For the country as for companies, now is the time for a re-set. Are you ready? Are we?

Entrepreneurs find opportunity among chaos. Creators think about how to bend change, uncertain and inescapable, to our will. Turning disruption to our advantage is in our DNA and yours but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We started Advantary to help companies drive growth, and were fortunate to launch ourselves into a rising tide. It’s satisfying that we helped our clients move a little faster in good seas, and with the onset of a viral pandemic and the associated economic dislocation we find ourselves looking toward a more foreboding horizon. The founders and leaders we work with are seeking bold moves that turn uncertainty into opportunity. We believe growth is possible in many, maybe most, cases.

So how to take this wild ride, get a bit in its mouth and tame it, or at least weather a bumpy ride that still gets us to a destination of our choosing?

As engaged citizens as well as fans of creative business models, we got to thinking about applying the thinking we do with clients to a bigger, more challenging organization—the United States. Always ones to look to challenges for the opportunities they provide, we are sharing our thoughts with you and invite you to think with us about how to heal an economy (starting with your business, as needed), a polity, and a people, using the opportunity provided by a crisis no one saw coming not much more than a quarter ago.

“May you live in interesting times” is understood to be both a blessing and a curse. The interesting times we find ourselves in today will undoubtedly be recorded by history as a curse, as mortality rates around the globe escalate to hundreds of thousands with curves still on the rise in many places, economies taking body blows, and researchers still months from any credible hope of effective treatments or vaccines. And yet, the human spirit rises. We find blessings in reconnecting with loved ones and old friends (we have become Zoom nation), in stealing moments when we’d be commuting or squeezing in one more errand to find peace in a book or a jigsaw puzzle, in appreciating bird chirps and clearer skies when we do get outside.

Our species is resilient, and ultimately it’s up to us to not just find the blessings but to create the blessings that will allow us to go forward with hope when we do get to the other side of the pandemic. One way to show our spirit and create a better world for ourselves and new generations is by combining our innate empathy and soon-to-be desperate need to repair a broken world, to find meaning in a formal National Service program.

As a species, we are walking this path together on an unprecedented scale with little regard to religion, ethnicity, nationality, political affiliation, or whether one roots for the Red Sox or Yankees. This common experience can change the lens through which we see ourselves and one another, and give us a moment we can seize to achieve great things together, things that serve us all well.

The new environment brought about by COVID-19 provides fertile ground to discuss National Service and its potential impact. An April survey of US residents by More In Common saw 90% of respondents agreeing that “we’re all in this together” (up 27% from late 2018), and indicating that America “now feels more united” with 82% agreeing that we have “more in common than what divides us.”

Those survey numbers may feel inflated, as outliers and loudest voices get outsized attention, but National Service can be our answer in two critical ways—

  • for physical projects as it was when we responded to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and
  • bringing together a society that for too long has found ways to splinter and split, exacerbated by technology and latter-day sectarian policies

The “Service” in National Service

We have a profound economic need that is likely to grow. The Depression is the closest analog to the record levels of unemployment we currently see. Predictions of 30% unemployment on the horizon are common. Many job losses will be sustained and unemployment is likely to remain high, especially for less experienced and unskilled workers. These workers are sentenced to a long and difficult job search or substantive job retraining. We are currently meeting our population’s economic needs through a combination of loans and grants to businesses and stimulus checks to individuals. Citizenship embodies both rights and responsibilities. We can combine the demand to overcome economic hardship with our community and national needs.

Our list of national needs, even prior to COVID-19, is long. National Service can help fill some of these extensive gaps. Our needs are both chronic and acute and include (but are not limited to): 

  • Infrastructure renewal – Renewing our infrastructure is a valued investment in the future of our economy and will pay dividends above and beyond this investment. Best of all, these jobs can never be outsourced. We can build a skilled workforce that will remain needed here in the United States. The legacy of the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority, Public Works Administration, and more, is waiting for us to recapture its spirit.
  • Healthcare – Among the many heroes in the COVID crisis, healthcare workers have stepped up and put themselves in harm’s way. It is difficult to describe the tireless work of people like the EMTs in New York as less than a public service. As our country ages, healthcare is a growth industry. Investing in skills and providing experience within healthcare will pay dividends in preparing for this coming need. 
  • Contact Tracing – Related to healthcare generally, a particularly acute need rising from COVID-19 is tracking and establishing “smart quarantines” of those exposed to COVID-19. Technology will fill some of that gap, but estimates of human work to effectively perform contact tracing reach up to between 100,000 to 300,000 workers.
  • Education – Thousands of schools have shuttered and millions of children have had their education interrupted to limit contagion. Moving to distance learning will have varying levels of success and we can fully expect a number of students to regress in their learning. To revitalize learning against basic and advanced skills, substantial effort will need to be made.
  • Military Service – Traditional military recruiting has been having a more and more difficult time meeting recruiting objectives. In 2020 alone, the Army needs to recruit 68,000 new soldiers

Investment in each of these areas will reap rewards for the American economy in the long run. To stave off economic despair, the government may have to pay anyway – we should change our lens to investment rather than rescue. We have demand for jobs and skills, we have a clear demand for work to be done that will collectively benefit our country. 

The “National” in National Service

Bonding movies consistently throw together deeply different protagonists. The stereotypical World War II drama features a spectrum of characters—the ethnic kid from Brooklyn, the farmboy, a Jew, a black person, and so on. Buddy movies feature mis-matched pairs like Riggs and Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon; Buzz and Woody in Toy Story; Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple. And every teen-titillating horror film or stoner movie seems to have the same cliché assemblage—consider The Hangover and the Scream franchise.

What do they have in common? Superficial differences fade away as the group faces challenges, overcomes obstacles, and gets to know each other through trials, tribulations, and in the spaces inbetween. In real life, the top predictor of empathy for a cause is knowing someone affected or connected: knowing a gay person increases support for same-sex marriage laws, and increased contact with other races and ethnicities in the workplace, neighborhood, or religious congregations is a predictor of approval of intermarriage. Called “contact theory,” this may indicate that serving our nation alongside a rainbow of men and women with different upbringings and perspectives could lead to tighter cohesion, more empathy and understanding, and less partisan polarization.

The shared experiences of staying at home, enduring job insecurity, graduations postponed or changed to virtual ceremonies, and eventually returning to a new normal may begin our transformation to a new communal spirit. Serving alongside fellow citizens—teaching kids, building roads, slogging through basic training—may be the glue that re-bonds our society. It won’t be easy and we can’t take it for granted, but it’s a way to make a start.

How we start

This is not a simple or inexpensive proposition. On a stable basis, our desire would be to fill the ranks of compulsory national service with younger people early in their careers and looking for skills. The time of service would need to be long enough to acquire and usefully utilize skills (24 months is a common term of service around the world). For this steady-state, we could induct young adults who are 18 and over immediately after high school graduation, with some flexibility for deferring service until after completing college. We have much of the infrastructure for Selective Service to find and track these individuals, but we’d need a new apparatus to manage the many programs that would be included in National Service.

In the immediate term, the aperture needs to be opened more broadly (and more urgently). Anyone not currently collecting social security (<age 65) could enroll and be put to work for an 18-month time frame. 

Some of these areas will not be activated until social distancing recedes, but preparation and training can start now. 

We have an opportunity to unite our country and meet some big needs. This is one way to turn our current “interesting times” into a blessing for our future.

We welcome your responses, and encourage you to think about the opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic may provide for you and your organization. Far from wishing to profit from others’ suffering, we do want to do our part to create the society and business environment that will make the world a better place to live and work when we are able to settle into the “next normal” that we’ll inevitably get to.

Read more about the authors: Advantary Partner Matt Sitter and Advisor Bryan Rutberg.


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