Four Myths About the Future of Work
The big future of work dialogue regularly provokes grandiose forecasting. These predications even drive multimillion or billion-dollar investment bets by firms in hot pursuit of the next big tech winner or lucrative business model. Some also outline a brave new world of transformed workplace, work, and workers. This is a conversation attracting loads of attention. And it has clear implications for low-income workers and economy opportunity more broadly. But for our tastes, too often the future of work rhetoric and reports are undercut by a paucity of understanding of the history of work.
We see four common myths in the future of work conversation:
Myth #1: Emerging high technologies means that most workers in the future will require new technological skills—capacities far different from their current skill and knowledge set. History yields lessons about how technology influenced the work skills needed of the vast majority of workers. And while past performance may be an imperfect indicator of future results, it offers insights that are likely to be applicable.
Inventors of new technologies may have sophisticated math, science, engineering, design, and other skills, but the resulting technologies are designed to be fairly simple in use. In the industrial revolution, the big change was from home-based production of clothing to factory production systems. As a result of technology and work models, the skills of factory workers declined. Each worker tackled a specialized, limited task. They did one part of a process over and over again. They no longer needed to spin, weave, copy or create patterns, cut, or stitch clothing. They had no role in design. The same was true with the introduction of scanners and cash registers. Cashiers no longer needed numeracy skills or knowledge of pricing and products.
Even computers and software shows this effect. Human interface was a differentiator for Apple. The advanced skills deployed to design computers is much higher than the relatively lower skills needed to make them in a factory. And in fact, there is some evidence that our overall economy may be making a turn away from requiring or rewarding higher skills. Economists Beaudry, Green and Sand document a decline in demand for skill since 2000 as industries adapted to and expanded the use of new technologies. Demand for high cognitive skills declined and higher skilled workers moved down the occupational ladder in to jobs traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers.
Myth #2: The future of work will disrupt relationships between workers and the people who demand their labor. A much larger percentage of our workers will move from gig to gig thereby enjoying greater freedom and flexibility in their work lives. To us, this future looks quite a bit like the past. Piece work, day labor, temp jobs, patching a “side hustle” with regular employment—these are all work arrangements with long histories. People have pieced together incomes through gig work in the care economy and in industries as diverse as entertainment and agriculture. Will the “platforms” introduce a heretofore unimagined flexibility for people? It may attract attention, but to us it seems greatly overstated.
First, that kind of flexibility has been around—but often with a price of instability, higher risks, and lowered earnings. And second, there may not be as much flexibility as may be advertised. Yes, you can choose to turn the app on to find a rider at 2:30 when you have a free hour. But, the timing of demand plays a dominant role. If few want a ride in your area at that time, you’re not making bank.
Finally, new data indicates that gig jobs aren’t actually growing as dramatically as many had predicted. Recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the percentage of people with gig jobs as their primary employment had not grown between 2005 and 2017. Perhaps workers aren’t choosing this gig work as their primary job when they have choices in a time of low unemployment.
Myth #3: New technology drives disruption and value in the business and consumer world. Experience suggests that value is created by the combination of technology and the activities of a firm or group of businesses. Companies create value more often by combining technologies, processes, and business models in innovative ways. The focus on technology, in fact, tells only part of the story. A more complete view encompasses technology as well as the business model and choices around the treatment of workers. Technology can be and has been adopted while also improving working conditions and job quality as well as boosting productivity and consumer value. Whether businesses decide to take a high road on job quality with associates or succumb to the lure of short-term labor cost minimization as they adopt a new technology is a choice.
Myth #4: Artificial intelligence and tech are the irresistible drivers that will inevitably shape the future of work. Technological change will certainly have some direct influence in shaping work. But history again tells us that society makes choices that shapes that impact too. Civic organizations, business norms, and politics and public policy made a profound difference. Yes, today’s advanced manufacturing offers some good jobs. But is important to remember that manufacturing jobs were dirty, dark, dangerous, and poorly paid for a long era. The disrupters that transformed manufacturing included labor organizations and public policies. Technology opens new choices about the production, delivery, and consumption of goods and services. And humans make the choices. Humans decide which technologies to develop and how those technologies should be used. Our society – through policies ranging from patent law and the protection of intellectual property to the promotion of consumer protection and public health, to the regulation of employer-employee relationships – shapes the risks and rewards associated with investments in new technologies.
Will the robots eat our jobs? We don’t think so for two reasons. First, AI robots aren’t “good eaters” as yet. Alexa, that sleek, feminine piece of smart home technology, has functionality somewhat above a clock radio. “Her” response to 95 percent of basic search queries is “I cannot find that…” Is this the future of AI? And while we can imagine this technology and others getting better, there remains a long way to go before technology can replace many human capabilities and an even longer way to go before individuals and firms can afford to deploy them. Second, the humans (at least so far) hold the “on and off” switches. The robots will not eat all our jobs unless we decide to let them.
Maureen Conway is Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of the Economic Opportunities Program and Mark G. Popovich is Director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative at the Aspen Institute.