A Barrage of Reports on the Future of Work

Looks like the future is about 15 minutes away, or less.

2018–04–09 Beacon NY — In just the past few days, I’ve come across no less that three new reports on the future of work. They are coming from all points of the compass, and I haven’t had a chance to read them in detail, but the first order takeaway is that the domain of discourse we call ‘the future of work’ is now ground zero for a broad spectrum of policy, economic, and sociological debates.

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Comments from Readers

Phil Wolff (self-styled ‘GDPR wonk and wearer of appropriately industrial chic in the Pacific Northwest’) chimes in on dress codes:

I like the “dress appropriately” dress code. It decentralizes responsibility and authority. It puts the folks who know context best (which is rarely HR) in charge. They’ll balance safety, formality, utility, and enterprise values as needed instead of a priori from a distance. It also makes sense as organizational boundaries blur, more people work offsite and with control over their workplaces, and more of the workforce are free agents. If HR was in charge would you ever have been able to do a year of swag t-shirts?

Phil is referring to the time I auctioned off my body-as-billboard for 220 days, agreeing to wear sponsors’ t-shirts. I had to use a spreadsheet since I randomized which days they got.

Jim Meredith goes along with commentary from Peggy Noonan about Zuck’s dress in If Adults Won’t Grow Up, Nobody Will:

I have spent the past few days watching old videos of the civil-rights era, the King era, and there is something unexpectedly poignant in them. When you see those involved in that momentous time, you notice: They dressed as adults, with dignity. They presented themselves with self-respect. Those who moved against segregation and racial indignity went forward in adult attire — suits, dresses, coats, ties, hats — as if adulthood were something to which to aspire. As if a claiming of just rights required a showing of gravity. Look at the pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking, the pictures of those marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, of those in attendance that day when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and then stepped aside to the force of the federal government, and suddenly the University of Alabama was integrated. Even the first students who went in, all young, acted and presented themselves as adults. Of course they won. Who could stop such people?

I miss their style and seriousness. What we’re stuck with now is Mark Zuckerberg’s.

Facebook ’s failings are now famous and so far include but are perhaps not limited to misusing, sharing and scraping of private user data, selling space to Russian propagandists in the 2016 campaign, playing games with political content, starving journalism of ad revenues, increasing polarization, and turning eager users into the unknowing product. The signal fact of Mr. Zuckerberg is that he is supremely gifted in one area — monetizing technical expertise by marrying it to a canny sense of human weakness. Beyond that, what a shallow and banal figure. He too appears to have difficulties coming to terms with who he is. Perhaps he hopes to keep you, too, from coming to terms with it, by literally dressing as a child, in T-shirts, hoodies and jeans — soft clothes, the kind 5-year-olds favor. In interviews he presents an oddly blank look, as if perhaps his audiences will take blankness for innocence. As has been said here, he is like one of those hollow-eyed busts of forgotten Caesars you see in museums.

But he is no child; he is a giant bestride the age, a titan, one of the richest men not only in the world but in the history of the world. His power is awesome.

I am not really down with Noonan’s perspective. I don’t buy the notion that t-shirt, jeans, hoodie is the dress of children: it was originally clothing of the working class, later adopted by left-leaning artists and the counter-culture, and now the de facto mass, informal clothing style, and still, the clothing of the working class, too.

Still and again, clothing styles change. A hundred years ago, today’s formal business suit would have been too informal for questioning in Congress. So-called morning dress would have been required: morning coat, waistcoat, striped trousers, and hat. Indicating seriousness by wearing ritually prescribed clothing is timeless, but the cut of the clothes is constantly shifting, constantly modernizing. In ten years the requirement for the tie may be old-fashioned, but men will still be wearing long pants in Congress.

On Automation

Barclays has released Robots at the Gate, where the investment bank jumps into the debate about the impact of AI-driven automation on work. The report’s authors, Ajay Rajadhyaksha and Aroop Chatterjee, work in Barclay’s Macro Research group, and come down squarely on the side of Anotherism, as in AI is ‘just another labor-saving technology’. They employ many of the common arguments — ATMs did not end bank teller jobs, ‘40% of the population used to work on farms and now only 2% do but they are employed’, and they even have a section entitled ‘This time is no different’ — but have fairly chilling data when they zoom down to specific sectors or classes of work.

Consider this example:

And their commentary:

- Self-driving vehicles have the potential to have a large effect not only on the transportation sector, but also on other industries that rely on driving to a high degree.[³⁴] Roughly 3.9 million workers in the US directly operate motor vehicles, including 1.7 million truck drivers. A further 11.9 million workers deliver services that require vehicles. Together, these represent roughly 11% of the total workforce (Figure 9). From a capital stock perspective, motor vehicles represent roughly 12% of the total stock of equipment across all business sectors (based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data). Business investment in motor vehicles ($335bn per year) represents a little over half of the total final domestic sales.

- Autonomous vehicles’ impact depends on whether it is labour saving or productivity enhancing. For the direct motor vehicle operators, it is likely largely to have labour-saving effects. Motor vehicle operators tend to score lower on knowledge outside of their narrow field, have limited cross-functional skills, have lower education levels and so on, and automation is likely to increase unemployment levels among these workers.

- For sectors of the economy that employ individuals who use motor vehicles to deliver other services (e.g., security, electricians, mechanics of all sorts), autonomous vehicles are likely to benefit by providing greater productivity, such as the ability to focus.

So, autonomous vehicles will have an enormous impact on a long list of industries, decreasing the hours of work by people dedicated to driving. Barclay’s concedes that for many drivers, automation is likely to increase unemployment levels. And Barclay’s is making the argument in the other cases that the increased productivity coming from other classes of workers who will need to spend less time driving won’t be immediately translated into working fewers hours allocated to those workers. What is stopping their employers from simply pocketing the savings, however?

Still, the raw data is worth looking at, even if the conclusions could be reversed if an Otherist had been writing the prose.

US Policy Direction and The Future of Work

A much more helpful report, The Work Ahead, has been released by a Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force, headed by Penny Prizker and John Engler, and written by Edward Alden and Laura Taylor-Kale.

I will share the findings and recommendations from the report’s executive summary, here:

The seven major findings of the Task Force are:

1. Accelerating technological change will alter or eliminate many human jobs. Although many new jobs will be created, the higher-paying ones will require greater levels of education and training. In the absence of mitigating policies, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are likely to exacerbate inequality and leave more Americans behind.

2. Embracing technological innovation and speeding adoption are critical for U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. Openness to trade and immigration are also vital for maintaining U.S. technological leadership.

3. Strong economic growth that leads to full employment has been the most consistently successful approach for raising the wages of Americans.

4. The lack of accessible educational opportunities that are clearly and transparently linked to the changing demands of the job market is a significant obstacle to improving work outcomes for Americans.

5. U.S. efforts to help displaced workers are inadequate. Unemployment insurance is too rigid and covers too few workers, and retraining programs are not based on the best global models.

6. Too many jobs are going unfilled because of restrictions related to credentialing, mobility, and hiring practices. More could also be done to create new opportunities in higher-unemployment regions.

7. Current workplace benefits — from sick leave to retirement plans — are too often available only to full-time employees, and are not adapted to the emerging world in which more workers are part-time, contract, or gig workers.

[…]

The seven major recommendations of the Task Force are:

1. Governments should adopt an explicit goal of creating better jobs and career paths for Americans. Initiatives should aim especially at attracting investment and revitalizing entrepreneurship.

2. The United States needs to remain a world leader in technology and innovation. This should be supported by increased public and private research and development (R&D), support for commercialization of new research, and an open door to highly skilled immigrants.

3. Governments should implement policies aimed at maintaining strong growth and demand for labor. Employers should commit themselves to a “high-road workplace” that offers employees decent pay, training, scheduling, and benefits. Special measures are needed for communities struggling to attract investment and jobs.

4. The United States should set and meet a goal of bringing postsecondary education within the reach of all Americans and linking education more closely to employment outcomes.

5. Unemployment insurance should be overhauled to reflect the realities of the current economy, and mid-career retraining programs should adopt the best features of the European “flexicurity” models.

6. Governments and employers should work to reduce barriers to labor mobility for Americans, including high housing costs, occupational licensing restrictions, and inflexible hiring practices.

7. The United States should create portable systems of employment benefits tied to individual employees rather than to jobs themselves. Employers should also help fill the gap by expanding benefits for their part-time and contingent workers.

Finally, the Task Force recommends that the president and the nation’s governors create a national commission on the U.S. workforce to carry out research, share best practices, and conduct public outreach on workforce challenges. This should be the start of an urgent effort to put workforce issues at the center of the national agenda.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the United States was unsettled by similarly rapid technological change, the high school movement produced a boost in educational attainment that was critical to U.S. economic success and to the country’s rise to global leadership. Success in the twenty-first century will require the same type of bottom-up, cross-generational effort, with Americans demanding that governors, local leaders, businesses, and educational institutions rise to meet these challenges. There should be vigorous competition among states to pioneer new models and lead by example. The federal government needs to encourage, support, share, and build on such efforts. With such a broad-based movement, the United States can build a more productive, inclusive, and resilient economy for all Americans — becoming once again a model for the world.

Hear, hear!

I hope to have a more in detail analysis soon. [Subscribers reviewing the online version of the report will be able to see my commentary via Highly in the Work Futures Slack community’s #research channel].

Actually published at workfutures.substack.com and stoweboyd.com.

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Insatiably curious. Economics, sociology, ecology, tools for thought. See also workfutures.io.