Magazine Feature

Human Work and the Second American Century

The role for higher education

By Jamie Merisotis

Spring 2021

In the midst of the worst public health crisis to hit the nation in a hundred years, and in a moment of racial reckoning, widespread economic uncertainty, and geopolitical instability, it may seem strange—if not downright ridiculous—to be thinking about a Second American Century.

But many times in the past, when faced with great threats and challenges, our nation has created the opportunity to lead. That’s how thirteen minor colonies defeated the British Empire and, nearly two hundred years later, the nation that emerged from those colonies explored the moon. As Americans, we believed we could do it. And we’ve turned those beliefs into action—and results—that have endured.

The term “American Century” was coined in 1941 by Life magazine publisher Henry Luce, who argued against American isolationism and articulated a vision for the nation’s role as a global leader in the remainder of the twentieth century. Luce was prophetic; the twentieth century was the American Century. The isolationism he railed against gave way to an internationalist spirit and a resulting boom in ingenuity, innovation, and accomplishment. Our nation developed vaccines that eliminated polio in most of the world, brought thousands of individuals and companies together in a bipartisan mission to put American astronauts on the moon, created the internet, and won the Cold War. A focused effort on helping more citizens get higher education fueled the American Century, from the National Defense Education Act of 1958 to the Higher Education Act of 1965 to the Education Amendments of 1972.

However, for all its achievements, the American Century was also marked by deep-seated racism, income inequality, and injustice. Despite the progress we made through civic successes like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, divisions and inequalities are at a level that hinders the United States from responding to challenges like COVID-19. We won’t reach a new summit by going back to the way things were before the pandemic.

One major engine that we need to power America’s economic success and social justice progress is liberal education. The skills gained from the study of history, literature, philosophy, and the arts—skills often derided with the pejorative soft—are the very skills required to sustain our country’s greatness. In the coming century, the economy will rely on human work—work that only humans can do—while smart machines do more repetitive tasks. Human work blends our unique human traits—such as compassion, empathy, and ethics—with our developed capabilities—such as critical analysis, interpersonal communication, and creativity. These are the traits and capabilities nurtured by liberal education.

To bring about the Second American Century, we need to cultivate human work by empowering people of all backgrounds to develop their unique traits and capabilities throughout their lives so that they can use their full talents to serve others and solve challenging problems.

It’s now 2021, and the American Century is over. The last moon landing was nearly a half-century ago. Despite a reputation for medical and scientific innovation, the United States has suffered more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country. Racism and inequities that have plagued our country for centuries led to the pandemic’s disproportionate health and economic impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The National Center for Health Statistics recently reported that from 2019 to the first half of 2020, the decline in average life expectancy was 2.7 years among non-Hispanic Black Americans and 1.9 years among Hispanic Americans. And on January 6, we saw a violent attack on the form of government some of us have long held as exceptional.

As an American, I know that some of us have been far too presumptuous in our view of ourselves and far too confident in the strength of our model. We know, in this moment, something that perhaps has been apparent to other nations but not nearly apparent enough to Americans: the United States is no different from any other nation when it comes to the vulnerability of our people, our systems of health care and government, and the notions of truth and moral judgment.

In the coming century, the economy will rely on human work—work that only humans can do—while smart machines do more repetitive tasks.

COVID-19 is a reflection of our shared societal failure across many decades—a devastating combination of our environmental, economic, political, and social approaches. We’ve denied or willfully ignored the warming of our planet, even as intense fires, hurricanes, and flooding strike with regularity, and changing habitats create breeding grounds for new diseases (including coronaviruses). Before the pandemic hit, a booming stock market and low unemployment masked a chasm of inequality and unfairness in our society. A November 2019 Brookings report found that 44 percent of workers “earn barely enough to live on,” with Black, Hispanic, and female workers overrepresented among these low-wage workers. Our politics have also accelerated the spread of COVID-19 and magnified its impact, as we’ve attacked government itself, denigrated the importance of science and expertise, and divided ourselves into warring factions—red versus blue, rural versus urban, native-born versus immigrants.

Most of all, we’ve allowed racial and ethnic inequity and injustice—perhaps the biggest threats to our pluralistic democracy—to fester. Our social bonds have been fraying for decades, and now they’ve begun to tear, leaving us with little sense of a common vision. As a result of our political and societal dysfunction, the citizens of one of the wealthiest countries on Earth have found ourselves especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

To bring about a Second American Century, we must act with the boldness that characterized our response to challenges in the past century and prepare a diverse array of citizens for human work.

With artificial intelligence (AI) propelling advances in technology, we should assume that any task that is repetitive and predictable—mental tasks as well as physical ones—will eventually be performed by machines. Human work is the work only humans can do, but it is not just the work that is left after machines take over. Human work involves thinking critically, reasoning ethically, interacting interpersonally, and serving others with empathy. It requires workers who are actively engaged and who respond to other people. Such work is dynamic, not repetitive, and much more difficult to automate. AI gives machines the ability to learn through repetition, but the harder it is to discern patterns, the more likely humans will be needed to do the work.

Much of the progress in robotics and AI is based on the concept of deep learning—a technique in which computers learn through algorithms that methodically drill down into large data sets. In contrast, human work demands what I call wide learning.

Building on the traditions of liberal learning, wide learning has three dimensions. The first is time. The notion that learning must take place over the course of people’s entire lifetimes is essential to human work. Wide learning is a virtuous cycle that must be repeated many times over a worker’s life, not simply once. This is especially important now, when most people will, on average, change jobs a dozen times over their lifetimes, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

The second dimension of wide learning is people. Human work must serve the widest possible range of people, diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, and more. Human workers must represent the totality of society for all of us to share in the benefits of their work.

The third dimension is the content of the learning. What people must learn to be successful in the human work ecosystem represents—as stated earlier—the wide breadth of human traits and human capabilities. This lines up with what employers are looking for, according to the Association of American Colleges and
Universities’ 2021 employer survey report, How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most. The skills the highest proportion of employers rated as “very important” were working effectively in teams, thinking critically, analyzing and interpreting data, and applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings—the very skills most likely to be learned through a liberal education.

This notion is connected closely to the uniquely human work of serving others. People work not only because it helps them economically but also because it offers them social mobility, personal satisfaction, and a range of other rewards. In a 2018 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Management Studies, researchers found that meaningful work had moderate to large correlations with life satisfaction and life meaning. That’s where service comes in. We serve others by applying those energies and interests to make our communities and the world better. Earning, learning, and serving make up human work. They are equally important, they happen together, and everyone must have the opportunity to do them. They will be the foundation of a Second American Century.

Amarillo College, a community college in the Texas Panhandle with about ten thousand students, is one of the many higher education institutions that are successfully reducing barriers to ensure that wide learning is available to all people at any point in their lives. When Russell Lowery-Hart joined the administration in the 2010–11 academic year, the school had a three-year graduation rate of just 13 percent for first-time, full-time students. At that time, an extensive survey of students showed that the barriers to success weren’t in the classroom but in students’ everyday lives: things such as childcare, health care, food, housing, and bills. So, first as vice president of academic affairs and since 2014 as Amarillo’s president, Lowery-Hart has made it the college’s mission to meet those needs so students can succeed.

He describes a typical Amarillo student as a twenty-eight-year-old mother who’s the first in her family to go to college and, because she’s working, attends part-time. “A majority of higher ed is set up for the students from the ’80s,” Lowery-Hart told Lumina Foundation’s Focus magazine in 2018. “But our communities depend on us educating the students we have, not the students we wish we had.”

So Lowery-Hart has focused squarely on students. The college—located in a community where 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty level—established an anti-poverty initiative that includes an on-campus resource center with a food pantry and professional clothing for students going to job interviews. The social services department helps students with rent, childcare expenses, and more. The school has dental, legal, and car repair clinics, where students train while also offering needed assistance to fellow students.

On the academic side, Amarillo changed the length of most classes from sixteen to eight weeks, making them much more accessible for working students. The curriculum focuses on programs that respond to the changing employment needs and opportunities of the region while requiring students to achieve general education competencies including critical thinking skills, communication skills, empirical and quantitative skills, teamwork, and social and personal responsibility.

All these efforts have significantly boosted success rates, particularly among students who face the highest barriers to success. By 2015, Amarillo’s overall three-year graduation rate had reached 22 percent, nine percentage points above its 2011 level, with White, Black, Hispanic, first-generation, and Pell-eligible students all graduating at similar rates. Clearly, Amarillo College has recognized the importance of putting students’ needs first—of reducing barriers and changing the learning paradigm so it works in their favor.

Similar shifts are needed across the entire postsecondary landscape. Consider, for instance, how higher education is typically structured—segmented into specific disciplines such as chemistry, education, or psychology. But human work demands learning from across a range of fields because of how human interaction takes place. Humans don’t speak in narrow terms about topics or disciplines but draw from broad, integrative experiences.

The University of Virginia is among the schools trying to better integrate this type of learning. For example, medical students take part in a two-hour workshop at the university’s art museum to hone their observational and diagnostic skills and learn to challenge their assumptions—crucial to their success in the practice of medicine.

Lydia Prokosch, a medical student who participated in the program, describes how she and a partner—a seasoned pediatrician who volunteered to work with students—were each tasked with choosing a sculpture, memorizing what differentiated it from similar works of art, and describing it to the partner in detail. “The program is powerful,” Prokosch told me in an interview, “because it cultivates purposeful observation in a setting outside of the hospital, with the express purpose of applying those skills in clinical practice.” These observational and communication skills—a dramatic departure from what machines are capable of—have a real effect on the human work of providing quality care to patients.

Human work involves thinking critically, reasoning ethically, interacting interpersonally, and serving others with empathy. It requires workers who are actively engaged and who respond to other people.

What will it take to prepare our citizens for human work? Everyone has a role to play—employers, educators, policymakers, and, of course, the workers themselves.

Employers need to understand that the future is about human work. This means embracing the diversity of their employees, customers, and communities. They also need to define the knowledge, skills, and abilities their workers need—including human ones like empathy, ethics, and interpersonal communication—and ensure that workers can develop their talents throughout their careers. And they need to provide more opportunities for workers to serve their communities.

Educators need to question the assumptions behind our current systems. They must put the student at the center of all they do and focus on the success of all their students. Fast-growing demographic groups such as BIPOC students, students who are older, and immigrants—people our current system too often overlooks—are the human workers we need. Educators also must make what students learn clear not only to employers but to the students themselves. And they must help students develop not just technical skills but also the human traits needed for human work.

Policymakers need to address the racial and other equity challenges that prevent people from achieving their full potential. And while we’ve long provided incentives to businesses to invest in technology that replaces humans—such as tax credits for companies working on driverless vehicles—it’s past time that public policy offers employers and workers incentives and funds to invest in developing and continually upgrading the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for human work.

Finally, workers need to own their learning. They need to know what they know and can do and describe it clearly to current and potential employers. They need to have a strategy for continuing to build their skills.

This brings us back to the beginning. The changes we’ve seen in work so far—including globalization, automation, and now “uberization”—have been dramatic, and even bigger changes are certainly coming. These changes are being accelerated by COVID-19, by the drive for racial and social justice, and by the profound sense that, in a world of cascading societal failure, we must return to who we are as humans—to better connect to each other and to ourselves in this time of crisis and to prepare for what comes next.

As we examine the implications of human work, our challenge as a society is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to develop their own unique abilities throughout their lives. That means developing our traits and capabilities—not just to prepare us for jobs but also to prepare us for a new form of active citizenship. Not only will this ensure that people are positioned for success when it comes to work in the future, but, just as important, it may instill hope and confidence for the future of our society.

That’s when the Second American Century begins.

Illustrations by Doug Chayka


  • Jamie Merisotis

    Jamie Merisotis is the president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.