At a time when machines are getting smarter and more capable and traditional jobs are being replaced with looser forms of employment (from freelancing to gigs), America is agonizing over the future of work. Will there be enough well-paying jobs or “tasks” for everyone? Can we continue to depend on work as a universal provider, or will other forms of income have to take up the slack? Can we support growing numbers of elderly people who might not be able to work?
A year-long effort by the Shift Commission–a group formed by the New America Foundation and Bloomberg and involving 100 leading figures from technology, business, policy-making, and culture–took on some of these questions, imagining what the future of work might look like in 10 to 20 years, and, to a lesser extent, how we might prepare for that future.
Roy Bahat, founder of Bloomberg Beta, an early-stage VC fund in San Francisco, acted as one of two chairs of the commission. In an interview with Fast Company, he explains that the aim was not to make predictions for work’s future. Rather, the commission wanted to embrace the complexity of the topic and sketch out scenarios ranging from a world where there’s plenty of traditional employment and relative income stability, to one where there are scant gigs to go around and plenty of insecurity.
“The question is essentially unknowable–which is how dramatically and how quickly technological change will affect work?,” Bahat says. “Instead of trying to do another prediction, we asked if there was some other way of going about solving this? Once we got ourselves in this frame of mind, scenario-planning arose as a fairly obvious solution to that problem.”
Meeting in five cities, the 100 leaders came up with 44 scenarios, which were eventually distilled to four–each characterized by a popular game:
This future imagines a local and sustainable economy that “prioritizes work in person-to-person interactions.” Amid increasing automation and a slowing economy, it involves less work per person and more tasks rather than jobs–a game of “fast, one-off choices.” The retail industry, for instance, has been refashioned by delivery drones, automated warehouses, and a hegemony of analytics. Many people work in the caring professions, looking after the elderly, sick, or young.
King Of The Castle
In this prospective economy, there’s also less work than now, but most of it continues to be in the form of traditional jobs, not gigs. Large companies dominate the economic scene, and there’s less economic dynamism as a result. (It’s “king of the castle” because as the “king” you have to knock down the other kids as they try to run up the hill and take over the castle, i.e. your job). It’s harder to start a successful business. People have jobs with larger companies, but, when they leave them, it takes longer to find another one. Fewer people work overall, leading to decreased consumer-led economic demand. The black market economy grows bigger, as people seek income beyond official work.
In this scenario–which gets its name from a game of perpetual motion– there’s more work to go around, but it’s mostly in the form of tasks, not full-time jobs. People fixate on building “reputational rankings” for each gig they complete, blending multiple income streams. Careers are “self-driven, entrepreneurial, and constantly changing” and short-term work is embraced and supported through new processes of education, standardization and professionalization of skill-sets. There’s growth in artisanal goods as people privilege “work done by human hands.”
This economy, meanwhile, is one where there’s more work overall and it comes mostly in the form of conventional jobs. People “embrace connectivity in every area of their lives (Go is a board game of infinite possibilities) and look for ways that machines can extend their capabilities through data-platforms, electronic devices, and virtual reality.” People get jobs as human coaches and psychologists, or as chefs and masseurs who use data to improve their colleagues’ productivity. There are plentiful roles for “augmentors” who insert data-gathering microchips into people’s heads.
Though it tried to be open-minded, the commission did make certain assumptions about trends in the economy, mostly, Bahat says, because they seemed long-lived enough to be durable going forward. These were that the workforce will get older, that the economy will continue to be less dynamic than in the past (measured by business starts and the rate at which people move between jobs and between geographies looking for jobs), that less income will come from work (as opposed to, say, income from stock markets), and, fourth, that there will be a continuing divergence between the richest metro areas and the poorest.
The commission also assumes that artificially-intelligent machines will dominate increasingly, even if the consequences for work could vary a lot depending on how we respond. In the report, each scenario foresees robots coming to the fore in manufacturing and retail. Here, for instance, is what it says about the role of machine work in the “Jump Rope” scenario:
Most aspects of work, from food, garment, electronic and automotive manufacturing, natural resource maintenance, and medical analysis have been automated through a combination of robots, drones, and sensors connected to large AI systems.
The commission shied away from making recommendations because, Bahat says, too many trends are contradictory. Conference speakers may be fond of saying “the pace of change of accelerating” but this is belied by reduced economic dynamism. The rate of new business formation has fallen in this generation compared to previous generations, for instance, suggesting that incumbent companies are finding it easier to maintain their positions, not harder. On the other hand, many small businesses are unquestionably dynamic. See, for example, how WhatsApp grew from nothing to having more one billion users worldwide. “I think we live in a time of paradox,” Bahat says.
The most the commission offers by way of solutions is a “responses discussed by Shift Commission members” section. It features ideas like continuous professional education, tax credits for care work that’s currently unpaid or underpaid, wage subsidies for “socially necessary” eldercare, and a “cross-industry way to certify skills beyond a college degree.” Bahat says the commission also considered the merits of portable benefits (which are paid directly to individuals wherever they work and aren’t tied to traditional employment) and a universal basic income (an idea that Bahat personally has embraced).
Along with brainstorming scenarios and solutions, the commission also funded a representative survey of 1,000 Americans. It found a widespread need for solutions that improve the “stability” of people’s working lives. It found that 53% of us already “make different amounts of money every month, and that almost a quarter . . . cope with income that varies by the week,” suggesting volatility of income. Almost half of respondents said they would struggle to meet an unexpected expense of $100 or less.
At the same time, the rhetoric of work “purpose” or “meaning,” while attractive to everyone, is a luxury for many. Only people making more than $150,000 a year valued “doing things I feel are important” more than “earning as stable and secure an income as possible,” according to the survey. (Though, most people prioritize “doing things I enjoy.”)
If one was to criticize the commission and its report, you might say it’s a little bloodless and apolitical, in a broad sense. Wall Street and Washington D.C. are not mentioned at all, even though both surely have had, and will continue to have, plenty to say about work. The future of employment is not all a function of technology, demographics, and changing expectations around wealth, free time, and meaning. Perhaps because it wants a wide readership, the commission chose to emphasize structural and impersonal forces, not the decisions of executives and politicians, which are surely relevant too. Going forward, we’ll need to take account of all factors, not just the least controversial ones.