The American social contract—the implicit division of obligations among individuals, families, employers, communities, and government—has long needed an update. Policies, programs, and assumptions designed for the single-earner families and industrial workplaces of the postwar era are consistently failing to provide security and opportunities for families today. New America took up the mission of designing a new social contract in 2007 and was the first organization to frame its vision in these terms. The initiative that followed generated vital ideas that continue to shape debate and policymaking.
In the years since that initial work, the need for new policies and practices, not only in government programs but in the workplace and families, became more acute. The financial crisis of 2008 and the long recession that followed left in its wake a labor market that looks very different from that of the mid-2000s. Wages stagnated even for workers with college degrees, raising the possibility that automation will take its toll at all levels. The continued march of extreme inequality raises questions about how to ensure that the gains from productivity reach ordinary workers. Radically new models of work, sometimes referred to as the “gig” or “patchwork” economy, pose new tests to traditional models of employment and security. As the Internet became the primary channel of communications, social network, and work, access to appropriate technology has become a fundamental condition for full participation in the economy and democracy.
As New America’s researchers and writers grapple with these policy challenges, the idea that our social contract needs renewal continues to drive our work, across many programs and topics.
First, the old social contract too often fails to ensure a level playing field for people and communities.
Second, the old social contract assumed the worker was the sole provider and therefore the most important signatory in the household. The new social contract needs to embrace the whole family by recognizing the social and economic value of both care and competition.
Third, the Next Social Contract needs to address anew the assumptions and practices that set the conditions of work and life.