Labor Day got me thinking about the world of work in America. So many people are pontificating about how the pandemic will change work in the future. Many of these people are employers trying to decide whether they want employees back in office or if work from home (WFH) will be more common even after COVID. Hybrid models are being tried out in some work environments, models which have employees spending part of the work week on site and the rest of the week spent working from home. There are discussions about 4-day work weeks once again, and shorter work hours. When commuting to work was interrupted, the WFH model, which we did not think we were ready for, became an important way to work, take care of family needs, and stay healthy.
Of course, in retail, workers had to report to stores, especially grocery workers. Lucite shields were erected in attempts to stop the air borne virus and masks were required. I met mostly resigned workers, many able to interact normally when I went to buy groceries or to the drug store, but I also met some workers who resented being front line workers when they were also low- pay workers. Restaurants and bars were hit hard. These businesses rarely pay a full wage, assuming low wages will be fleshed out by tips and that competing for good tips will create better servers. Restaurants/bars often created a family atmosphere for their workers. Having to lay off so many of the kitchen and the wait staff showed that there was close family and family that could be parted with. Hard times unraveled the myth of ‘family.’ There were not enough profits to pay everyone through the pandemic as restaurants turned to delivery mode.
Now we see employers having trouble finding employees, and employees taking a moment to reassess how and where they want to work, perhaps seeing this moment of worker scarcity as a bargaining moment. However, even before the pandemic work in America (and globally) was already changing. Workers in low paid jobs were exhausted from working two or three jobs to make ends meet. They wanted higher pay and it was becoming a cultural pressure point. Gig workers had their own challenges with a style of working that offered both independence and uncertainty. There was an argument about whether they were employees who got benefits or independent contractors who did not get benefits. Gig work never seemed like a career, a life plan. It did not seem like something workers would want to still be doing as they aged unless it turned into an online business or remunerative WFH situation, which some creative souls were able to engineer.
Clearly the old factory-to-grave model is only marginally available and not at all reliable. There is always the fear that change will come to the business you are counting on, and that any feelings of job security may be unrealistic. Benefits tied to such jobs are under review. If your company needs to respond nimbly to a changing marketplace and you can’t adjust, you lose your health care and your pension. Many are suggesting that benefits need to be separated from workplaces or companies and either offered privately, by government, or made portable through benefit passports (still making them the domain of private or public providers).
It turns out that PBS was also spending time considering what was happening in the world of work. They have been broadcasting a three-part series called The Future of Work. These programs are available on You Tube. Optimistically the researchers who wrote the content found that in every other major transitional age in work, when workers feared that they would never again see boom years, businesses found their feet and more jobs were created than before the change occurred. This time technology is the innovation that is wreaking havoc with the job market. Combine the upheaval workers were already experiencing with an out-of-control pandemic and the future of work looks grim.
Shockingly, many Americans refuse to be vaccinated against this virus. We all prayed for a vaccine and, for most of us, when we got several vaccines that were effective, we were relieved and felt that the world would soon right itself, or at least America would. But other Americans were convinced that we never should have noticed COVID. We should have flicked it off like an errant gnat and lived life without any concessions to the virus. These Americans have refused the vaccines and plunged the American job market back into precautions that should be unnecessary. Spiraling hospital admissions have left workers wondering if, given the delta variant, now is really the time to go back to work.
COVID and the unvaccinated have made a transitional age of work even more problematic and in some ways has hastened the introduction of digital innovations. Technological approaches to work are being accelerated by those who are working on AI and robotic approaches to doing work. What jobs can be done by techie inventions and what jobs will have to be done by humans? Robots don’t need childcare, they don’t need sick days (although they do break down), and they can work long hours.
The prospect of losing our jobs to machines with chips is making us question how children should prepare for the work force. Is a college education still useful? Should education be based on what jobs will be available when children graduate from high school? Will we be able to make meaningful projections that far in advance? Should we return to an apprenticeship model?
There are many children in America who still have no early access to computers and graduate without having grown up with the digital skills necessary to work in a job that pays an American Dream level wage. Are we planning to address that or doom some children to growing up as a permanent underclass (which is something we are doing right now)?
A college education gives people a body of knowledge that cannot be suppressed and can enrich the life of the mind. Will this become a frill that a practical society cannot afford. Is the process too time consuming to continue? Is the process becoming too expensive and therefore an indulgence and a burden for the average American, or will we fight for the right of any America to pursue a college degree at a reasonable cost should they wish to follow that path? Go online to almost any content rich social media site and you will find yourself amidst the conversations about the future of work, schooling, and training in America.
The Future of Work series doesn’t give absolute answers to where work in America is headed but it does conclude that transitions usually end up offering more work opportunities rather than fewer positions. If you happen to be living in the eye of that storm, while the transition is happening all around you, that little piece of optimism may not cheer you. Watching innovators find more and more ways to use AI and robotics to do work will displace workers in the short run as workplaces convert and fire low pay workers and hire workers who can manage the mechanical/digital workforce consisting of nonhuman workers.
The Future of Work program hypothesizes that domestic, childcare and healthcare workers will be the most difficult to replace. While I don’t think parents are ready to leave their babies or senior parents in the care of a virtual reality device or even a humanlike robot, housework might be the ideal place to employ robotics, freeing many Americans from repetitive household tasks and allowing them to keep learning and working. We don’t have robots that are humanlike enough to keep house well, yet.
This series of presentations on the future of work stresses the possibility that workers will need to be open to constant change, to constant learning and retraining. The research suggests that unions may also morph into different forms just as guilds did in earlier societies. Workers may form groups across industries if their needs align. But workers probably will still need to organize in some fashion. Work - how we work, how we train for work, how we are paid for work, how many hours we work, how many breaks we have from work, how often we end up being unemployed – is a key element of our society. Issues around working affect the feeling of well-being or panic in every American and, indeed, every person on the globe.
Transitions are exciting and unnerving, and they can take decades to unfold before a term of stability is restored. Add to this the need to develop alternative energies, the exigencies of climate change and global warming, and we have a recipe for disaster if we can’t adapt. The future of work will affect us all. Keep up with the unfolding drama and keep finding ways to adapt. It may keep us on our toes. It may even make the concept of retirement obsolete and even more enticing, as a time to reinvent ourselves once again. Perhaps people who feel useful live longer lives or at least more rewarding lives.
If there is a future for our planet at all, The Future of Work will be perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of that future. However, if you can’t feed your family or afford a place to live it’s impossible to take a long view. We need to acknowledge that workers need support services in a transitional age where periods of unemployment may be part of workers’ lives through no fault of their own.