Shift Commission Candid Conversations: Ai-jen Poo’s lived in our tech-led work future and has some warnings (and solutions)

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Shutterstock / Halfpoint
Jan. 17, 2017

Ai-jen Poo has seen the future of labor, and it’s not pretty. As director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Poo has had a front-row seat to the changes brought about by the rise of non-traditional employment.

In the conversation that follows Poo discusses how the working conditions of domestic service workers foreshadow the types of employment pioneered by modern technology companies, and implications for our social safety net.

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Ai-jen PooJack: Could you start by telling us why you’re here today?

Ai-jen: Sure. We’ve sometimes called the domestic worker the original gig economy worker. Because for a long time, domestic workers have faced high degrees of insecurity and inconsistency of work, lack of access to a safety net, training and career pathways, lack of access to benefits, and then just a level of invisibility of the work. Those conditions used to be relegated to the margins of the economy. But they have come to define more and more of today’s workforce. Some people call it non-traditional work or the rise of non-traditional work. Some people call it the gig economy. But it’s a form of work that our workforce has been thinking about for a long time, and trying to create solutions for.

As we started to realize that this was a trend, we started to think about this question of how is the workforce changing and what can we do to solve for equity and opportunity in light of these changes?

Jack: People have been aware of these trends, like yourself, for many years, but this year in particular it feels like we’re starting to have a national conversation about it. Why has that conversation started happening?

Ai-jen: One reason is that we’re in an economy with unprecedented levels of inequality, so the kinds of economic opportunity and security that we used to be able to take for granted in terms of one generation doing better than the next, I think are no longer true for large cross-sections of our workforce. The other piece being, if you think about the influence and the different forces that shape this country, our economy, and our democracy, it used to very much be that Wall Street and Washington D.C. were the centers of power and influence. Now I think Silicon Valley and Hollywood play an outsized role in shaping our culture and our consciousness.

The rate of innovation that is being driven by Silicon Valley is incredible. Markets are changing and iterating so quickly. Much of it is driven by tech innovation. It’s changing everything from the relationship that we have to our phones to the way that we work. Uber and Lyft have become a part of our daily lives — and a source of work for many. The more that we’ve started to feel the impact of inequality and technology in our lives, the more we’re asking questions about what is the future of work.

Jack: One of the things that characterizes Silicon Valley companies is they don’t employ as many people relative to the people that are displacing. That pattern seems to play out everywhere. Why does that produce this feeling of anxiety?

Ai-jen: We already have a long-standing problem of structural unemployment and under-employment. There has been a level of economic divestment from entire communities — both in urban centers in communities of color, and in “rustbelt” and rural communities. That divestment is a driver of inequality and a tremendous amount of suffering in this country. High rates of depression and addiction are but a few examples of the kinds of challenges that come with not having access to work and income. If technology continues to displace work, particularly family wage jobs, the fear is that these problems will only get exacerbated. We can already see what the future might look like if we don’t create access to good jobs for the millions and millions of people who are going to need work in the future.

Where will there be job growth in the future? I happen to work in a sector where the jobs can’t be outsourced — in the care sector. Child care and elder care jobs are here to stay, and the demand or need for them is growing as Boomers age and live longer, and as millennials have children of their own. And, I think we’re several decades away from robots displacing your nanny or your elder care provider. At least, I certainly hope so.

Jack: I think if I went up to my grandfather and said, “I’m going to visit you less, but this robot here will be my stand-in,” it would go very badly.

Ai-jen: That’s exactly right. Another big part of the challenge and opportunity ahead is how do we transform these jobs in child care and elder care, jobs that have historically been incredibly vital but so undervalued in our economy? They’re going to be — actually already are — the fastest growing occupations in our workforce. How do we transform them into good jobs that you can take pride in and create a real pathway of opportunity, where one generation can do better than the next?

Jack: We’re going into a world where there’s employment which is less tied to a specific employer. What are some of the policy responses or other changes that can be made to ensure that this is a good world?

Ai-jen: One of the things we’re trying to catalyze is what we call a “movement for good work.” We are trying to partner with tech companies, investors and others who really believe that technology also offers an opportunity to create equity and opportunity.

We’ve actually spent a lot of time interviewing people who work in on-demand platforms about their experiences and what would make those experiences actually amount to family-sustaining, good work. From those interviews we developed a set of eight principles that we call “the good work code”. We launched with twelve companies who agreed to adopt the principles as frameworks for their company practices about a year ago. Now, we’re out there talking to more companies about how do we build on that momentum to create a movement that is about promoting shared prosperity, transparency, voice and community, in the 21st century tech-based economy in a way that feels like it matches the reality of work today.

I think it’s about looking at the values that define good, dignified work and looking at their application in the tech economy, and then creating both private sector practices and public policy models that support those values. Some people have talked about universal basic income. We talk about this idea of universal family care, the idea that everyone should have access to a benefit fund that supports the affordability of child care, paid family leave, and elder care. One fund that we all contribute to that allows you to have the support you need to work and care for your families at every stage of life.

We’re headed into the era. We need a new social compact or contract for this era — to establish a new set of universals, or a new set of givens, that we can take for granted, to help us meet our basic needs, so that we can have a shot a achieving our full potential in the workforce and as human beings in the 21st century. It’s a different proposition from when our safety net was first put into place.

Jack: If we got in a time machine and found you twenty years ago and brought you here, today, what would you have thought would have happened that hadn’t? And what would surprise you that has happened that you hadn’t predicted?

Ai-jen: I think I would’ve been surprised by the lack of women in leadership in tech companies in the private sector or in most sectors. Women are still over-represented in positions of vulnerability and under-represented in positions of power and influence. I would have thought we would have made much more progress by now, which I would have expected to then catalyze public policy that invested in caregiving and a rage of other issues to create more balance in the universe. I’m really surprised that we are three decades into high levels of women’s participation in the workforce and we still don’t have good child care or good paid leave policies. Those things are kind of shocking to me.

I think I would’ve been surprised by how much suffering there is among white people in the United States, that inequality has gotten to a place where it’s not just undocumented immigrants, or African Americans, or historically socially marginalized communities that are in real pain economically. It’s everyone. The vast majority of working people in this country are really struggling in ways that are surprising.

Then, one of the things that I think I would have been totally shocked by but that I’m still shocked by today, is what feels like a time warp between the rate of change in Silicon Valley and the complete stagnation or lack of change in other parts of our economy — where things haven’t really changed in decades. The disconnect is incredibly striking — like two different universes. Inequality has created not only profoundly different experiences of access to resources and opportunity, but of our sense of time itself.