Veteran’s Day commemorates the many millions of American soldiers who returned home from wars with uncertainty about their futures and livelihoods. Veterans have faced an extended transition period as unemployed workers seeking to enter an often transforming economy. A prime example was at the end of World War II when 11 million young veterans found themselves abruptly without a job, wondering whether they were returning to job prospects or the high unemployment of the Great Depression. Similarly, other countries facing severe Covid-19 cases and lockdowns, from India to Brazil, from Spain to Kenya, may address livelihood collapse, resulting in malnutrition and hunger, through medium-term investments in support to job training and education.
Then – the mid 1940s — as now, the world was being remade with old job categories being replaced by entirely new types of employment in new industries. Then, as now, policy makers struggled to identify effective measures to re-integrate restless, displaced youth.
While World War II still raged, American leaders crafted in 1944 an effective solution – the GI-Bill – which should be instructive to us today, because of the success of the retraining and higher education programs that it catalyzed. The 1944 “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944”, more commonly referred to as the GI Bill, ran until 1956 and bolstered the lives of veterans to a large extent through its offering of one year of education for veterans who had served at least 90 days plus additional years of schooling for each year of military service. Of roughly 15.6 million veterans with eligibility, almost 8 million took advantage of the education and training opportunities, at a cost of $14.5 billion to the government, but yielded decades of high economic growth as America led the world’s economic rebound.
Historian Susanne Mettler found extensive testimonies from veterans about how the education attained from the GI Bill facilitated their employment and livelihoods for decades to come in a major break from history: “Mid-century men started finding jobs that were not the jobs of their fathers or grandfathers.”
Many other authors have documented how dramatic this leap in advanced education was on American culture. Thousands of leaders were generated from the GI Bill including many who helped launch USAID. A friend and colleague on the board of an international NGO fighting hunger who benefited and whose father benefited from the GI Bill wrote me that he is “frustrated that today the benefits to the current generation of service men and women is not as generous. My payback has been to fund a fellowship for veterans who served in combat.”
This same educational and training support should be considered today for those upturned by the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 did not start the re-shaping of global economics, but it has hastened it. Unemployment increased from 3.5% to almost 15% in the span of a few months due to Covid-19 and is high today in many states, near or above 10% in California, Massachusetts, Illinois, and 15% in Hawaii. Instead of seeing this period of bankruptcy and displacement from Covid-19 only as a problem, we can think of it as an opportunity to retool America’s youth for a new generation of jobs, only just being envisioned.
Recommended further reading:
Edward Humes “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream” 2006, Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publisher
Susanne Mettler “Soldiers to Citizens: the GI Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation” 2007 Oxford University Press