Four Futures for Work in America

This was originally posted on LinkedIn for the Milken Institute Global Conference. It is based on the soon-to-be-released findings of Shift: The Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology, a joint project of New America and Bloomberg to understand the future of work.

The future of work presents plenty of fodder for visionaries, both dark and light. But it is not so far away. After spending the past year convening leaders in every sector of American society to imagine the future 10–20 years out, we have realized that examples of multiple possible futures are already evident in the present. And no matter what the future holds, we have to face some choices today.

Representing New America, I teamed up with Roy Bahat, the head of Bloomberg’s venture fund, to launch a project that would get past the endless debates about no jobs versus an idyllic leisure-filled future. Instead of embarking on a futile quest to make accurate projections (where you can find people telling you only 10% of jobs will be automated, 47% of jobs, or literally every job, depending on where you look), we asked: what can we learn by just imagining the different scenarios that arise if we look at both sides of the coin? We called our effort Shift: The Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology.

We started with basic economic facts, some of which contradict the conventional wisdom. Technology leaders love to say that change is accelerating, but by many economic measures, that’s simply untrue. We’ve seen a decades-long decline in the rates at which Americans switch jobs, move long distances for a new job, or (most important) start businesses. The explanations for this decline vary, from high housing costs to regulatory burdens to care obligations, but the trend is clear and worrisome to many. It is one of the factors behind increasing geographic polarization: a number of thriving city hubs pulling away from rural areas and depressed cities.

Moreover, for all the focus on technology as the principal driver of the future of work, the human factor is just as important. We are aging fast; by 2024, nearly one-quarter of the workforce is projected to be 55 or older — more than double the share in 1994. Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that global aging will be so severe that we will need all the robots we can create and all the humans to be able to achieve the growth we need.

We then asked our Shift commissioners — a lively mix of leaders from multiple sectors, bringing together labor, civic, religious, academic, entrepreneurial, and more traditional business perspectives — two basic questions. (1) Will there be more or less work in the future? (2) Will work continue to be in its traditional form, full-time jobs, or separate into more “task” work (like short-term contracts, part-time gigs, or other alternative arrangements)?

More than 100 Commission members met in five cities over the course of seven months. Their answers to these questions generated 44 colorful and concrete work futures, some positive and some negative. We distilled the common themes from these visions into four basic scenarios, which we are releasing today at the Milken Institute Global Conference. (We plan to release the full report on our findings later this month.)

In two of these scenarios, we will continue to work mostly in jobs, one where there’s less work available in total (what we called the King of the Castle Economy, a winner-take-all game) and one where there’s more work available (the Go Economy, where you can keep building as long as you want).

In the two scenarios where work evolves mostly into tasks, one has less work for us to do (the Rock-Paper-Scissors Economy, where we continue to compete in short spurts), and one more (the Jump Rope Economy, where individual workers can control the pace and pattern of their own careers, as long as they keep jumping).

You can find our detailed write-up of the scenarios here.

Contrast, for instance, the two scenarios in which there’s more work to go around. In the Jump Rope economy, that work comes in little bits, requiring us to imagine new career paths, new ways of learning, and new social safety nets. In the Go world, our traditional jobs remain, and we need to work to ensure their benefits are available to everyone in our society. What we do with benefits, public assistance, business culture, and more will need to vary depending on how the future unfolds.

As interesting are the ways the scenarios are all the same. We learned that no scenario is inherently good or bad — we heard dystopias and utopias imagined for each. Every scenario requires real work from every sector of society — business, technology, civil society, academia, culture, government at all levels — and none will solve themselves. We will need, under any scenario, a new American identity that values the work society needs done, whether or not anyone is willing to pay for that work. Imagine a whole set of purposeful projects, from raising a family to mentoring young people to working in a community garden — all valuable work but not necessarily connected to income.

Elements of each of these scenarios are happening today. Almost all of them spell considerable uncertainty for almost all workers in comparison with the stability of widely available Industrial Age 9-to-5 jobs. Even in a world of more work and more jobs, the qualifications necessary to get and keep those jobs will likely change rapidly. And in a world of tasks, even where those tasks supplement jobs, decoupling the provision of benefits from specific employers will be essential for many workers.

The goal of the Shift Commission is to move the public conversation about the future of work forward. We encourage participants in that conversation to grapple with more realistic and varied visions of multiple possible futures. We also urge leaders and citizens to start thinking and acting now to create the public and private responses we need to ensure that the Digital Economy will work for everyone.

To conclude, consider some of the more positive futures, drawn from some of the specific examples our Shift Commissioners envisioned. Imagine a world, maybe in the task-based Rock-Paper-Scissors or Jump Rope economies, of “Everyone a Coach.” Sports coaches, of course. Vocal coaches, rock climbing coaches, gardening coaches, tech coaches, coaches for any activity in which continuous improvement is possible and desired. School coaches. Work coaches. Career coaches. Life coaches. Streams of data, about our own performance and that of others, will measure progress in just about everything we want to do. Teachers are one and done. Coaches are forever.

Or consider, in any scenario, the idea of a “Tear-Down Squad.” What happens to strip malls when e-commerce takes over for goods, and personal services can come to us? (Except for our favorite salons, which might be concentrated in renewed but much smaller downtowns.) What of all those office buildings, in a world where people hot-desk and work out of coffee shops? One of our members described the buildings and old infrastructure that need to be torn down in Atlanta alone. Tearing down the old means making way for the new, even if the new is a park, garden, or affordable housing. It is all part of the circular economy, which is another potential source of many jobs we cannot envisage today.

Still another possibility, in the Go economy, is “MasterCraft.” Craft beer is exploding, led by Master Brewers, and it may just be the beginning. Etsy has expanded far beyond unusual holiday gifts to a marketplace for human creativity — arts and crafts. Now imagine a world in which Master Bakers, Master Builders, Master Masons, Master Carpenters and many others come back, plying their trades in high-end and highly local versions, often aided by 3D printing. The White House has announced its desire to see apprenticeships expand from 500,000 to 5 million. That many apprentices will need masters. As mass production makes room for customized production in food, shelter, and clothing — three of humans’ most basic needs — and as higher education becomes something that happens in workplaces as well as schools, we could see the emergence of a 21st century guild system.

The care economy, the circular economy, and the craft economy are all possible. So too are much bleaker futures. We cannot sit back and wait for the future of work. We need to imagine and shape it now.


Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America, a think ​and action ​tank dedicated to renewing America in the Digital Age.