The coronavirus pandemic has forced many people to reevaluate their careers after apparently solid jobs evaporated overnight. As the economic recovery begins in earnest, some workers are left with a sense of dread. The world has changed, and the recovery may leave them behind.

Retail will recover, but it won’t look the same. Debt-burdened retailers like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew may not survive. Others, like Sears, have one foot in the grave. Meanwhile, online retail is brisk and Amazon is expanding its fulfillment centers. Grocery delivery services like Instacart and Shipt are experiencing surging demand.

Restaurants will recover, but the threat of future closures will dampen excitement and reshape the industry. Takeout and delivery operations are robust, but starting a sit-down restaurant is a risky venture. How many entrepreneurs will be willing to take on the added risk of pandemic-related closures? How stable is a career as a cook or waitress if a viral outbreak can put you out of work for months at a time?

Volunteers were busy loading bags of groceries into cars for hours as thousands showed up for a food distribution event held at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, HI, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The city of Honolulu, Hawaii Foodbank, and Hawaii Community Foundation collaborated to put on the event providing food for approximately 4,000 Oahu households. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)

While some may find advantages in economic changes, others will likely be stuck in old economy jobs subject to disruptions like the pandemic.

Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Higher education will change, perhaps permanently. Online classes were already increasing in popularity. In response to the lockdown, many universities have shifted to online delivery. Some students, recognizing that online offerings aren’t comparable to in-person classes, may demand their money back or transfer schools. Others will favor the convenience of online classes.

This will dramatically reshape the institutional landscape. Online delivery creates a winner-take-all market. If you can design a high-quality degree program, you can scale that up to serve hundreds of thousands of students.

This also works for niche course offerings.

A few years ago, I pilot-tested an online course for the Harvard Business School. That offering is now its Credential of Readiness program, a crash course in business analytics, economics for managers and financial accounting. Students who complete the course can receive undergraduate credit through the Harvard Extension School.

If your university will accept these credits in lieu of a few introductory classes, why would you settle for your local business professor (or graduate student lecturer)? Now you can receive an online education from the best in the world. Disruption is here, and universities are scrambling to adapt.

Education will also be reimagined at the K-12 level, in part because some parents will use this as an opportunity to withdraw their students from public school. I’ve heard from a few parents who audited their children’s Zoom classes and found them lacking. As more parents work from home, they may seize the opportunity to homeschool their children.

With schools closed, some parents are seeing the limitations of Zoom classes and may opt to homeschool.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Public and private schools are competing with online academies, and online offerings are improving. Once upon a time, parents made their house-buying decisions based in part on the quality of district schools. In a few years, that idea may seem quaint. Some students will be learning math on Khan Academy and receiving a Great Books education at home. Others will receive a hybrid education, mixing in-person meetings with online resources.

Their parents won’t be bound to a physical office, thanks to the full embrace of telework in some sectors. Many white-collar workers have realized that their office is a source of unnecessary distraction, with additional time lost in the commute. They can get the work done more efficiently at home, and many will take advantage of the pandemic to renegotiate their work arrangements.

In extreme cases, people may forgo their homes entirely, freewheeling around the globe. In “The 4-Hour Workweek,” Tim Ferriss popularized the idea of “geoarbitrage” – earning money in one place and spending it in another where the cost of living is lower. In a world where it’s possible to do your job and educate your kids anywhere there’s internet, why stay where you’re at? You can begin a permanent vacation, living in exotic locales where your dollar goes further.

The People Left Behind

Of course, not everyone will be able to take advantage of remote work and travel the world with their families. The working poor will be left behind. The people who wash dishes, wait tables and clean hotel rooms. The people who work retail, who landscape, who guard communities they can’t afford to live in. The ones who work with their hands and exhaust their bodies.

These are the people whose children are stuck in the worst schools, the schools that the affluent will exit as they take advantage of online offerings. While others enjoy telework, the working poor are waiting for unemployment checks, hoping their jobs will return when the economy recovers.

As the economy recovers, political officials will celebrate. But we should be suspicious of their gross domestic product figures and gross tax receipts. This is the truth about economic recovery: The body can recover while some limbs wither and die.

The Hawaii Data Collaborative projects that, even with government intervention, the number of asset-limited, income-constrained employed (ALICE) households could increase by 20,000.

These low-income, working households don’t have savings, so they’re one illness or accident away from poverty.

If recent history is any indication, their prospects of recovery are slim. During our last recession, thousands of families fell into the ALICE category and didn’t recover.

These are the families we should be concerned for during the recovery. Do they have the resources necessary to transition into new careers? Are their children receiving a quality education?

The ground is shifting underfoot, and a lucky few are taking flight. What about those left behind?

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.