Memo to CEOs: You Can’t Predict the Future of Work

June 14, 2016, 7:16 PM UTC
1950s Robotic Shaver
A demonstration of how this remote-control handling apparatus, as used at nuclear research establishments, is as delicate as human hands as it shaves a man with perfect comfort and safety. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When it comes to the future of work in America, it seems we’re stuck picking between zealots: utopian or doomsdayer.

“We’ll have no work left for humans after the robots rise.”

“No, we’ll have the life of bohemian leisure we’ve always lusted after.”

“No, everyone will have to rush from a morning gig as a ride-share driver to an afternoon hawking handmade jewelry online to an evening washing sheets for the next guest in their spare bedroom.”

“Exactly, we’ll all be free to pursue our professional dreams!”

Technologists, economists, and futurologists of various stripes may disagree on what comes next, but all agree we are bracing for changes that feel faster than ever. Consider Detroit, which lost its manufacturing jobs beginning in the 1980s, facing global competition. In less than five years, the drivers of many of the newest cars came to make their living from fares distributed by an algorithm. The next decade might bring driverless trucks, threatening the jobs of over three million Americans. (Truck driving happens to be the single most common job for men in our country.)

Some shifts are already well underway. “Good jobs”—secure positions with room for growth—are harder to find than they once were. The storms of the current political season remind us daily of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in American society; those who are pulling away from the pack are getting so far ahead it’s hard to see them. Indeed, a growing percentage of U.S. income doesn’t come from work at all, with the share of income from actual work falling by more than 20% over the last 50 years.

At a deeper level, beyond the headlines but far more significant over time, are demographic trends. We’re living longer and working longer, with people over 55 years accounting for almost twice as much of the workforce as they did just two decades ago. Those older workers actually make up the majority of the so-called “gig economy” of alternative work, notwithstanding the ubiquitous image of the millennial Uber driver or TaskRabbit.

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While some trends like the aging workforce are clear, it’s the uncertainties that loom largest. Take those job-eating robots, for instance: One prominent recent study estimated that 47% of American jobs are at risk of automation, while another study pegged it at only 9%. And it’s equally uncertain how many jobs might be supported, enhanced, or even created by technological innovations. Technology affects work in unexpected ways: One technological innovation, the oral contraceptive pill, supported the dramatic increase in paid employment for women in the latter part of the 20th century.

The great uncertainties go all the way to the fundamental meaning of work. Increasingly, we have examples not only of non-work income, but also of non-income work. Care work, for example, is certainly real work! It is also deeply meaningful to the women and men who raise children, care for their own parents, and help ill or disabled spouses, siblings, and other family members live the best lives they can. Paid care workers report emotional as well as material income from the work they do.

In the face of these great uncertainties, prediction is a fool’s game. We have to assume that any number of scenarios could come to pass and be prepared for each of them. We must imagine, not predict; restructure, not plan. And be prepared to adapt at every point.

That means thinking beyond the next election cycle—looking 10 to 20 years down the road to anticipate the movements of tectonic plates like automation and aging. And our view is that there are no villains; instead, we’re all in this together. Technology, business, government, and civil society must all be part of the solution.

To do this, we will invite a multidisciplinary group of leaders to form a commission convened jointly by New America and Bloomberg. We are calling this The Shift Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology, in respect of the dramatic transition our country will make and the breadth of related issues involved. The Shift Commission will build on and link to the important contributions that so many foundations, companies, academics, and think tanks have made on the future of work.

With these principles—imagine, not predict; look beyond next year; assume no villains—we hope to emerge with a better way to think about the future of work, and to build a community of leaders who are inspired to respond. We are checking utopianism, dystopianism, technological determinism, and ideological conviction at the door.

Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) is president and CEO of New America, a think tank with offices in Washington and New York. Roy Bahat (@roybahat) is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture fund backed by Bloomberg L.P.

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