Business

Future of work? A freelance economy with fewer large employers is one scenario.

The fastest-growing labor market is older workers, and appropriate retraining and adaptive strategies will be needed. Sue Nordman, owner of Erda Handbags in Dexter, Maine, has implemented a flexible scheduling system and invested in more ergonomic machines to accommodate the company’s aging workforce. Most of Erda’s employees are 60 years or older.
The fastest-growing labor market is older workers, and appropriate retraining and adaptive strategies will be needed. Sue Nordman, owner of Erda Handbags in Dexter, Maine, has implemented a flexible scheduling system and invested in more ergonomic machines to accommodate the company’s aging workforce. Most of Erda’s employees are 60 years or older. NYT file photo

As we round the corner into 2018, one topic will be a growing source of conversation. Given the accelerating pace of technology, what does the future of work look like?

To address this question, the think tank New America partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to form “Shift: The Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology.”

Over a year, the commission convened more than 100 leaders from business, academia, policy and technology to take part in scenario planning sessions in five cities. The commission also surveyed over 1,000 American workers about their perspective and future expectations about work.

Drawing on this input, the commission recently published a report that outlines four potential scenarios reflecting whether there will be more or less work and if this work will be more about jobs or fragmented tasks. It also wrestles with what these scenarios will mean for people across the skills and income spectrums.

To help focus the conversation on the uncertainties of the future, the commission took several current trends as a given. For example, by 2024 nearly one-quarter of the workforce is projected to be 55 or older – more than double the percentage in 1994.

The second trend is described by economists as “declining dynamism.” For the past decade, higher housing costs, caregiver needs, increased regulatory burdens and other factors have reduced the rate in which Americans are starting businesses, switching jobs, or moving for new jobs (decreasing the ability for people to adapt to a changing economy).

The third trend is an overall societal shift to nonwork income. Today, only half of personal income for the average American comes from wages and salaries, down from almost two-thirds in the 1960s (the rest is coming from government programs and investment income – exacerbating the growing income divide between shareholders and nonshareholders).

The fourth trend is called “geographical polarization,” with richer areas pulling away from underconnected urban neighborhoods and rural communities, resulting in significant income disparities, lack of opportunities and underinvestment in services such as health care and education (making these communities the most vulnerable to economic disruption).

Based on these trends, the commission discussed what the future structure of work was going to look like.

Will traditional jobs continue to dominate or will people transition into a “portfolio” approach to work – taking on a set of discrete tasks and paid gigs? And, given the accelerating pace of automation and AI, what kind of work will still be done by humans?

As we wrote in an earlier column, for example, the advent of driverless cars and trucks could eliminate the top employment engine in 29 states.

While the commission did not choose a scenario it thought would be most likely (we think it is a future in which there is less work and it will be increasingly task-oriented), it did arrive at several important conclusions. Foremost among them, our ability to adapt to the inevitable changes within our economy is going to be dependent on strong public and private leadership and intentional planning and action at the community level.

Additionally, workers value stability over all else, including making money and doing work they feel is important and meaningful. Yet, disruption is inevitable in any scenario. So, we need to invest in education and retraining to help society find new pathways to stable work or realize the entrepreneurial benefits of risks taken.

Large-scale employers are no longer going to be the central employment force of our economy. It is estimated, for instance, that by 2020 the majority of our working population will be freelance. As our work force migrates to the gig economy, we need a system where worker benefits travel with the individual and we increase the efficiency in which available labor is connected easily with available work (by leveraging newly available technologies).

Community networks are also going to be increasingly important as our work identity shifts from what companies we work for to the skills and relationships that we have.

We can’t forget that the fastest-growing labor market is older workers, and appropriate retraining and adaptive strategies will be needed.

Finally, the impact of the changing economy will not fall easily along political lines, but it will have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable – creating unlikely political bedfellows between rural and inner-city urban communities that will need to come together as advocates for a better future.

Addressing these challenges directly is unlikely at the national level.

Moving forward, we’re going to need state and local leadership to make the necessary shift.

Christopher Gergen is a member of the NC Works Commission, CEO of Forward Cities and a founding partner of HQ Communities. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@forwardimpact.info and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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