Our Why: The Future of Workers

By Michelle R. Weise

Senior Vice President, Workforce Strategies, and Chief Innovation Officer, Strada Education Network

Editor’s Note: Our revised estimate of 44 million working-class adults (up from 32 million) resulted from more generous and inclusive benchmarks for earnings and family income that reflect differential costs of living across the U.S. Specifically, the revised definition includes working-age (25-64) adults earning less than $35,000 annually with less than $70,000 of family income, an increase from $25,000 and $50,000, respectively. 

At Strada Institute for the Future of Work, we believe that all Americans will need to harness the power of education throughout their working lives. Why? As medical advancements potentially extend our lifespan and as technology changes the nature of work, we are all potentially facing longer and more turbulent work lives.

We are already starting to feel the velocity of technological change and how it is dramatically reshaping the jobs people do and how they do them. Today, the concept of a career is in flux. It’s not just because of the widely covered job-hopping tendencies of millennials. In a longitudinal study of baby boomers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even younger baby boomers held an average of 12 jobs from ages 18 to 48. The number of jobs a learner will hold will only increase with time and especially due to the volatility of technological advancements across all industries.

Most workers can sense that things are different now. Pew research reveals that 87 percent of adults in the workforce today acknowledge that it will be essential or important for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life to keep up with changes in the workplace.

A new learn-earn-learn cycle: Workers will need to return to learning throughout their work lives. But where will they go? Nothing exists today that resembles the kind of learning ecosystem needed to facilitate seamless movements in and out of learning and work. Even the most flexible online learning options out there are still brittle, rigid, and time-based. We ask most workers to skill up on top of all of the other demands and stresses in their lives. If we will need more on- and off-ramps in and out of learning and work in the future, what will Americans need in terms of infrastructure and systems to build that learning ecosystem of the future? This is the crux of all of our work at Strada Institute.

We want to know what learners will need as they face rapidly changing labor market demands and retool themselves for the future. We’re not in the business of predicting the future, as forecasting is an imperfect science. What we can do is understand the implications of the literature and thinking out there in order to synthesize how we all may begin investing now in architecture, systems, and infrastructure that we need for this­ new learn-earn cycle.

We have therefore developed three core pillars that support our larger Strada mission of Completion with a Purpose: Purpose, Pathways, and Innovation.

  • Purpose. We seek to surface the unique challenges and opportunities that working adults face as education consumers in a changing world of work.
  • Pathways. Our research will illuminate new, innovative, and even provocative educational pathways that connect learners more directly from education to employment and on to fulfilling careers and rewarding lives. We will analyze these pathways in light of the changing projections and trends about the future of work.
  • Innovation. We will highlight solutions that depart from the status quo and are seeds of the what needs to build the learning ecosystem of the future.

I’d like to spend some time on Purpose because it is the WHY of what we do.

As much as future of work conversations are trending today, the future of workers is what matters most to us at Strada. Despite the fact that we have a tight labor market—the tightest since the 1990s, what most people don’t understand is that it was the workers with at least some education or training beyond high school who captured nearly all of the job growth in the post‑recession recovery. “America is at once booming and fading,” explains Oren Cass from the Manhattan Institute.

Too many adult Americans are still struggling in the labor market, lacking skills, credentials, and the networks they need to advance to a living wage for themselves and their families: 44 million with less than a two-year degree are either jobless, earning less than $35,000 annually, or have a family income less than $70,000, the benchmark income needed to support a family of four. Today, adults with only a high school education are 50 percent more likely to live in poverty than are those with some college or a two‑year degree.

There are huge repercussions when people don’t work. They lose their sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. In fact, Anne Case and Angus Deaton in recent research have revealed jaw-dropping data about the “deaths of despair”—the higher mortality rates for white, middle-age working-class Americans due to opioid and alcohol abuse, suicide, and general distress, anxiety, and hopelessness.

And to exacerbate matters, the jobs of the future will require even more postsecondary education and training—and a broader set of skills and competencies—than the jobs of the past. The future of work matters, but the future of workers matters more. If we don’t focus on these issues, we’re at risk of leaving behind a broad and vital swath of our population.

This our why—why we will focus on solutions that decrease the skills gap and substantially increase the number of adults with relevant skills for good/decent jobs and a strong foothold in the labor market. Our hope is to shine a light on the voids in the marketplace and the areas ripe for innovation and investment. We hope that these insights spur investment, giving, innovation, and leadership across a broad range of stakeholders.

Ultimately, we want to change the world, but we fully recognize that Strada can’t do it alone. Please join us as we investigate questions of purpose, pathways and innovation for the 44 million at risk of being left behind by the future of work.