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Finding Common Purpose

I recently heard two stories I want to share. Each of them illustrates an aspect of how we, together as a society, are failing to ensure that people can get on and stay on a pathway to lifelong success.

The first story was told to me by a young man who had been able to get accepted to a culinary arts program after high school. It was the beginning of a dream come true, and the program made clear promises that upon graduation he would have no trouble finding a job in the field. But when he finished, he discovered that to get any of the available jobs he needed a certain amount of work experience—which the program had not supplied—and so he was unable to pursue those opportunities. As seems so common, none of the people running that program had even mentioned that requirement to him.

The guy had no choice but to try to cobble together some other kinds of jobs on his own. 

I was struck by this young man’s passion and diligence. He clearly just wanted a chance to be on the pathway to lifelong success. He was looking for opportunities, not handouts. 

The other story was told by the friend of a man that had worked for close to 20 years for a company in the Boston area. Over that period, the man had confronted a number of recurring challenges that sometimes impeded his ability to meet his job obligations—from transportation issues, to childcare problems and so on. He tried to talk with his employer about what he was going through, but the discussions never really went anywhere. Eventually—and although it was a job he loved and wanted to keep—he felt he had no choice but to move on so he could better manage his life. After two decades of service to his employer, he ended up driving for Uber. 

It’s a classic example of someone who is gainfully employed but still has problems fulfilling some basic needs—and whose employer essentially abandons him.

Both those stories were told to me at a forum earlier this month called “Workforce Challenge 2025—Future of Work Boston.” I was one of the speakers on a panel that also included Michael Goldstein, a leader from Year Up, with the mission to “close the Opportunity Divide by ensuring that young adults gain the skills, experiences, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through careers and higher education”; Midori Morikawa, director of business strategy for the City of Boston; and Lauren Jones, state director for Apprenti, a nonprofit that works to “address the workforce shortage in the tech industry and identify diverse talent to meet industry needs.”

Officially, the talks were billed this way: “Panelists will discuss how employers and job seekers can create a more equitable and vibrant Future of Work in Boston.” That was meant to include the “uncertainty” faced by many Boston residents as they face “the rising cost of living” as well as “the threat of automation, a global competitive workforce, and the prevalence of the gig economy,” along with the “lack of technical skills or training” that leave many well-paying tech-based positions in the area unfulfilled.

One of the young organizers had stumbled upon my blog, and was looking for me to offer some “big picture” thoughts at the event. I focused my remarks on topics I’ve been raising in my blog posts. I explained how I had changed the direction of Root Cause because we did not see the overall needle moving for people, and discussed the need for a new social contract that puts improving people’s lives first—something to which institutions (government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and business) would need to commit.

Addressing employment specifically, I took note of a part of the pathway to lifelong success that’s not working for so many people: graduating from high school, moving on to post-secondary education or training, and then getting and keeping a good-paying job. As the data I’ve been looking at for years show, it has gotten progressively worse.

One problem that keeps us as a society from seeing this clearly is the insistence on using unemployment as the key indicator. As a result, many people believe that “low unemployment” must mean the economy is doing well.

But think about that. Measuring unemployment is about measuring whether people have any job. It doesn’t measure whether those jobs even come close to providing what people need to live. And it completely masks income inequality. Sure, everyone who wants to work ought to have a job, but if we want to know whether people are doing okay we need to measure whether they’re being paid a living wage, so they can afford to fulfill basic needs for themselves and a family and have something left over to save or for leisure.

What, I asked, is the point of the various institutions with which people interact (schools, programs) if they don’t help people progress on the pathway to earn a job at a living wage? I saw a lot of heads nodding in the audience. 

During the question period, someone asked if there was any accountability? I decided I would be the first one to answer—and I stated bluntly that there is no accountability. As I pointed out, the data show people’s inability to get on and stay on a pathway to finding a decent-paying job with which they can support themselves. I knew from a report we’d done at Root Cause that at least half of all families in Boston are not making a living wage. And those results make clear that there’s no government accountability for its efforts, and the markets are even more difficult to hold accountable. The lack of accountability even extends to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

Don’t get me wrong: Apprenti and Year Up, like so many other nonprofit organizations, are doing great work. But programs like theirs only work if they are able to build partnerships with employers willing to take on the risk of internships and provide other resume-building opportunities. And while both representatives spoke about wanting to develop more relationships with employers, they said it’s a very challenging proposition: there is a limited number of employers willing to engage, compounded by the general disengagement of employers from the public education system compared to earlier times, when the business community was invested in the notion that schools served their interests by graduating better-prepared potential employees.

That means that the programs we have today are little more than Band-Aids: they are able to serve only a limited number of people, and taken all together they’re not creating population-level change and reducing disparities across race, gender, and geography. 

In response, the woman from the mayor’s office brought up another program the city is trying. I’ve seen that again and again: no matter how many times I raise the issue of a pathway and getting people on it and staying on it, others keep talking about processes and programs, not about people.

To her credit, the woman from the City of Boston did reflect further, and ultimately ended up admitting that while things are “complex,” a lot of what I was saying is right.

In the United States today, the part of the pathway from high school to post-secondary education or some practical training—whichever is most appropriate for a given individual that leads to a good-paying job—seems completely broken. We’ve failed to make sure there are deliberate “handoffs” that ensure people can succeed, which I define as staying on the pathway, not falling off and having to “cobble together” whatever just to meet basic needs and try to not descend into poverty.

Perhaps the “accountability” that was being asked about is nearly impossible to find given how things work today. After all, what kind of genuine accountability can there be when a politician sees it as something she has to feign in order to get reelected, or a schoolteacher’s “accountability” is imposed externally rather than what students actually learn from him.

What if “accountability” was really about embracing our various roles that support more people getting on and staying on the pathway as part of a new 21st-century social contract?

For my next few posts, I will be talking to a host of people involved at the point along the pathway from high school to what comes next—including not only people making their way but also employers and a program lead—to get their views on how we might embrace those roles and the barriers that exist to doing so. 

I’ll end this post with the classic song “9 to 5,” from the movie with the same title. The scenes from the 1980 film feature stars Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin. I’m dating myself with this choice, but I hope all ages will enjoy. The lyrics ring as true today as they did back then.

TO READ MORE …

… about what is meant by living wage, click here

… about what a living wage would be in your community, click here