The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 3, 2016

What we need to understand about the future of work

June 3, 2016

The Urban Institute is collaborating with the Stanford Center on Longevity on the challenges and opportunities for living well while living longer. Motivated by the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Sightlines Report, Urban scholars are exploring issues and policy initiatives across the age span, from millennials to baby boomers.  This post is part of a series culminating in ourJune 14 event, Rethinking the Future:  the Opportunities of Longevity.

Changes in technology, markets, and worker behavior are affecting how, when, and where people work. Understanding these changes is crucial to sound public policy.  

The traditional relationship between employer and employee is shifting. Compared with their predecessors, today’s younger workers appear to be less interested in tying themselves to a single employer, more focused on work-life balance, and seeking more from their work than financial reward. Alternative work arrangements, which include employing temporary workers, contract workers, and independent contractors, have increased over the past decade. And the evolution of the gig economy has provided many workers with greater flexibility and a way to supplement regular earnings.

New relationships between employees and employers necessitate rethinking the connection between work and longevity. Employment has long been a major source of publicly subsidized insurance that protects workers and their families against the risk of needing support because of unemployment, disability, injury, illness, or retirement.  Weaker ties between employers and employees undermine these protections, potentially threatening workers’ capacities to lead long and healthy lives. 

Effective public policy requires asking the right questions about how the workplace is changing, the challenges these changes may create, and how businesses and governments can best respond.

Who are the people involved in the gig economy? How do those employees and employers manage the work environment, and what are the effects on income, health, retirement, and the economy?

To better understand the future of work, we need to carefully catalog which industries and occupations are changing and are likely to change in the future. Is change largely occurring in technology firms? Companies in the sharing economy? Self-employed individuals working in the gig economy? What kinds of jobs do these workers do? How much do they earn? Are they pairing gigs with full-time work? Do gigs help or hurt financial security? Are workers paying income and Social Security taxes, and how are they saving for retirement? How well do they manage other needs and risks, such as child care, medical expenses, and unemployment?

How should social policies adapt to workplace changes to support future workers?

Changes in the nature of work potentially alter workers’ access to benefits, like workers’ compensation, unemployment, health insurance, family and medical leave, child care, and pensions. They may also create new demands for transportation or lifelong learning. To meet employees’ needs, employer practices and public policies may have to adapt. To what extent are employers adopting policies to accommodate changes in work?  Are employers altering access to benefit packages, such as pensions and health insurance, as people work remotely, for multiple employers, or move from one job to another? Are they offering new policies to accommodate different work practices? What policies and practices are local, state, and federal governments adopting to meet workers’ immediate and long-term needs? What public policy strategies can best support healthy work lives and longevity?  

Does the current educational system prepare young people for a successful work life?

If the nature of work is changing, workers’ success requires changes in education and training. Computer skills, communication skills, social skills, and flexible thinking are more important than ever before. Is the current education system providing young people with the skills needed to be successful in the modern economy? How should we define “career readiness,” and how can we measure it? How best can career preparation be integrated with the educational system? What is the role of technology in that process?

What is the role of older workers in this new economy?

Changes in the economy affect the well-being of older as well as younger workers. Especially as the number of older workers swells, we need to better understand older adults’ role in the future workplace and the impact of new-economy jobs on their retirement security. Do older adults have the necessary skills and experience to be employable in the new economy? Do new-economy jobs offer older workers more flexibility (e.g., part-time work, partial retirement) than traditional jobs? Can they lengthen older workers’ working lives? Will employers in the new economy hire older workers? Is there more age discrimination with these jobs than with traditional jobs? Will the wages and benefits of new-economy jobs encourage more work at older ages than many traditional jobs? And will the pensions and health insurance provided by new-economy jobs better support retirement than many traditional jobs?

As the economy evolves and more workers are engaged in the gig economy, we need to better understand how they work, what they earn, and how the public and private sectors will provide them with the benefits and services they may need. A productive, sustainable economy is built on the labor of people who are productive and healthy, so to help support that future economy, we need to better understand what the future of work will look like.

Community Manager Kim Lyle (from left), Curriculum Strategist Floyd Miller, and Certified Financial Planner Erik Almon, work behind the counter in the lobby of the Society of Grownups, a financial education company, that uses a coffee shop and dinner club atmosphere to help attract  Millennials. Photo by Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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