Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again. —NELSON MANDELA
Do you remember exactly where you were when you first heard about COVID-19?
I don't, and that seems strange to me. Usually when you come across stories about previous history-altering moments—JFK's assassination being the most famous—people always talk about the exact moment they heard the news.
But the pandemic was different. In late 2019 to early 2020, the virus was background news for the United States as it spread through China and Europe. Then—as we all know too well—by mid-March 2020, the pandemic had taken over daily life, altering everyone's thoughts and actions and, most tragically, taking far too many lives.
The impact of the pandemic on the economy and job market was immediate and devastating. Employers across regions and industries announced cutbacks, furloughs, and layoffs. Millions of employees who still had jobs were told to work from home. Millions of others risked their lives to perform "essential" jobs.
And the pandemic was only one of several disruptive elements in 2020. According to government relations expert Bruce Mehlman, 2020 is the only year on record to include four "super-disruptors" to society: a recession, mass protests, an intense election, and a pandemic. To put things into perspective, only three other years since 1900 had even three.
Mehlman's July 2020 report was titled "The Great Acceleration: How 2020 Is Bringing the Future Faster," and that is exactly what the events of this historic year have done. COVID-19 wasn't the cause of all of the change it fostered; it was the colossal, global, unprecedented straw that broke the camel's back.
This is certainly true of the amplified attention the pandemic brought to our country's long struggles with racial injustice—a necessary reckoning that will be remembered as intensifying during the early months of the pandemic.
It is true of the spotlight the virus shone on the ongoing class divides in our country, the unequal access to quality healthcare and education, and the increased burden on women as caretakers of children and the elderly.
And it is true of career and workplace transitions as well. The pandemic accelerated shifts that were already well underway by 2020, including:
* increased automation, leading to the rise of certain jobs and industries and the fall of others
* an increasing combination of remote and in-person work
* increased action on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace
* more integration of "work" and "life"
* more concern about, and attention to, employee health and well-being more questioning of the value of higher education for career and financial success
* more Americans living and working into their seventies, eighties, and beyond
In October 2020, Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Digital Economy Lab at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, remarked, "We've seen more changes in how we work over the past twenty weeks than we have over the past twenty years." Let's delve for a moment into the acceleration of remote work. According to the Federal Reserve, the share of the U.S. labor force working from home had already tripled in the time period from 2005 to the beginning of 2020. Then, within just the last few weeks of March, the numbers surged: as of March 15, 2020, 31 percent of U.S. workers had ever worked remotely. By April 2, that number had doubled, to 62 percent.
This meant that millions of professionals went from never having heard of Zoom to spending half their days on the videoconferencing app. Parents who had never worked from home were suddenly taking conference calls with toddlers on their laps or teenagers participating in remote high school classes in the same room. Leaders who had never talked openly about race were leading virtual town halls about implicit bias and microaggressions. Recruiters who normally touted the critical importance of a strong handshake were hiring employees without ever meeting them in person.