The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 3, 2018

Four ideas to help America prepare for the future of work

August 3, 2018

Ten years ago, the concept of a professional video game player might’ve seemed far-fetched. But today, one league starts players with a $50,000 salary (plus benefits and a retirement plan).

The nature of work is changing—including even what we perceive as “work.”

Manufacturing employed one-third of American workers in 1960 and today employs slightly more than one-tenth. Meanwhile, the number of occupations in the information technology (IT) sector is expected to grow 13 percent over the next decade, faster than in any other sector. And disruptive forces like automation and the evolving relationship between workers and employers are adding new dimensions of change.

At a recent event hosted by Google, scholars responded to concepts published in Google’s report on the changing nature of work, Opportunity for Everyone. Google, which has provided funding to Urban to explore issues around the future of work, invited Urban Institute fellow Donald Marron to participate in the discussion.

The conversation revealed four ideas to help America prepare for and adapt to these changes.

1. Embrace technological advancement.

Rapid technological advancement can feel intimidating to many Americans, even though technology and the technology sector offer critical ways to help Americans adapt to change.

To tackle the challenges posed by change, “we need vision and disruption,” said Representative Jim Hines (D-CT). “And who does that? Technology companies.”

Kent Walker, Google’s vice president for global affairs, agreed. “We see the power of technology to help people build businesses and find jobs and heal divisions in our society today, a lot of which have their roots in economics and anxiety about the future,” he said.

As a response to our changing economy, Google recently launched a new job finder tool to connect job seekers with a surplus of open positions. Google also started an IT support training program that takes participants about eight months to complete and will soon be available at 45 community colleges.

2. Rethink the education system.

Our education system needs more flexibility to help Americans cope with shifting economic forces. Donald Marron noted that we’ve done it before. “When we shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, millions of young people left farms and moved into the cities,” he said. “Our education system adapted to help those people gain skills at a young age.”

“But now, desired skills are changing by the year,” he said. “We need to rethink education from age 18 up to age 70 so that people can gain new skills throughout their lives.”

Carrie Lukas of the International Women’s Forum said, “We have an antiquated notion of what school is supposed to be.” Lukas also argued that occupational licensing, which overlaps with the education system, “can operate as a regime to keep people out of the workforce.” Many job seekers already have the skills employers seek but simply lack a credential.

3. Don’t forget "soft skills."

Paul Winfree of the Heritage Foundation said he was particularly encouraged to see that Google’s report discussed the importance of “soft skills” like communication and leadership. “These skills are going to be important in the future, no matter what the economy looks like,” he said.

Winfree noted that Americans born into the bottom fifth of earners are more likely to remain in that group. The lack of mobility might be attributed to the challenges these Americans face in picking up the soft skills employers seek.

Winfree added, “There is a granularity in the skill divide, as it relates to what skills are explicitly deemed important by employers and what skills are simply picked up by proxy.”

4. Make solutions marketable and responsive to local needs.

As Representative Hines noted, a recent surge in American populism is the result of “people seeking easy solutions to complicated problems that they live with.” 

But the problems raised by the changing nature of work will require complex solutions, and we can’t arrive at these solutions unless most Americans believe in them. As Hines put it, “The solutions we are offering aren’t adequate in matter of time, scale, and political appeal.”

Cecilia Muñoz of New America agreed that the conversation surrounding the future of work is critical to finding and implementing practical solutions. “We don’t need to approach this conversation as ‘the robots are coming for our jobs,’” she said. “As change happens at the local level, people in communities should have a say in driving change.”

Muñoz added, “Conversations like this one should engage people who are most likely to be affected by change so that change isn’t viewed as something that ‘happens to’ groups of people but something in which people actively participate.”

Illustration by Alice Moi/Getty Images.

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