Everyone Has a Meaningful Place in the New Economy

June 8, 2015  • Zoë Baird

America is in the midst of the biggest economic transformation in a hundred years. This sea change has disrupted the expectations — and even the dreams — of millions of Americans. The defining challenge of our time is making sure that all Americans will be included in this transformation.

This is personal for me. My mother was a Rosie the Riveter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. She and my father were so proud that their daughter graduated from college even though neither of them had college degrees. They were able to find a place in the American economy and achieve their American Dream. But if they were starting out today, would the same be true? I have two children who are growing up in this world transformed by technology and globalization. It’s my deepest hope that they will live in a time of optimism and shared opportunity.

Yes, there are many who have grabbed hold of the new economy and built incredible businesses and careers. But there are many more who don’t know where to find opportunity in this new digital networked era. They have lost faith.

That’s because they are uncertain about the future. They don’t know what to tell their children about how to prepare for the jobs of the future. They don’t know which diplomas or credentials will be meaningful anymore. They don’t know whether their skills will be recognized or valued. They don’t know how to match up their education with the businesses looking to hire — and for that matter, business don’t know how to effectively connect with the most qualified workers. They don’t know which technologies will be essential to the workplace. They don’t know which industries will be created, destroyed, or transformed.

That’s why I am so inspired by the members of Rework America and their ambitious agenda for action. The key is harnessing the very forces causing this great change — technology and a networked world — and turning them into the tools we need so that all can prosper.

This is a prescription that also comes with a warning: if we don’t embrace new ways of doing things — right now — we will soon hit the point of no return, and the American Dream might vanish for all but a few.

We have been here before. A century ago, America was going through the greatest economic transformation and technological revolution in its history. Cities sprang up overnight and traditional farm life disappeared for many. There were extremes of wealth and poverty. Then came the Great Depression, which left a third of America, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.

Only when our leaders began to embrace new approaches for a new world did the American Dream achieve real meaning for the majority of Americans.

In the decades that have passed since, no other era has achieved the scale and significance of the economic upheaval of the early 1900s.

Until today.

The transformation of the past 20 years — as our nation has moved through the information era into the digital age — has turned the world upside down once again.

One hundred-year-old industrial buildings now house 3-D printing companies. Farmers are using sensors and tablets to irrigate their crops. STEM education, once the province of only a select few jobs, is now, more and more, a prerequisite. Individual entrepreneurs — using tools that were the stuff of science fiction even 10 years ago — are starting businesses that are changing the world. But many others are left out.

The troubling reality is that doubt and despair have eroded our collective economic prospects, and our trust in the promises of our democracy.

How can there be so many paths to opportunity with so few people traveling them?

As a nation, our leaders and all of us need to recognize the profound transition we face. We have to focus on what we must do to help Americans succeed now, and what we must do to prepare our country for what comes next.

That’s why, at the Markle Foundation, we have made it our purpose to inspire and enable leaders from all sectors to create new paths for good and meaningful work in the digital economy so that all Americans can dream again.

In the absence of that national conversation, we decided to start one.

We convened a group of remarkable people who know the challenges and potential solutions from their own experience: some of our nation’s most successful corporate CEOs, leading technologists, inspiring faith-based leaders, passionate educators, innovative government leaders, celebrated management gurus, and many more from across the political spectrum.

We asked, what can we do today, to make opportunity available for everyone tomorrow?

Our answers were woven together in a new book, America’s Moment which will be published next week and from which this essay is drawn.

Our agenda for action is not merely a policy prescription. It is a practical agenda created by people on the ground for actions we can take today in every community around this country. It includes:

  • Preparing people to succeed. In the modern economy, information, power, and the ability to make things happen are all distributed rather than concentrated. So why are people’s capacities judged solely by old centralized markers like a high school or college diploma. Why, in this day and age, is just one diploma the goal? Why not many rapid and affordable credentials that are better matched to today’s career paths? Why isn’t lifetime learning — accessible affordable education for all people — the norm? It’s time we ensure that careers are based on what you can do when you are ready, and not the path you didn’t choose a decade ago.
  • Using the reach of the Internet and data to innovate jobs. We have at our fingertips the power of Internet-based marketplaces, and the enormous potential of data and analytics — but they are still exceptions to the norm. We need to fully integrate them into mainstream work and upgrade jobs so that, empowered with information, we develop millions of more valuable workers — and train a new generation to succeed within that context as second nature.
  • Using technology to match employers and workers. There are millions of middle-skill jobs around the country that aren’t being filled. CEOs cannot connect with trained and talented workers. Too many potential employees don’t know about these positions, or don’t know what skills they need to do these jobs. We have to use the power of the Internet to make the job search transparent and based on competency and new credentials. We have to match people with opportunity.
  • Transitioning to a “no-collar world.” The old system of credentialing talent is antiquated. Blue-collar, white-collar — it’s a hierarchy that doesn’t accurately reflect people’s abilities and handcuffs employers to ineffective metrics when seeking new workers to fill open positions. Job categories and the skills they require are changing every day. We need new ways of categorizing and credentialing talent — ways in which no worker or employer is limited by arbitrary delineations.

Forward-thinking leaders have already put many of these ideas into practice in some corners of the country and economy. The examples are collected in America’s Moment, and they are already showing results. It is our task to identify these ideas, scale them up, and turn them into something that can benefit all Americans.

When we first began the Rework America initiative, we started the conversation by asking each of our members a simple question: “What is your American Dream story?”

All of the assembled leaders had their own versions of the American Dream story, but all shared one common theme: all of them got to where they are today through perseverance and hard work, but also because of the help of others.

For the next generation, will that hard work be enough? Will those opportunities be available? Will our children be able to tell their own American Dream story?

We think, yes.

In the midst of all this transformation and upheaval, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the fundamental belief that has driven this country since its inception: that the American Dream should be within reach for everyone.

We can do this. We have so many tools at our disposal. We are more connected, and more networked, than ever before. But the only way we can translate that into real success tomorrow is by starting to rework America today. This is America’s moment.