Humans have an innate quest for meaning. Our jobs and our work are a principal means for fulfilling that need—they have both instrumental and intrinsic value. Instrumentally, work provides the means by which we make a living and support our families. Work also has important implications for one’s personal identity, with much of our self-esteem deriving from it. When the work is perceived as meaningful, people have a sense of fulfillment and purpose that not only strengthens their psychological welfare but also contributes to other aspects of life and to an individual’s overall life purpose.
In addition to the important connection of meaningful work to humanity, the national employment rate directly affects tax revenues, health insurance coverage, community cohesion, and so much more. With rapid changes to the world of work, many individuals and communities have experienced a great sense of dislocation and loss while others have benefited. Labor force participation in our country has fallen from nearly 70 percent before the Great Recession to about 63 percent. Millions of working-age Americans (in particular males 25-54) are neither working nor seeking work. The laws, regulations, and administration of the safety net, workforce, and related programs can hinder an individual’s ability to work, especially when individuals and households benefit from more than a program.
Where manufacturing and production jobs were once pathways to the middle class, Artificial Intelligence and globalization are leaving millions of Americans without the qualifications for the middle-class jobs and meaningful work of the future, but offering those who do adopt new paths toward economic and personal success. The impacts are being felt differently across the country—with states in the Midwest, Great Plains, and the South most at risk of losing jobs to automation—and across different demographic groups.
Public agencies and administrators have a central role in preparing our people for the future of work. The national workforce system is a complex network of federal programs implemented through grants to state and local partners. Universities and community colleges, employers, community leaders, state licensing boards, and unions all also have key roles to play. Getting this network to operate effectively so that all able individuals can be connected to meaningful work is fundamental to our national economic prosperity.
Further, the social safety net that supports people as they transition between jobs needs mending. Federal and state regulatory reforms and administrative actions need to be taken to remove impediments in the safety net, workforce, and related programs. In many cases, this will require actions by Congress and state legislatures, but some of these issues can be addressed administratively through regulatory action. Increasing the effectiveness of programs that provide relocation assistance, training grants, unemployment insurance, and compensation, and portability of benefits could offer stability to people who need to move between opportunities and geographies.
As part of the Grand Challenge to “Connect Individuals to Meaningful Work,” the Academy will work with stakeholders to determine how to:
This is an illustrative list of topics. As the Grand Challenges campaign kicks off and progresses, other issues can and will be addressed based on stakeholder feedback about critical needs and opportunities.