’t changed. No human left behind.

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