The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of our lives: how we work, how we learn, and how we gather. As we emerge from the pandemic, the natural tendency is to try to put the pieces back as they were, but that’s simply not possible.
Consider the headlines about workforce shortages, the Great Resignation, remote work, plummeting college enrollment, teacher shortages, escalating housing prices, empty commercial spaces, and more. All this is true; moreover, we’ve known much of it was coming.
For example, our workforce. Baby Boomers, the youngest now 58, are retiring in droves, and workforce participation by subsequent generations is lower. Gen X isn’t that large, and Millennials, now entering their 40s, desire “work-life balance,” which is evident in preferences for shorter workweeks and part-time work.
There’s also 50 years of Baby Bust—the dropping fertility rate in the United States. People are retiring at greater rates than are entering the workforce. We cannot replace the workers we are losing because there simply aren’t people. And younger workers view work differently from those leaving it. Throughout the last two years, many jobs have flourished in a flexible environment, and often location doesn’t matter. Couple that with generational shifts in attitudes, and the return to 2019 work standards becomes impossible.
A similar disruption occurred in education. American schools build layers of skills and knowledge, yielding a qualified workforce and educated citizenry, mirroring a factory. The two-year interruption of that assembly line progression—at every level—makes getting back on track nearly impossible. The social, emotional, and learning gaps students experience are highly individualized based on their circumstances. Let’s face it; very few students thrived during the last two years.
Schools are social spaces, as well as learning places. Students learn problem-solving, self-regulation, and empathy in a community with others. The workplace is similar. While remote workers may enjoy flexibility, the increased social isolation from coworkers erodes a necessary sense of shared purpose that comes from working in the community. Community requires a shared sense of place, so what does it mean for school and work communities when the place of learning or the place of work shifts to the home? What does it mean when where one lives and where one attends school or works do not need to coexist geographically?
While we’ve known demographic changes were coming, now we can no longer ignore them. Before the pandemic, we felt the pressures from an insufficient number of workers and an education system that was imperfectly aligned with business and industry needs. We know now that flexibility may provide a key for learning and work. As a society, we will benefit from the more intentional use of time and space.
Our nation has been through a lot, and now is the time for sense-making of what we experienced and planning for our future realities. While we may feel an urgency to create the “new normal,” let us make space for reflection. Nothing will ever be as it was, yet human-centered, thoughtful moves forward will make us better.