Shaping the Work of the Future

The world of work is in a state of constant upheaval, with major change occurring both rapidly and as part of long-term trends. Advanced technologies in robotics and artificial intelligence may spur a new age of productivity, but it is important to understand how these emerging technologies will shape the work of the future and how prosperity can be more equally shared at all levels of society.

In 2018, MIT President L. Rafael Reif convened the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, with the goal of “understanding the relationships between emerging technologies and work, and to explore strategies to enable a future of shared prosperity.” Led by Elisabeth B. Reynolds, PhD ’10, David A. Mindell, PhD ’96, and David Autor, the task force is an Institute-wide initiative and features members of the MIT Sloan faculty, including Tavneet Suri (Louis E. Seley Professor of Applied Economics; Associate Professor, Applied Economics), Yasheng Huang (Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management; Professor, Global Economics and Management), Thomas Kochan (George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management; Professor, Work and Organization Studies; Co-Director, MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research), and Paul Osterman, PhD ’76 (Nanyang Technological University [NTU] Professor of Human Resources and Management; Co-Director, MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research). In the fall of 2019, the task force produced its interim report, The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions. As research continues, the task force released a series of briefings this summer, and will publish a final report in November 2020.

The interim report portrays a vivid, evidence-based picture of the evolution of work that finds ample reason for concern. The report also offers an equal dose of optimism—provided policymakers, businesses, and workers are all part of the solution.

The Challenge: Multiple Facets of Inequality

Earnings growth over the past 40 years has been unequal and slow. Incomes for those with college and post-college degrees have risen, while all others have fallen. In 2018, men without college degrees working full-time earned 10 to 20 percent less per week than they did in 1980.

Labor productivity did jump 75 percent between 1973 and 2016, but this didn’t necessarily translate to worker compensation, which rose 12 percent for those with more education. Less-educated workers were deemed “easier to replace with machinery,” though minorities were hit even harder. Between 1980 and 2015, the gap between Black and white workers’ earnings—27 percent in 1980—closed by less than 1 percent.

Here are four main takeaways from the task force’s report, which provides significant recommendations for shaping the work of the future in a manner that benefits all of society.

Make Better Use of Work-Based Learning Programs

A host of alternative educational paths can enable the inclusion of a broader swath of workers in economic prosperity. Skill development that relies on work-based learning programs, such as co-ops and apprenticeships, has proved successful in Germany and Switzerland, and can also work in the United States. In addition, “sectorial employment programs” can provide on-the-job training without requiring formal apprenticeship positions.     

Treat Workers as Stakeholders

The type of shareholder capitalism championed by the United States is highly productive, but its dynamism comes at the expense of employees. This aspect of the American market economy is long overdue for a thorough review. Though no perfect model exists, Germany and other nations offer plenty of alternative examples. Ultimately, two possibilities for change are clear. First, firms should treat their workers as stakeholders, so that all decisions regarding layoffs and closings fully account for the real costs of such actions. Second, the U.S. government should revisit the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and other statutes that impose unnecessary restrictions on worker representation.

Avoid “So-So” Technologies

Some technologies that replace workers don’t actually boost productivity or improve the customer experience. As a result, workers may be forced out of jobs by technologies that actually make the customer experience worse. Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, PhD ’16, identify self-checkout kiosks deployed at retail stores and computerized telephone agents used by airlines and hotels as prime examples of these “so-so” technologies. The path toward making the work of the future profitable for businesses and rewarding for customers requires adapting new technologies to improve processes.

Foster Innovations That Complement Workers

Businesses have an opportunity to introduce innovative technologies capable of freeing employees from menial tasks so they can focus on higher-value work. For example, if robots stock retail shelves, sales associates can spend more of their time advising customers on what products to buy. Although automated customer service bots are here to stay, companies can work to make them a little more human while also ensuring that real people have higher-paying jobs. New technologies should complement workers rather than replace them.