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Designing a new social contract for the future of work

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Automation and globalization are coming for your jobs, and they’re going to get them. At least, that’s a popular perception about what the future holds for work.  

But what if we can, collectively, exert more influence over the shape and form our future work will take? A group of MIT Sloan experts will explain how to do just that in an online course, Shaping Work of the Future, that launches March 19. The class is free and open to the public.

“There’s no iron law of technology and no iron law of globalization,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan. “We can influence how these things play out and manage them better. But we’ve got to understand what the choices are, and we’ve got to get people really energized and taking actions to shape these forces.”

Kochan, who is also co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, launched a version of the class with colleagues several years ago, but has this year substantially revamped the curriculum to include a much greater focus on the role of technology in the future of work. 

Bringing her expertise to that effort is Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, who will co-teach the course for the first time. The updated course will focus on how technology is disrupting work and how we can adapt technology to augment, rather than replace, human work. The course, offered on the edX platform, was designed intentionally as an online offering to accommodate the global scope of the topic. 

“We need to get a message out to people around the world, young workers, but even more to experienced workers and leaders of business and government, that we can influence the future of work,” said Kochan. “We don’t see enough people understanding that they really can have an influence over these issues and have an impact.”

Kochan hails the social contract forged in the aftermath of World War II that included strong labor institutions, corporations that cared about being good community citizens rather than just maximizing shareholder profit, and a government that could effectively regulate firms and long-term employment relations to balance power.

But starting in the 1980s, Kochan said, the gates of global markets swung wide, labor unions saw their influence wane, and shareholders became more empowered to steer the corporations they invested in. 

“And you had the rise of newer industries, higher-tech industries, [where labor was] completely unorganized. You got a much more competitive process that didn’t carry forward the old institutional arrangements, and we haven’t figured out what to replace them with yet,” Kochan said.

The course focuses on that task — literally crafting a new social contract, Kochan said. “We can’t go back to the old one, because the world has changed. We’ve got to figure out a more balanced way of managing future economic, technological, and workforce trends,” he said. 

Course components will include:

  • Exploring how emerging technologies are changing work.
  • Addressing the causes of income inequality.
  • Training the next generation of managers to create good jobs while still building competitive companies.
  • Creating new avenues for workers to voice their opinions on improving work processes, ending on-the-job harassment, and using technology more effectively.
  • Rethinking the nature and form of labor organizations.
  • Modernizing employment and labor market policies to reflect a changing, more diverse workforce and an emerging “gig economy.”
  • Rebuilding economies by focusing less on retaining existing jobs and more on anticipating new ones.

At the end of the course, participants will vote on the features that should be included in a new social contract. 

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