Today, connecting individuals to meaning work has societal urgency; it is the means by which we can address growing unemployment, disconnection from the current and future economy, and growing income disparities. Not since the Great Depression has the need to facilitate connecting individuals to meaningful work been central to the work of public administration. This working paper offers actionable recommendations to leverage existing programs as well as to develop new initiatives to connect individuals to meaning work and economic opportunities.
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 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.
Work is not just important for individuals and families—it is also a critical foundation for the nation’s economy, tax revenues, healthcare, and communities. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid changes to the world of work had caused many individuals and communities to experience a great sense of dislocation, income inequity and loss, even as the income and wealth of others grew substantially:
Now, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, things have gotten much worse. At some points during the summer of 2020, about 1 in 5 workers were collecting unemployment benefits. Although the unemployment rate declined in August 2020, it remained over 8 percent. Many large retail chains and tens of thousands of small businesses have closed permanently. States and localities have been laying off workers and imposing hiring freezes. Without a quick rebound, many Americans’ knowledge, skills, and abilities may atrophy—putting them at-risk for long-term joblessness and economic pain.
Although there is no easy fix for these challenges, the Administration in 2021 (whether reelected or newly elected) can take steps to stabilize and improve the situation in the near-term while taking a series of policy and administrative actions that set the nation on a path toward broad-based meaningful work and prosperity for all Americans.
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