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The Future of Work

Returning to work after a holiday period allows us to focus on the future, if we can carve out some time for reflection.

Much of our personal identity in modern society has been traditionally linked with our jobs. “What do you do?” is a common question one asks a new acquaintance in making conversation, and the answer says a whole lot.

More specifically, in the United States, an entire universe of status and security (through health and retirement benefits, for example) operate under the assumption of a full-time job. Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the so-called gig economy, where contingent or independent workers are hired to perform specific tasks, with no promise of full-time employment. In the old days, workers in the garment industry performed “piece work” either at home or in sweat shops. We don’t want to return to those conditions, although one could argue that many migrant and immigrant workers remain locked in drudgery. The new situation may be more pervasive.

On college and university campuses, adjunct faculty fit the general “gig” description, but the phenomenon is much larger. The next time you take advantage of Uber or Lyft to hail a ride, think of the employment implications, not only for taxi drivers, but also car manufacturers, who are reportedly very nervous about ride-sharing by growing numbers of young people, who increasingly forego owning a car, especially in big cities.

For a comprehensive article in clear language on this topic, please have a look at “The Real Future of Work,” by Danny Vinik, in Politico. The piece gets into empirical data, which is strangely in short supply on the subject of contingent workers. We tend to focus on robotic technology and offshoring as the drivers of our current concerns about the future economy, but the phenomenon may be due in part also to our ability to measure productivity more efficiently.

It’s easy to see how our predictions of future employment opportunities for the next generation can turn out to be all wrong. This may be the case especially with workforce training. Many jobs could disappear, even after a substantial investment creating new programs to fill them. Community colleges and their students would seem particularly vulnerable. Kids from wealthy families will be fine. That’s why the liberal arts, fine arts, and humanities remain strong at elite institutions, but are fading at less selective schools.

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