Economics Society

What’s the Future of Work? The Shift Commission Gives Us Four Alternatives To Consider

I have spent a lot of my time in 2017 talking to various experts in many fields about the future of work and how that future may impact our society in the future. One of the most insightful items I have come across this year is a report called Shift: e Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology. Shift (which was co-chaired by Anne-Marie Slaughter of New America and Roy Bahat of Bloomberg Beta) gathered 100+ individuals across several cities to discuss 44 future of work scenarios. They also examined economic, societal and technological trends and then compiled their findings into a 30-page report that makes for interesting reading. I’ll try to summarize the commission’s main conclusions below.

At the start, Shift outlines four mega-trends that are impacting, and will continue to impact, the nature of work:

1: An aging workforce: 

By 2024, nearly one-quarter of the workforce is projected to be 55 or older — more than double the share in 1994. Older workers are more likely to be in alternative work arrangements like freelancing and consulting than other age groups, and they are more likely to work in occupations predicted to shrink as a result of automation.

2: The decline of “dynamism,” the movement of people between jobs, firms, and places:

The second trend is what economists call “declining dynamism”: the decades-long fall in the rates at which Americans start businesses, switch jobs, or move for a new job. It’s unclear whether the culprit is high housing costs in areas with expanding growth, regulatory burdens like occupational licensing requirements that vary across state lines, or that caregiving needs and a sense of community connectedness make people reluctant to leave. Nonetheless, economists agree that a less dynamic economy is a weaker basis for adapting to automation and the rise of new work arrangements.

3: A societal shift to non-work income:

The third trend is that less of our income is coming from work, and more is coming from other sources, including dividends, investment income, and government programs like Social Security and disability insurance. Today, only half of personal income comes from wages and salaries, down from almost two-thirds in the 1960s. This shift has contributed to rising inequality, since a higher share of investment income goes to the rich. And as more income flows from non-work sources, the role and meaning of work potentially shift.

4: Growing geographic gaps:

The fourth trend is geographic polarization. Richer places in America have been pulling away from poorer places; the gap in average incomes across labor markets has grown, and rural areas are lagging behind. Some activities at the forefront of new industries, like venture capital investment, have increasingly clustered in large urban areas. And the percentage of college- educated Americans living in cities has increased rapidly.


After the discussion of the trends noted above, the report presents four future of work scenarios using game analogies to illustrate the basic dynamics of each possible outcome.  It’s an interesting approach, not only because it echoes game theory, which is often linked to the economics of labor, but also because it provides a handy way of visualizing how we might fare in such worlds.


The first future of work scenario the authors present is called the Rock-Paper-Scissors Economy. As Shift sees it, in this future world there is less work and it’s very task-based. As they put it, in this economy work is “community-based, local, and sustainable” and built around an “economy that prioritizes work in person-to-person interactions.” Think of this scenario as the gig economy writ large. In this world, a typical day does not seem very appealing:
You check your profile image on your phone, then watch the clock tick toward 8:00 am, when bidding opens. The clock turns and you page through projects, putting together a list of interaction-based, human-touch tasks. There aren’t many today. You move the virtual screen to the “Jobs” section of the listing. Many of the postings have been there for months, because it’s only the really obscure, specific roles for which people are still hired full-time. You don’t have the right set of skills and aren’t willing to go through the lengthy retraining program for a job you may not like and probably won’t get. But you’ve got a consistent income selling organic, hand-roasted peanuts in local farmer’s markets and are just completing a “bedside manner” short course on how to interview older Americans and record their memories — of WWII, suburban highway expansion in the 1950s, the Vietnam protests. You’re hoping to market yourself as an eldercare companion who can also document history, one person at a time.

The second scenario Shift calls the King of the Castle Economy. As in scenario one, there is less work but it still resides in what we would recognize as “jobs.” In the future world, machines have taken most work and the few jobs left to people are concentrated around corporations. In this world, a typical day goes something like this:

You wake and don’t want to remember but can’t help yourself: you are unemployed. And not fruitfully. You were laid off from a supply chain manager position a couple months ago following the arrival of an automated technician. Now you start each day watching the job boards. There are fewer jobs these days, with the machines doing a larger proportion of the really dumb and really smart stuff. Glancing at the jobs listed, you’re intimidated by how specialized they sound. You’d need a minimum of two years experience just to understand the blurb: “AI psychological dispute consultant. Requirements: knowledge of credit-assignment in intra-AI interaction scenarios, neural net diagnosis competency, familiarity with differentiable memory stores a plus. Your head spins. You put on your running shoes and head to the office of your friend, the self-styled “dentist to the executives”. When you arrive, there’s a woman just coming out of the office rubbing her jaw. You breeze past the robo-receptionist. “Do you have an appointment?” it asks. You ignore it and head into his office. “I’m going stir-crazy,” you say. “I need a job.”

The Shift report calls the third scenario the Jump Rope Economy. The good news here is that there is actually more work — a lot more work in fact but arranged in concurrent streams of tasks that workers select and manage. In this model, the workers take a “portfolio” approach to work” in which people build reputational rankings with each task they complete, combining multiple income streams to allow for a career that’s self-driven, entrepreneurial, and constantly changing. A typical day for a worker in this world is a nicer prospect than the first two scenarios at least:

You stand in front of your SmartMirror and brush your teeth, reading a list of available tasks as they scroll across the glass, each one already altered for your background. e-listings scroll by: Creative Chef: exclusive executive dinner party: 4 hours, in-person, fully equipped kitchen and china provided. Corporate Contracts Architect: specification design for multigenerational housing neighborhood: 60 mins, in-person; self-driving transit offered. The next one catches your attention: Philanthropic Adviser: Non-Profit: requires excellent presentation and organizational skills: 45 minutes, recurring weekly, on-site, geolocation proximity: high. “Bid aggressively”, you say, dribbling toothpaste. You enjoy analyzing policy trends, and, since bots are getting better each day at prediction and analytics, you’re able to complete tasks faster and more accurately. Your surrogate AI starts bidding on the contract, while stressing your qualifications to the HR Bot. Eventually the machines decide that you’re not the best laborer for the task and inform you that you’re out of the running. “No!” you say. But at least you didn’t get a flashing red “qualification theft possible” warning to slow down the process. You examine your endorsements data for the last task you completed, send out a private broadcast on one of your social networks, and wait for the morale-boosting (and rep- enhancing) responses to come in. Ten minutes later, five new options arrive on the screen.

The report calls the last scenario the Go Economy. Once again, there is more work and in traditional job format. In this future, technology drives every aspect of our lives and most jobs are connected to enhancing the ways in humans and machines interact. Work, in this world, is wholly embedded in human-machine interaction:

You try to clear your head and meditate, shutting out thoughts about work, or friends, or vacations. You stay there for a few minutes, breathing in and out, and when you are truly calm you open your eyes and say “Good morning!”. Instantly the room buzzes with motion from the screens that light up every wall surface. Information floods in: your portfolio is up, an overnight algorithm has made progress on part of your cryogenics experiment, and your AI has synthesized the key concepts of 15 academic papers that pertain to your work and uploaded it to your connected memory. Your screens dial into a teleconference for you. Your head fills with biophysics and the delicate balance between cold and heat as you study cryogenic literature. Occasionally you dip into the call, offering a positive comment here, a negative one there. After half an hour of juggling your team, spread across 16 countries in 12 timezones, you say good-bye to people as they sign out, then continue your work. Tomorrow your team is waking up a subject from cryosleep: the first human to spend more than a year in an icebox. If the subject emerges without health problems, it’ll be the sign of a changing world. If not, you’ll just have to work harder.

As noted earlier, the report thinks that all of the scenarios “could work out well for America,” though the first two seem like worlds that many people would prefer to avoid. As the authors note, at this point in time there are many aspects of all these possible worlds that remain unclear. Would we want to work more or less in the future? Would we want to be more integrated with technology or will a backlash cause people to try to find an analog existence on a mass scale? How will education, already in turmoil, change as these, or other, new work models come into existence? How will income flow in these models? Will these flows enhance or decay democratic institutions?

As they discuss these issues, the commission does not spend a lot of time presenting detailed recommendations (though this may be future work, they note). The report does outline some potential course of thought and action that members discussed during its work:


They also note that leaders in various sectors of society “might pick up where we left off” and considering questions raised in the report:

BUSINESS: What responsibility do employers have to prepare their workers for a technologically advanced (and uncertain) future? Can businesses help workers manage the tension between wanting stability and rewarding risk-taking? In a world where fewer employees have the traditional “full-time job” relationship with their employer, what benefits should businesses provide? In a world where productivity levels increase and employment levels do not, should we begin to consider an expanded role for business philanthropy in supporting communities?

WORKERS: Americans want stability, and they’re willing to work hard for it — so what should workers do if the growth professions of the future reward “entrepreneurs of one” who take risks? How should workers overcome the many obstacles to providing for an ordinary life — debt, access to education,the need constantly to acquire new skills? How should they organize their personal lives — including child- and eldercare — to complement the way they will work?

POLICY MAKERS: How does government empower Americans to seek these futures? What floor is the reasonable minimum for participating in our future society? How does our society provide for basic goods like health care and education? How should we support families’ ability to provide and care for each other? How should we fund the scientific research that supports innovation, the education that propagates it, and the cities whose networks fuel it? How can we make government at every level — city, state, and federal — more nimble and responsive to sudden change?

EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS: What preparation does a modern American need? How do we prepare learners if the future rewards personal independence and entrepreneurship as opposed to competent implementation? What skills should one seek in a world where the goal line is constantly moving?

CULTURE, MEDIA, AND CIVIL SOCIETY: How can the media keep the conversation about work’s challenges front and center? What stories should we tell about how we work? What should we value about work, leisure, and family life? How do we imagine these futures in ways that call us to act? What successes should we trumpet? And how do we ensure that the stories told reflect the demographic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity of our country?

These are serious points and well worth a sustained dialogue, especially within the corporate sector since under every imaginable scenario the nature of corporate employment is undoubtedly bound to change. As Diane Mulcahy noted in her new book, The Gig Economy:

The traditional economic foundation of the middle class is already crumbling because it was built on the expectation of — the reliance on — steady and long-term income from secure full-time jobs. Now that no job — no matter how you define it — is secure, any lifestyle built upon the assumption of a steady, uninterrupted flow of income is risky at best, delusional at worst. Any prudent economic plan has to include the probability that income will vary, and jobs will change. The middle class will have to rebuilt on a different foundation in the Gig Economy.

I have spoken with Diane about her view of the future of work, and it is generally optimistic. However, I think she would agree that her optimism depends on a proactive evolution of the world of work into whatever model lies before us. Indeed, my favorite observation from the report is that “the future of work is not a self-solving problem”. In other words, not one of the 100+ participants thought that letting matters solve “organically” was the right option  there is simply too much risk that one of the four scenarios will go horribly wrong or that some other, even worse, one will emerge. I agree and hope that Shift will continue its research. Work is how most people, at least today, define a large part of their lives. Whatever future that element of our existence holds for us should be defined by a careful evolution of the more human aspects of our current models and not the accidental characteristics of a mechanistic, technology-driven existence.


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