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Jamie Merisotis is a globally recognized leader in philanthropy, education, and public policy. Since 2008, he has served as president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that[…]
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Lumina Foundation

Reports that robots and automation are coming for our jobs are common these days. If you listen to the more pessimistic commentators, it is only a matter of time before AI erodes job quality and opportunity.

But this isn’t entirely true. While AI will replace repetitive jobs, in most cases, new technology will  create more jobs than it automates away. The U.S. economy created 916,000 new jobs in March 2021, despite the constant advance of technology still automating some work and threatening other positions.

People with education beyond high school are more likely to be placed in these new jobs. A mere 7,000 of those created jobs were going to people with a high school diploma or less. The rest went to people with a degree, certificate, certification, or similar credential.

The trouble is that just over half of working-age adults in the United States have that kind of valuable credential. Earning one would help people who struggle in low-wage jobs or are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Having a family-sustaining wage changes the trajectory of people’s lives, their communities and our nation. A good salary is important and reaps other benefits. 

Most workers say that having meaningful work is essential to happiness and life satisfaction. Research shows that even low-income workers are willing to trade off some money if it means greater happiness and fulfillment–in other words contributing to a greater whole. Society benefits when we promote earning, learning, and democratic ideals–which include active citizenship, serving, and  free expression.In fact, the idea that education helps promote democracy is nearly as old as Western civilization. The ancient Greeks regarded the liberal arts, including rhetoric, grammar, and logic, as critical for those who participate in civic life. 

The increasing value of higher education

Lumina Foundation was created to help advance policies that make post-high school education more accessible to all, and has embraced a national goal of ensuring that 60 percent of adults earn a high-quality credential of value in the workforce by 2025. These can include two- and four-year degrees, and short-term industry credentials. Recognizing the historic racial inequities that have prevented many people from obtaining good education and jobs, Lumina has placed equity at the center of its work. This means promoting policies to reach a point at which a person’s racial or ethnic identity does not predict their success in life. 

Educational attainment is one of the surest measurements of success, so it’s concerning when Black Americans, Indigenous people, and Hispanics and Latinos are found to have significantly lower rates of attainment than the national average.

Educating for democracy and the jobs of tomorrow

Lumina President and CEO Jamie Merisotis told Big Think that preparing for the work of the future means making sure that workers are ready to handle the jobs that only people can do–those requiring “durable skills” including problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking. 

We must focus on educating people for work that machines cannot do well, he said. For example, traits  such as empathy, collaboration, compassion, creativity, and the understanding of other viewpoints hold great value in the workforce. Jobs that require these skills will be the last to be automated.

Luckily, these are also among the traits that people need to be full members of society and active participants in a democracy. 

Higher education remains an enduring, powerful force to address income and racial inequality, one that also promotes a vibrant civic life. Revitalizing higher ed will help meet the needs of today’s students, communities, and employers, ensuring that our nation remains competitive in the global economy. 

Merisotis is optimistic, and emphasizes the critical importance of racial justice and equity.

“I believe that brighter days are ahead but we’ve got to do a better job of preparing people for the future,” he said. 

That means being very intentional about recognizing where our shortcomings are, and catching people who may have slipped through the system earlier in life.

“We must be deliberate about the choices and the ways in which we can serve individuals in making better choices for themselves,” Merisotis said. “That will ultimately allow us to be successful as a democratic society.”

JAMIE MERISOTIS: Many people are worried about the Robot-Zombie Apocalypse. The idea that the robots are going to come and eat our jobs.But at the end of the day, technology has always created more jobs than it's destroyed. We've always had this view as a society that there's a learning phase of your life, and then there's a working phase of your life.We now understand that learning and working are parallel processes. Why? Well, because work is ever-changing. We have to prepare people for the work that we, as humans, are uniquely qualified to do. That means that we need to use our human traits and capabilities to actually do the work that machines can't do. Those human traits and capabilities that allow us to be human— to be empathetic, to be compassionate, to be a collaborator; well, those are the same things that allow us to be successful as a democratic society— to be ethical with each other, to actually understand someone else's viewpoint. If we don't use our education system to renew our democratic system, we face an existential risk.

Our democracy's at risk, and as we think about the risks of that democracy, we have to think about how we're actually going to prepare people to be better participants in that democratic system. Education's the key because it allows us to discern the difference between fact and fiction, between right and wrong, between ethical and unethical. Learning and working and democracy are all coming together at a very important time in history. We need to better design our learning system to actually focus on preparing people not just for good jobs and a good life, but to be effective participants in a democratic system. Everybody has a role to play in addressing democratic renewal. Employers have an important role to play in making sure that their employees get access to the education and training that they need to not only allow them to be effective at their jobs, but to be better engaged in their communities and their families. Education institutions need to do a better job of not just preparing people to be more informed about civic processes and ideas and systems, but actively engage in that system. And individuals need to use their own agency in order to actually make sure that they're engaged in that process and taking charge of their own learning.

The reality is that the new jobs being created are going to require a post-high school education. So in March of 2021, in the U.S. economy, we created 916,000 new jobs. Of those 916,000 new jobs, 7,000 went to people with a high school credential or less, and all the rest went to people with a degree, a certificate, a certification, or another credential. The jobs that are going to be available now, today, and tomorrow, are going to require high-quality post-secondary credentials. I believe that brighter days are ahead, but we've gotta do a better job of preparing people for the future, not simply leaving it to chance or opportunity, but actually being very deliberate about recognizing where the shortcomings are, ensuring that people who haven't had opportunities in the past, have those opportunities. Catching people who may have slipped through the system earlier in life, and bringing them back into the system. To me, being deliberate about the choices and about the ways in which we can serve individuals in making better choices for themselves, that will ultimately allow us to be successful as a democratic society.