As much as the media has been inundated with future of work stories that read like a sci-fi-like robot apocalypse, the future of work, in a very real sense, is already here. And what’s really at stake is inequality.
The real question for the future of work is not whether automation, robots, and AI will replace jobs—they will. And, if history is any guide, as-yet unimaginable jobs will be created. Over 60 percent of the jobs today didn’t exist in 1940, according to MIT researchers. The real question is, will the jobs that are created be “big enough” for workers and families to survive, much less thrive.
Given the current trajectory we’re on, the answer is no.
Since the 1980s, automation, globalization, the financialization of the U.S. economy, and policies that rewarded capital instead of labor have led to a sharp polarization of the U.S. workforce. Middle-class jobs lost have been replaced by increasingly unstable, precarious jobs—involuntary part-time, low-wages, with scant access to benefits like health care, and unpredictable schedules.
But, as economist David Autor and his colleagues at MIT argue, that polarization is a choice. And we could come together as a society and make a different choice for the future. If we don’t, he warns, we are building toward a stratified society of “the servers and the served.”
Joe Liebman, warehouse picker in St. Louis making $17.50 per hour. Lost his white-collar job in the 2008 Great Recession, along with and his house, his family, and his sense of wellbeing.
David Autor, MIT economist, co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.