We know what yesterday, yesteryear and yester-presidential term has brought us.
The burning question is what will tomorrow and the day after and the year after bring.
Certainly part of the answer will ride on the president of 2021. But quite frankly, more of the answer — much more — will depend on us and what we do with what we've been given. Especially what we've been given with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Despite talk about "returning to normal," we should be coming around to understand that means "a new normal." The virus will evolve, vaccines will come and change — and in the meantime we, our jobs, our schools and the way we live, eat and get around will evolve, too.
The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman examined this coming change in mid-October:
"Fasten your seatbelt. When we emerge from this corona crisis, we're going to be greeted with one of the most profound eras of Schumpeterian creative destruction ever — which this pandemic is both accelerating and disguising," Friedman wrote.
"No job, no K-12 school, no university, no factory, no office will be spared. And it will touch both white-collar and blue-collar workers . How we provide more Americans with portable health care, portable pensions and opportunities for lifelong learning to get the most out of this moment and cushion the worst is what politics needs to be about after Nov. 3 — or we're really headed for instability."
What is Schumpeterian creative destruction? It refers to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones. Think gasoline engines replacing horse-drawn buggies. Or John Deere's perfecting and mass production of steel plows that forged a farming revolution. The term was coined by Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-born American political economist who studied evolutionary economics. He considered "creative destruction" to be "the essential fact about capitalism."
Of course, it's not always inventions, or even the thought processes that lead to inventions, that spark creative destruction. It can be a cataclysm, too. How many times have we heard the old saying: Necessity is the mother of invention?
Friedman argued that the reason the post-pandemic era will be so destructive and creative is that never have more people had access to so many cheap tools of innovation, access to high-powered and inexpensive computing, access to such cheap credit — all tools that should make it easier to invent new products and services "all as so many big health, social, environmental and economic problems need solving."
Change and problem solving, as we all know, can be hard.
But Friedman wrote: "You're going to see some amazing stuff emerge, some long-established institutions, like universities, disappear — and the nature of work, workplaces and the workforce be transformed."
Ravi Kumar S., president of Infosys, said as much in a June podcast interview with the Milken Institute: "Six out of the seven jobs of the future have not been created yet. The future of workplaces and workforces is going to change significantly [with a structural shift from degrees to skills]. The change was gradual, but with the pandemic and in the post-pandemic era, the changes will be all of a sudden."
Change, especially sudden change, can have decades-long repercussions — good and bad. Those gasoline engines that made buggies obsolete made it far easier for many of us take jobs across the county. But they also helped create the catastrophic climate change we now face. The farming revolution forged by the mass-produced steel plow helped feed billions, but its installation on myriad cultivators reshaped a large percentage of the Earth's landscape, leading to the Dust Bowl that created massive erosion, water pollution and enormous loss of species.
Kumar told Friedman that as technology, digitization and globalization accelerate, "the half-life of skills is steadily shrinking," meaning that whatever skill you possess today is being made obsolete faster and faster.
The pandemic adds urgency. We're all learning we must be lifelong and self-taught learners because it is increasingly obvious we and our children can expect to change jobs and professions multiple times in our lives.
That's an assessment of Heather McGowan, a future-of-work strategist and the co-author of "The Adaptation Advantage." In a recent myHRfuture.com podcast, she called COVID-19 "a catalyst to accelerate the future of work," education and even our response to climate change.
"It is forcing us to transform to digital at lightspeed," McGowan said. "Two weeks into it, we had transformed every office organization we could to remote working, to a virtual organization. Every K-12 university system was teaching online and faculty members who said they would never do it were doing it and succeeding. And leaders who said, 'I do not really want my teams working at home' were surprised to find if they let them work at home, when they trust them, they are getting this sort of trust premium out of it."
She added: If more of us work from home, we are reducing carbon emissions. If we produce more goods locally, we restart the economy in a way that is better for the planet. If we create what she calls "massive re-skilling and up-skilling" for the 30 million jobs lost — many not coming back — we are preparing people for what is ahead.
"Learning is the new pension," according to McGowan.
Friedman added: "There is great potential here. If it is done right."
Given that potential, and the pandemic's urgency, it seems we have our newest "life-long learning" homework assignment.