The Structure of Work

What do tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, former labor union leader Andy Stern, and investigative author Barbara Ehrenreich have in common? Now add in the Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Open Society foundations; Obamacare; Uber; and Rosie the Robot from the 1970s cartoon series The Jetsons, and what do you get? They’re all contributing to—or thinking and writing about—the future of work.

To confront these issues head on, simply try to get across a city. Your options will likely include walking, bike sharing, public transportation, a cab, a ride from an Uber or Lyft driver, or a ZipCar. The bike share, car share, and Uber options depend on connected networks of software, algorithmic sorting, cell phones, and new expressions of mediated trust. Even if you don’t choose one of those options, their availability has changed the nature of the other options, and your choice may well be dictated by what your map app tells you is quickest or cheapest.

Now, shift your mindset from user of any of those services to the workers who provide them and the nature of the work that gets done. Here’s the nub of the issue. Who is doing these jobs? What does employment or work look like for the people patching together an income from various “gigs?”4 How does a community full of “on-demand” workers differ from one where most people have steady jobs? How does the nature of support services—from childcare to health access to insurance—have to change? What are the ripple effects on families, and on other employers, when these networks of part-time services are everywhere?

Just below the surface of getting a ride across town are our two key givens: a social economy of options (the transportation choices that are provided by nonprofits, governments, or commercial purveyors) and digital connectivity. One reason the future of work is a hot topic right now is because these two forces, which were once out on the periphery, are now pervasive. They are no longer independent but conjoined, accelerating and intensifying each other.

Research on the future of work draws from many disparate sources. Some are focused on the advances in robotics and automation. Optimists say (again) we’re heading into an age when we won’t need to work to get by. Others say “hogwash”; automated work will continue to hollow out opportunities for everyone but the owners of the robots. 

Some scholars and activists are focused on inequality and championing increased wages for the lowest-paid workers. Others are considering the shifting relationship between working and being employed. A 2015 study in the U.S. found that 34 percent of workers identify as freelancers; this doesn't include all the people who piece together an income from multiple part-time jobs. Some observers estimate that about 43 percent of Americans working a 40-hour week do not have a full-time employer, up from 30 percent in 2006.9 10 The estimate globally is near 75 percent. In other words, almost half of us—with or without smartphone apps and the rhetoric of the “gig” economy—are working by the project or one-off opportunity whether we recognize it or not. 

A nation of freelancers is not new. Nineteenth-century agricultural workers and tradesmen were all “gig” workers. What is relatively new is the system of social supports we built in the 20th century—from social security to health insurance, taxes, childcare, and retirement funds—that took employment as the norm. As we return to an era in which more than half of full-time workers may be freelancing, the systems of social supports (as well as the definitions of employee) are going to have to change.

In the United States, the Affordable Care Act is changing the equation of where and how Americans get health insurance, a benefit that had been tying many people to companies. As secure full-time jobs remain hard to find, “gig” work is the “new normal” for everyone from drivers to doctors. 

Some of civil society has operated as a “gig economy” for a long time. In particular, artists and activists have often spent their entire lives weaving in and out of “regular jobs,” doing their work independently and as part of institutions. Steven Johnson captured some of this necessary mix of vocation and avocation, employed and self-employed, in his New York Times story, “The Creative Apocalypse that Wasn’t.” Johnson noted, “The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft.” Even if only a handful of the predictions being made about the future of work are accurate, many more of us, not just artists, are likely to need the skills of designing our own work lives as hybrid part-time workers and self-employed entrepreneurs rather than just taking full-time jobs defined by others.

But a transition like this—on a scale as grand as a third to three-quarters of all workers—is not just about individual skill. Systemic changes in the provision of health insurance, retirement planning, disability coverage, liability, and professional credentialing are also needed. The binary choice of “contractor” or “employee” is being challenged in courts. Policy innovators are calling for a third approach to thinking about jobs, workers, and benefits that fits our emerging reality and not our employment structures of yesterday. In seeking an alternative, we could learn from those who have gone first, the artists. A new foundation-funded effort called USArtPartners is examining the relationship between artists, their communities, and the supports available to these archetypal independent workers. The partnership is examining ways to bring together innovations in investments and sustainable community development to “enable sustainable creative lives.” As more and more people find themselves freelancing and going from gig to gig (like artists), we need to re-evaluate the legal and social systems on which we rely.

Some of the thinkers asking questions about the future of work are pushing further, questioning the future of capitalism. In his 2009 novel Makers, about a post-employment world shaped by open source software and ubiquitous networked 3-D printers, Cory Doctorow wrote, “Capitalism is eating itself.” Paul Mason’s book, Postcapitalism, sees signs of a fundamental transition being born of the economics of information technology, concerns about sustainability, Greece’s bankruptcy, and a global fiscal system that (he argues) has gotten more fragile, not less, since 2008.

Who knows if his predictions are right, but Mason’s arguments finger two key and contradictory realities of today’s economy: one major force (the information part) is about abundance, while the other force, sustainability, is about scarcity and resilience (on a planet stressed beyond its carrying capacity). This tension is real. Acknowledging the tension will help us move beyond the rhetorical battles between tech utopians and tech skeptics and toward the difficult policy choices we need to make about digital tools. Let me turn once again to an artist to make sense of this. As Margaret Atwood recently wrote, “It’s not climate change. It’s everything change."

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016.