A Closer Look

Future of work – How it sidelines worker voices

This blind spot that exists toward these vulnerable workers reflects in part the long-run erosion of worker power and the precipitous decline in the reach of unions, rising inequality, the fissuring of the workplace, and the impact of globalization and technology on the “hollowing out” of the job market. Many workers who hold jobs most susceptible to automation—such as food service, retail, and office support workers—lack union membership and a clear representative to speak on their behalf.

Moreover, the public narrative around the future of work is limited by a constricted mental model of who the worker even is. The lion’s share of media coverage focuses on a narrow demographic of white men in blue-collar manufacturing and transportation jobs. Yet this popular conception is at odds with data that shows “the vulnerable are the most vulnerable,” as my colleague Mark Muro points out. Low-wage workers, already struggling with economic precarity, face a disproportionate risk of displacement, as do Black and Latino or Hispanic workers. Women are rarely considered, despite their overrepresentation in many automation-affected occupations.

The result is a lopsided conversation and policy process, with many groups of vulnerable workers lacking a seat at the table.

Why worker voice matters

Because they’re excluded from these conversations and decisions, workers lack agency to shape the direction of technology in ways that can complement their work and allow them to share in its benefits. For instance, in the rollout of new information technology at Kaiser Permanente in the early 2000s, union engagement in decisionmaking secured job and wage protections, training guarantees, and provided a channel for workers to have a say in how the technology would be deployed and used. As a side benefit, this also resulted in improved clinic outcomes.

Policy effectiveness can also suffer from lack of worker engagement. Without better understanding those who are at greatest risk of disruption, well-intentioned innovators, policymakers, and thought leaders risk proposing solutions that are at odds with the challenges and realities workers face. Technology doesn’t happen in a vacuum—the context of workers’ lives and the many interconnected structural and systemic forces that shape their opportunities are critical to consider. Many of the workers most at risk of automation already shoulder the greatest burdens of instability and insecurity.

Without a larger appreciation for the precarious economic lives that workers navigate, policymakers’ expectations about the ease of workers’ job transitions and “upskilling” amount to little more than wishful thinking. Adequately preparing the most vulnerable workers for the future of work requires addressing the inequality, power imbalances, and market failures that hold them back from prosperity today.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Putting the worker in the future of work

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