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The Future of Work: Which Seeds We Plant

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
(Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

(Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Google “future of work”: there is a dense thicket of writing and thinking on the topic by management consultants and economic futurists, but very few insights from anyone whose view of the economy places workers and their families at the center.

J. Robert Shull leads the Workers’ Rights Program of the Public Welfare Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.


Without the benefit of more diverse contributions, some rarely questioned conventions have taken root: using technology terms as larger metaphors; anticipating massive job losses from automation; picking today’s trends as tomorrow’s dominant business models; and, naturally, envisioning a government that gets out of the way (by, say, pruning the nation’s labor and employment laws).

Expand the conversation, and the future suddenly looks very different. Take, for example, what some are calling the “on-demand economy”—the rise of online disruptors such as Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit, Homejoy, Lyft, and Uber. For the business futurist, this is the natural evolution of things; for worker advocates, a cause for concern. Workers in these platforms are treated not as employees but as independent contractors, responsible for the capital costs of providing and maintaining the essential tools of the trade. The work itself becomes structured into discrete quanta of activity, and payment is tied to completion without regard for time.

If that sounds like piece-rate for piece-work, it should. Much else is familiar in this brave new world. When Mechanical Turk workers fail to get paid (and develop Web tools to address the problem), for example, they are re-discovering good old-fashioned wage theft. And other on-demand workers, faced with pay far below state and federal minimums, are finding much in common with sweatshop workers.

Consider, as well, the topic of firm disaggregation into extended chains of contracting, or what Department of Labor official David Weil calls fissuring. Franchising, temping out, labor brokers, and third-party management are among the many means firms use to insert more and more layers between themselves and the people who ultimately work for them.

Instead of merely searching for a tech-friendly metaphor (“distributed networks,” perhaps) to hail this development, worker advocates are looking for a solution. The nation’s core workplace laws were written for the factory economy: multiple workers under one roof with a single, clearly identifiable boss. As the factory economy becomes the subcontracted economy, how can those laws be updated so that firms at the top of these chains are held accountable for abuses at the bottom?

National experts and advocates in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and several other states are addressing this challenge by pursuing policies that re-establish definite lines of accountability for firms at the top with the power to shape terms and conditions for jobs at the bottom. It is exciting work, and it is virtually absent from the future of work literature.

Also omitted: almost any discussion of workers’ health and safety. The literature seems to be preoccupied with white-collar knowledge workers and advanced cognitive skills. What goes unsaid is that some jobs will require people to come into contact with physical matter, some of which will be toxic.

Even now, an estimated 480,000 workers in the United States are stricken—more than 53,000 of them fatally—every year by illnesses such as cancer caused by exposures on the job. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a batch of outdated standards, some based on 70-year-old science, covering only a fraction of the estimated 70,000 chemicals currently in commercial use.

Regulatory dysfunction—a combination of legal hurdles and insufficient political will—blocks OSHA from updating them or crafting new protections for the remaining tens of thousands of chemicals. Tomorrow’s economy will surely bring with it many new chemicals, nanoparticles, and substances. Will there be a future for OSHA in the future of work? How can there not be?

These omissions matter. The future of work conversation is a set of prescriptions wrapped up as predictions, its forecasts actually calls to action. If the future of work is like the future of everything else—in other words, a future we create by the choices we make today—then we need a more thoughtful conversation, a more thorough one. If we reap what we sow, we need to pick our seeds wisely.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.