The future of work is a growing source of anxiety for Americans. In the 21st century, technology and globalization have dramatically changed the workplace and people’s overall sense of security. Unfortunately, the laws and traditions that traditionally supported workers have not changed along with these transformations. Work is changing faster than ever. In years past, many workers were hired by a company and stayed there until retirement, availing themselves of employer-provided health care, pensions and insurance. That model is rapidly disappearing as firms move, restructure and even go belly-up from global competition and technological shifts. Eastman Kodak was an iconic American company that brought magic into millions of homes with color slides and photographs. At its peak, almost 150,000 people were employed with the company. But five years ago, Kodak went bankrupt as new technology made their products and business model obsolete.
Technological progress leads us to new economies and opportunities, but it often also leads to great economic and political disruption.
Technological progress can open new economic opportunities, but often times those changes are experienced as significant great economic and political disruption. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and wage growth. The “side-hustle” or “gig economy” now offers new sources of income through companies like Task Rabbit, Uber and Airbnb, but without the traditional security workers enjoyed at companies like Kodak.
It is essential that lawmakers update laws and regulations to seize the opportunities and anticipate and manage disruption. Some of this work is being done in the “Future of Work Task Force” within the New Democrat Coalition. Members are typically forward-thinking and pro-innovation, and are working to fashion laws for the economy of the future. They’ve assembled public panels with workforce experts, business and labor leaders.
The Task Force has identified 4 major trends that will shape how Americans work. First, automation and artificial intelligence have lower wages and eliminate jobs in certain sectors (this is not true in others, of course, as evidenced by the boom in wealth for people who develop such technologies). Second, the increasing pace of technological change compels workers to change jobs more often than in past generations. Third, the rise of the “gig economy” puts more workers into jobs without traditional worker protections and benefits. And lastly, the increasing complexity of modern business has slowed new business creation, stalling the engine that creates good middle-class jobs. Subscribe to The Morning Email.
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The “Future of Work Task Force” is developing a 21st century system of worker benefits and protections. According to the Rockefeller Institute, the independent workforce could account for 30% – 50% of all Americans by as early as 2020. As many workers change jobs more frequently, traditional employer-provided benefits and protections will not meet their needs. Yet most of us still believe that workers should have access to benefits and protections that are portable and connected to them regardless of where they work.
As more sectors move to automation and new technology, the economy will need a workforce with flexible skills.
As more areas of the economy turn to automation and adopt new technology, the economy will increasingly depend on a workforce with flexible skill sets. Historically, after workers completed school they relied on their employer for on-the-job training. But now, a growing number of workers have to be self-reliant as they update skills to retain their jobs or set out in search of new ones. This means we need to build and promote a culture of lifelong learning.
Growth and opportunity demand aggressive new business creation. For the past three decades, new businesses have been responsible for creating roughly 1.5 million jobs a year over. Entrepreneurship must be cultivated, and we must ensure an easier path to starting businesses everywhere, not just in Seattle and Palo Alto. This means limit the recent expansion of “non-compete” clauses in employment contracts, and increased access to capital.
The American middle class was built out of the right conditions during the post-war economic boom: a 40-hour workweek, the creation of a federal minimum wage, employee benefits, and the right of unions to organize. These milestones created the foundations of our economy and secured the promise of the American dream. Yet now, it’s essential to create real solutions so future generations of Americans have comparable opportunities to compete in the economy of the future.