The (Past, Present, and) Future of Work

It’s a dizzying time for anyone thinking about work.

The past few months have marked a dismal low point for workers in the U.S., in the context of widening inequality and sustained attacks on the rights of workers that have been a hallmark of certain business leadership and their political allies. You can find details about the recent SCOTUS decisions in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA here and Janus v. AFSCME here, but suffice it to say that these decisions will make it much more difficult for people to come together to make improvements in their workplaces.

At the same time — and almost entirely divorced from the conversation about what workers should reasonably expect from their employers today — the so-called “future of work” has erupted into a fashionable topic for media coverage, advertising campaigns, conferences, and splashy think tank reports. A Google search for the term returns nearly 60 million hits, the first pages of which are dominated by business consulting firms and global think tanks heralding technology and artificial intelligence, automation, job loss, and inequality.

But the future of work is more than changing technology. Google searches for the “ghosts of work” or the “stubborn persistence of inequality and its relationship to work” just don’t have the same ring, or robust search engine results. The future of work depends very much on the past and present of working — not just the robots and artificial intelligence on the horizon.

These days, when people talk about the future of work, they usually mean one of three things:

  1. The specter of technological change;
  2. An increase in “gig” work; or
  3. New policies that could address the gap between the modern realities of work and the existing social safety net (namely portable benefits and universal basic income).

The future of work moniker is popularly associated with all that is newly unstable in the economy. For example, the word “explosive” has commonly been used in media reports to describe the growth of “gig” work, yet it’s been difficult locate a dramatic shift in the government data. Still, we instinctively feel that change is underway.

But — and this is important — trends that have long shaped how people interact with the economy are still operating and will continue to do so, like entrenched racism, sexual harassment and discrimination, weakened protections for workers, and the decline of unions. Understanding how work is changing requires attention to both newer and older forces. Let’s peek inside the sausage factory.

  1. Technological Change

Fascination with, and fear of, technological change is a longstanding topic of human interest, and by far the most prominent of the three future of work themes. From early advances in manufacturing that displaced fabric sewers, to automated cranes that reduced the number of port workers, today’s interest in artificial intelligence, robots, and automation is simply the most recent in a long line of technological subjects that have occupied our collective imagination.

The more severe predictions about how technology will change work argue that the process will obliterate many jobs. There are three complications to this argument.

First, history suggests that in the short term, technological change creates short-term job losses. In the long run, this loss is offset by the creation of “complementary” jobs, or those that emerge because of the technology, like the jobs that maintain computers or robots. New jobs may not replace lost jobs on a one-to-one basis, and workers will need training for higher-skill jobs — which is a great role for the public sector in supporting workers as they shift their competencies.

Second, in many cases, technological advancement will change existing jobs by altering the tasks a worker performs, as opposed to destroying entire occupations.

Third, like all statistics, your results depend on the data you analyze. For many industries, it’s not clear which technologies will take hold or how long it will be until there is widespread adoption. It is important to be specific about what exactly technological advancement will entail and to resist hyperbole, regardless of the attention it might afford.

To be sure, technology is already changing the way labor markets are organized. Digital platforms can instantly match a client with an elder-care provider. Just-in time scheduling software has increased shift volatility for retail workers while it maximizes efficiency for stores. Advances in machine learning have encroached on cognitive activities we once thought were uniquely human. And some suggest that worthwhile struggles to raise the minimum wage may affect firms’ calculus as to whether to hire human labor or invest in automation.

Technological change is real and we do not have a very good grasp on it. The way processes of technological change unfold, in terms of both the quantity and quality of jobs created, will be uneven across occupations, industries, and geographies. The results will be disparate depending on demographics (see below) and, critically, will also be shaped by social, political, and institutional forces.

2. “Gig” Work

The rise of the “gig” economy has been much heralded, and equally misunderstood, due in part to a multitude of definitions and inadequate data. The broadest definitions, such as the one used in a 2017 Freelancers Union/Upwork survey that found 36 percent of the workforce is “independent,” include anyone who has “engaged in supplemental, temporary, contract- or project-based work, in the past 12 months.” Economists Larry Katz and Alan Krueger used a more specific definition in their study, making a distinction between main job and supplemental work, and narrowing the employment categories to 1) temporary or on-call workers, 2) independent contractors, and 3) workers provided by contractor firms. Their results showed a more modest 15.8 percent of the workforce in “alternative work arrangements,” roughly equally split between those who receive a 1099 (i.e., are independent contractors) and W2 (i.e., those who have a traditional employer). Still, the authors surmise that nearly all net employment growth from 2005 to 2015 occurred in these alternative work arrangements, suggesting that the structure of employment is indeed changing.

Even though Katz and Krueger were modeling their research off of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Contingent Worker Survey (CWS) — which had not, until very recently, been conducted since 2005 — the economists’ survey was slightly different, and achieved different results. When the CWS numbers were released a few weeks ago, many were surprised: 10.1 percent of workers are employed in alternative work arrangements as their main job, which represents no significant change since 2005. Especially among independent contractors, many spectators expected “explosive” growth to be verified by the survey; yet the number has barely budged since 1995. Annette Bernhardt helpfully breaks it down here.

What is emerging as perhaps the most important data distinction is the one between main job and supplemental income. There is some evidence that the latter is growing: people are not making enough at their main job, so they seek additional earning opportunities on the side, of which digital platforms are just one dimension. Set this alongside two other data points:

  • Despite “full employment” in the economy, real wages remain stagnant — defying classic economic models that predict the opposite
  • The social safety net continues to shrink, pushing low-wage workers to find other ways to support their families

A pressing question, then, is still about workers’ main jobs: Why can’t people earn enough to make ends meet?

3. Policy Innovation

The third topic under the heading of the popular umbrella of future of work is in part a product of the uncertainty produced by the first two: policy innovations that are aimed at updating the social safety net to address the needs of today’s workforce. While workers’ rights advocates have long focused their efforts on updating policies to better protect workers, policy entrepreneurs today are focused on two main proposals:

  • Portable benefits are not tied to a single job or company and would allow access to benefits that are, in the U.S., currently tied to traditional employment relationships, such as paid time off and retirement accounts
  • Universal basic income (UBI) is fundamentally a plan to guarantee a minimum income to everyone, though actual proposals vary in who is included, how much money, etc. Discussions of UBI often occur in tandem with, and as a solution to, predictions of widespread technological unemployment.

Yet, the policy innovation discussion is sometimes susceptible to overlooking existing programs that could be strengthened, in favor of creating new, sexier benefits. For example, the ACA offers health coverage regardless of employment relationship, which makes it an example of portable benefits. And there are lots of other ideas that are alternative and/or complementary to portable benefits and UBI, but receive less attention, including but not limited to:

  • Universal jobs guarantee
  • Wage insurance
  • Universal child allowance
  • EITC expansion
  • Universal family care
  • Job sharing
  • Baby bonds

While these federal policy conversations are underway, it’s important to recognize the many achievements of advocates in advancing state and local policy campaigns with immediate impacts for workers. Paid family and medical leave policies, which at the time of writing have been passed in six states and the District of Columbia, ensure that new parents or workers struggling with serious illness have the time they need. Policies promoting fair scheduling reduce the negative impacts of erratic scheduling on workers. And anti-wage theft bills help ensure workers are paid properly for their time. All of these are innovative ways to address the needs of workers in the changing economy.

If technology, gig work, and portable benefits are what people tend to focus on, what else is out there shaping the way we work?

The Many Ghosts of Work

The three categories discussed above take up the lion’s share of space in conversations about how work is changing and what might be done in response. However, these topics tell a partial story. The set of structural forces that has converged over the last forty years has shaped the economy and produced an uneven distribution of benefits, especially along lines of race, gender, immigration status, disability, and other markers of social difference. These are the ghosts of work, forces which include:

  • Structural racism and gender discrimination that disadvantages people of color, especially African Americans, and women;
  • Immigration policy that has resulted in a secondary labor market for undocumented immigrants and immigrants with certain visas;
  • Industry reorganization that has led to an increasingly fissured economy and increasing reliance on outsourcing and worker subcontracting;
  • Decline in union density, due to explicit and well-funded attacks on workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, which has reduced the wage-setting capacity and political influence of unions;
  • Shifts in corporate governance that have lead to increased shareholder power and CEO pay, and curtailed shared prosperity;
  • Globalization and trade policy which produced a new set of low-road competitive dynamics, including offshoring;
  • Attacks on the public sector which have resulted in policies skewed toward financial and private sector deregulation, privatization, and the overall shrinking of the role of government;
  • Tax policy reform that has favored the wealthy and corporations, and has lead to a redistribution of gains toward the top of the income spectrum; and
  • Financialization, which has bloated the role of the financial sector in the economy.

What a list! Taken as a whole, these major trends have shifted power and resources away from workers, and allowed or even incentivized employers to pursue a range of low-road approaches to profitability. These root causes may be shifting somewhat, but they are not going away.

The best writing and thinking about what the future of work will look like is sensitive to the interrelated trends detailed above, how they will stretch and morph, and what we might do to shape outcomes. It’s a delicate balance of being rooted in the present, in what we know about working now, while having an eye toward future trends that will affect working people and the communities in which they live.

Principles for Engagement

While we hold together the past, present, and future forces shaping work, I would like to propose a set of principles that can guide our engagement with these important issues:

  1. The future of economic justice is a just transition to what will involve more technologically-mediated labor markets and jobs. A just transition should mitigate the costs and share the benefits of new technologies.
  2. Change is certain, but its path is not, and giving in to inevitability will stifle our imagination. There are many alternatives, and it is our collective duty to create and promote them.
  3. Efforts to confront the changing nature of work should strengthen the role of the public sector in setting and enforcing workplace standards and delivering a social safety net.
  4. Those workers most affected by an issue should be involved in shaping any proposal or campaign to address it, and the process should help build workers’ voice and capacity to act.

We find ourselves living in a time when the demands on our attention, emotions, and actions are enormous. Recent Supreme Court decisions, both those directly targeting workers’ rights and those leveled at our neighbors, leave us reeling. It’s a time to curb the draining impulse of socio-political messes with countervailing forces, which means allowing space for envisioning, imagination, and longing as survival strategies and as offensive work (following adrienne maree brown). Try asking yourself, “Why am I here, at this moment in the long arc of history, in this skin and body and life?” We should assume that the work we are engaged in is birthing what is next — as Valarie Kaur put it, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”

The future of work will be determined by those who have the power to shape narratives, advocate for pro-worker policies, hold employers accountable, and shift norms. In this gestation period, we can prefigure the kind of world we want, living it into existence now in the way we choose to work with each other and engage with the world as we give shape to the future.

This article is based on consulting work the author did with the Neighborhood Funders Group’s Funders for a Just Economy in 2017.