Setting the Stage for the Future of Work: Deep Shifts and Great Uncertainties

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On Tuesday New America and Bloomberg announced the The Shift Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology. I’ve been preparing the research for the commission. At the Bloomberg Technology Conference, I shared the highlights of our work to date: the deep shifts and great uncertainties that are shaping the future of work. Here’s what I presented (the slides can be downloaded here):

Headlines about the future of work tend to be extreme visions of catastrophe or utopia.

But we don’t think the trends are either sudden or certain. Instead, we’re in the midst of deep shifts and great uncertainties.

The workforce is aging, both as the population ages and as older workers are more likely to remain in the workforce. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

Dynamism is declining; in other words, America has lost its mojo. (This academic paper weighs the explanations.)

Wages and salaries now generate only half our income. More and more is coming from rents, interest, dividends, and government transfers. (Bureau of Economic Analysis data.)

One great uncertainty is the structure of work: what will happen to the employer-employee relationship?

“Alternative work arrangements” like freelancing and contracting have grown dramatically. The online gig economy — like Uber and TaskRabbit — is just a small part of that increase. (See this academic paper.)

Though millennials aren’t job-hopping, long-term employment has declined for middle-aged and older men. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

Here are the occupations projected to lose the most jobs. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

Yet it’s wildly uncertain how many U.S. jobs overall are at risk of being automated. One study said 47%; another said 9%. Plus, technological changes might enhance or create other jobs.

The historical evidence is that technology disruption hasn’t eliminated workor led to mass unemployment. Technological innovation, in fact, supported the huge increase in formal, paid employment among women: modern appliances reduced the hours needed for household work, and the Pill gave women more freedom to invest in education and career.

These great uncertainties about the future of work guide the Shift Commission’s approach. Here are our four principles:

What comes next? We’ll present a fuller set of research for the commission meetings, which will start later this year. Watch for more about the Shift Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology here:


Jed Kolko is an independent economist in San Francisco. He was previously a chief economist at Trulia. For more information visit