Why a conference on “The Many Futures of Work”?

Peter A. Creticos, Conference Organizer
President and Executive Director, Institute for Work & the Economy
Research Fellow, Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University

My interest in losses among the middle class dates back more than a dozen years to when I worked on a project on the integration of immigrants into the workforce.  I was surprised by immigrant scapegoating in places where there were few foreign-born residents. It soon became evident that seemingly economically secure, mostly white Americans believed that they faced existential threats to their wellbeing. They heard a growing drumbeat of outsourcing, off-shoring, static or declining wages, and jobs lost to automation – and responded outwardly by blaming the new people on the scene – no matter where they lived.

The Institute then launched the Kitchen Table Forum, an initiative to support conversations about work, jobs and families at home-gatherings, at sewing circles and book clubs, in barbershops and beauty salons, and in places of worship and at cultural events. Although the project did not get off the ground, but core elements persisted, as well as the goal of framing economic and social challenges to make them approachable by all people and not just policy elites.

Since then, it became clear that it was not enough to talk about economics. Work structures also reflect deep fissures along fault lines of race, class, bigotry, morals and privilege that undermine the very foundations of society, culture, politics and government. I am aware now of what is missing from most narratives about the “future of work”: there are many futures – who you are, where you live, and your economic and social circumstances will set your starting point and will shape the probable trajectories of your future. By distilling the discussion to a single future that focuses on a privileged few, we ignore the majority – the “others” who do not fit the one-size-fits-all model.

This conference is about taking action and taking control. It is about approachable policies, practices, and strategies. It is about being optimistic. It rejects the idea that workers face immutable fates. A core aim of this conference is to confront head-on the challenges imposed by structural barriers, by bad policies and practices, and by complacent acceptance of things that we can and should be able to change. Our aim is to brighten many pathways to the future.

Our collective inattention to structural barriers is an unconscionable omission in the current discussion on the future of work. There also is a tendency in public policy circles to focus on workers as the sources of failure: they lack good skills, they are poorly educated, they lack motivation, they expect too much. So, many of our programs are aimed at “fixing” a broken workforce. To be sure, many workers lack the skills to achieve economic security. But, there are large percentages of workers in the world’s most developed economies who are over-skilled and under-utilized. Those talents simply are wasted.

There are many notable businesses that regard their workers as the sources of their long-term success. There are successful businesses that make significant investments in apprenticeship without regard to achieving a specific return on investment. Employee-owned businesses are creating remarkable track records of achievement. New forms of collective action are emerging among workers who have been heretofore part of the invisible fabric of the service economy. Also, as businesses off-load training and shift basic benefits onto their workers and public systems, there is growing discussion on the meaning and extent of a comprehensive education and essential safety nets.

The presumed role of new technologies and new attention to the on-demand economy also divert our attention away from important, underlying issues. I routinely hear the mantra that “technology” is driving change. In fact, technology is neither policy nor practice –  it is a collection of tools that is deployed to achieve some goal. Different businesses in the same industries may use the same technologies with radically different consequences for how they structure their workforces. It is a matter of what they want to achieve and what it means to be “successful” – Is it, for example, to appease stockholders and maximize short term gains or achieve long term growth and profitability as a leading innovator? How such changes take effect, and to what extent, will be a matter of how new technologies are conceived and deployed. Therefore, the conference will focus on business and government choices, strategies and means to ends that drive the adoption and adaptation of technologies in workplaces.

Some celebrate on-demand work as the gig economy: making it synonymous with a brave new world of economic opportunity. This, too, is grounded on a vision of a technology-driven world – one that is sometimes conflated with utopian dreams of free expression and independent living. In fact, there is nothing very new about on-demand work. Occasional laborers have been around for centuries. They are also formalized by temp agencies, by workers who stack part-time jobs into full-time work, by “flexible” scheduling schemes, and more recently, by electronic job platforms.

Many will argue that the emerging on-demand economy is a matter of people making lifestyles choices. Granted, on-demand work sometimes opens creative opportunities, albeit with large risks – especially in the arts and forms of “knowledge work.” New research shows, however, that many resort to task work to survive. There also is evidence that on-demand work will increase economic insecurity and social inequality.  Further, the logic of on-demand work poses a worrisome possibility: it suggests that workers will be reduced further to buckets of skills and credentials that are easily exchanged on the open market, and therefore, subject to commodity pricing. People who are parties to these employment relationships will no longer be recognized as persons, and the many economic and social advantages of sustained, stable employment will be lost.

Businesses may favor on-demand workers as ways of cutting costs and shifting risks onto workers. But, it is also seen as ushering in a new era of entrepreneurship and invention. Ironically, an on-demand economy can be inconsistent with invention and continuous innovation.  Businesses that rely on independent workers to develop new products and services cannot retain that knowledge and experience. Moving an idea to final product is achieved along a climbing wall of many failures, bad choices, and hard-fought gains. This cannot be accomplished securely by hired guns – it takes a dedicated and committed team of people to achieve success. What is especially telling is that businesses that try to outsource their creative work are now stifling the exchange of ideas through broad non-compete clauses and stockpiled patents.

This conference offers a unique combination of four elements: First, it respects the majority that does not fall neatly into a common narrative about the future of work. Second, it considers both causes and responses - but causes and responses that policies, practices, and further research can address. Third, it is designed to serve as map that will help stakeholders find their places for greatest effect. Finally, the aim of the conference is to prompt action as well as inform.

Six working groups are the heart of the conference. The substance of the conference will be framed by the three plenary and two luncheon speakers, and by the subject matter experts enlisted to provide context and challenge conventional thought. The real wisdom will be found in the knowledge and experiences of people who will be part of this event. They will add to our collective understanding and will drive new thinking on the changes that should be made. We will ask each group to dive deeply into their assigned issues and come up with recommendations for all levels of government, education and training providers, foundations, businesses, unions, civic organizations, and grassroots groups.

Our work does not begin or end with the conference. This blog launches the conversations months early. We will extend them to well after we adjourn. Also, we intend to take the discussion on the road to communities around the United States and beyond. While facts on the ground will differ, many of the overarching themes of this conference are starting points for further conversation. So, please, weigh-in on this important exchange on the possibilities and perils of the many futures of work.