Human Capital in the Age of Pandemics

The world after Covid-19 will never be the same.  What might it look like for the future of learning and work?

It is impossible to assess the precise fallout at this point but a few scenarios would be helpful in structuring potential outcomes.  Businesses, employers, investors and universities and their stakeholders would be well advised to assume that things will be different and they need to plan accordingly.  We are already witnessing potentially deep socioeconomic changes in real time.

To make sense of all this, I’m starting with 1) basic principles 2) figuring out the right questions to be asked and 3) sketching out potential scenarios.

1 Principles

There are few basic principles that inform my thinking about this pandemic and how permanent its socioeconomic and behavioral impact might be.

  • Behavioral changes. Some changes in human behavior stick with us, others will revert to the norm.  In the wake of Covid-19, students and teachers around the world are being exposed to online learning for the first time, or at a more immersive level, for a potentially extended period of time (3-12 months).  At least a proportion of humans will incorporate it to a varying extent as part of their normal work, mindset, and life. The same can be said for remote learning more generally and dispersed working arrangements.  It may be a spectrum of change, but few people will revert to exactly the way they were in 2019.
  • Risk assessment and second order effects.  As the virus outbreak fades, the threat of new outbreaks remain.  As I see it, this threat is not only a resurgence of a novel Coronavirus but a gradual acceptance that after SARS, H1N1, and Ebola–in the past two decades alone–we may be living through a new age of Pandemics.  Naturally this will impact risk assessment and contingency planning. I would expect that anticipatory behavior will change, and that the stigma of not changing will intensify.  One example: universities and schools can be excused for having makeshift solutions to handle the current crisis.  But stakeholders will be less forgiving next time (“you should have been prepared”).
  • Coping Tools and Innovations.  New methods, tools, cognitive frameworks, work arrangements and other innovations may be difficult to take away from people.  In the US, workers may get used to paid sick leave and working virtually (at least part of the time); students may want greater flexibility in course study, as well as access to content and lectures online.  Taking it all away is not risk-free, or, in some cases, even possible.

2 Questions

I have a running list of questions which is loosely grouped by topic.  I’m applying these global markets; indeed, how countries suffer or differ in response will tell us quite a bit about potential future outcomes.


  • How long, and often, will schools and universities need to close?
  • If closed, how many schools are ready to adapt to 100% online delivery for a sustainable period of time?
  • What is the quality of learning differential between home v school?  What accounts for this differential?
  • To what extent are current contingencies accelerating changes already underway?
  • Will students–domestic and international–graduate on time with a degree and able to start work?
  • What contingencies are being put in place and how are they likely to be viewed by all stakeholders?
  • How realistic are these contingencies beyond a single emergency response?  Can they become a more permanent feature or option?  Why not?


  • How are career centers and employment activities continuing at universities, online?
  • Which industries and enterprises will increase hiring in the midst of this pandemic?
  • What new industries/companies will be created in response to the pandemic?
  • Which industries and enterprises will fire workers and never hire them back?
  • Will internships be continued, and in what form (virtual?)?
  • How will job churn and quit rates (6 million people a month in US, for example) change?
  • What companies will fail to make payroll?
  • Will bankruptcy levels increase–personal and corporate–and most likely where?
  • How will bankruptcies impact employment, particularly at start-ups and small and medium size enterprises?
  • What will this mean for graduates, what they study, how they view their careers?

Job Search, Application and Starts

  • If closed, how many enterprises are ready to adapt to significant or 100% online work for a sustainable period of time?
  • What is the perceived impact on productivity at the individual level? at the aggregate level?
  • What will be the actual impact?
  • To what extent are current contingencies accelerating changes already underway?
  • What is the quality of learning differential between home v office?  What accounts for this differential?
  • Will interviews take place on schedule or be delayed?
  • How will virtual interviews be accepted and are enterprises equipped to accomplish this?
  • How realistic are these work contingencies beyond a single emergency response?  Can they become a more permanent feature or option?  Why not?


  • What will the spread look like for Africa, South Asia and Latin America?
  • How will this impact student affordability and mobility – in all geographies?

3 Scenarios

There are two basic scenarios I’m using to assess the future impact of this pandemic, and its specific impact on education and work around the world.

  • Scenario A:  Covid-19 is one-off event, “V” shaped recovery
  • Scenario B:  Age of Pandemics

We are only getting started. My colleagues and I are adapting perspectives and our own work in real-time. But first, setting the framework is critical.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Related Posts

Black Swans and the Future of Learning and Work

Investing in the Future of Underemployment


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