How to build the future of work
First, the bad news: Over the past 40 years, the average worker has been producing more but as been paid less.
The good news? The nature of work is changing, and we have the opportunity to make sure tomorrow’s “work” works for everybody.
The U.S. economy changed in the 1980s as technology and globalization came to the fore. Large corporations became detached from the communities of their customers and workers. Harvard Business School economist Jan W. Rivken states that this led to corporate and government underinvestment in the “shared resources” of public infrastructure, an educated workforce, a healthy supplier network, and other aspects of the “commons.” Rivken is quoted in an interview with the Atlantic’s Gillian B. White in a February 25, 2015, article.
Rivken cites numbers compiled by the Economic Policy Institute showing that between 1973 and 2013, U.S. productivity increased 74.4 percent, while hourly compensation went up only 9.2 percent in the same period. Having to compete with lower-paid workers in other countries led to depressed wages in this country. Good for business, but bad for workers, who also lost much of their bargaining power as the percentage of unionized workers declined.
The phenomenon hits the middle class particularly hard because of the “unsustainable promises” that were made to employees to promote what Rivken calls the “illusion of prosperity.” Incredible amounts of credit were extended to workers for houses and other products, according to Rivken. It’s natural for people to feel that the government and their employers made promises they didn’t keep. As Rivken puts it, the short-changed workers become “anti-business voters.”
Rivken believes the solution begins by rebuilding the commons through public and private investment: in infrastructure, worker skills, healthy local businesses, and work environments that encourage innovation.
A tale of two futures
North Carolina State University economist Patrick McHugh paints two very different pictures of the work environment of the future: One a robot-dominated dystopia that leaves “masses of unemployed people struggling for survival”; and the other a drudge-less idyll in which people spend most of their time in leisurely pursuits. Of course, reality will be somewhere between these two extremes.
A key to ensuring we realize more of the “leisurely idyll” future is to be ready for changes we can’t imagine, let alone anticipate. One thing is certain: Today’s jobs will be gone. Robots will do the driving, the farming, the manufacturing, the transporting, the cleaning, the building, even the writing (gulp). For a glimpse of what a next-generation robot is capable of, check out the Atlas (link to YouTube video) by Boston Dynamics, as described by TechCrunch’s Greg Kumparak in a February 23, 2016, article.
How do you prepare for the creation of jobs in industries we can’t even envision yet? You educate people to be nimble, to be learning new skills continuously. And most importantly, you create work environments that nurture and reward innovation. The businesses that will be successful in the future are the ones that attract talented, creative workers and then harness their ingenuity.
Talented, creative workers don’t appear out of thin air. You have to make them, and the only way to do that is to invest in education. I don’t see corporations (or governments, for that matter) standing in line to pay for the rebuilding and reimagining of the American educational infrastructure. The implications of not reconstructing our economic foundations are to ghastly to contemplate.