No time like the present to tackle the future of work and income

Factory welding robots. Photo by: Jason Armstrong / CC BY-NC-ND

A growing number of individuals and organizations — from philanthropists to tech companies to think tanks to governments — are asking how emerging technologies will impact the global workforce. 

Artificial intelligence and greater automation will displace many employees and create opportunities for others, with new and different skills. But in the short term, automation is more likely to transform work rather than eliminate jobs, according to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute. That cushion offers the time and space for the public and private sectors to consider how to make this transition as inclusive as possible, Chor Pharn Lee of the Center for Strategic Futures in Singapore said at an event in San Francisco last week hosted by Next Era, an initiative of two Finnish think tanks.

Devex is following how leaders, companies and governments are considering adapting to this change. Here are a few recurring themes from those discussions.

A new social safety net

The United States’s entire safety net was built around traditional notions of employment, even as the nature of work has dramatically evolved, said Natalie Foster, an expert on the future of work.

Increasingly,  she explained, workers are self-employed, or accept contract work, with the gig economy offering them flexibility but not benefits.

One emerging workaround is portable benefits — a system of benefits and protections that move with workers, even if they are employed short term or for freelance work.

Uber has emerged as a first mover, with a plan to pay money into a guild that offers benefits and protections to drivers in New York. “That’s a model that’s exportable and exciting,” she said of Uber in New York.

State-by-state legislation could further expand this model by offering workers limited benefits without full employee rights, she said.

But portable benefits may not go far enough, for example, if Uber drivers are replaced by driverless cars. This demands not only a rethinking of the social safety net but perhaps a decoupling of work and income.

A basic income

Automation is leading to a resurgence of interest in universal basic income, a model of unconditional cash transfers that is being tested for the first time on a national level in Finland. On Thursday, news broke that San Francisco will launch a universal basic income project.

Technology has tended to consolidate wealth in fewer hands, said Sam Altman, the founder of startup incubator Y Combinator and co-chair of OpenAI, which aims to ensure that artificial intelligence is safe and benefits as many people as possible.

“Basic income is probably a good idea without a huge increase in automation,” he said last year at an event hosted by the White House, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the newly launched Stanford Poverty & Technology Lab. “But it is an absolutely necessary idea... in the face of increased automation.”

Altman is one of several leaders in the technology sector who have proposed UBI as a way to level the playing field.

But an obstacle is the current lack of data about UBI’s impact. That’s one reason Y Combinator is putting it to the test in Oakland, California, a city of considerable inequality. The company is currently funding a pilot in order to gather data for a larger and longer term study to learn how people would spend their time and money and what UBI would do for their well-being.

Altman is also part of a collaborative called the Economic Security Project, a two-year fund of $10 million that will provide grants to fund further studies on universal basic income. The project is co-chaired by Foster, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren. Founding signatories also include Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future; Vinod Khosla; and Michael Faye, GiveDirectly’s co-founder whose team is testing universal basic income in Kenya.

Advocates for UBI can also look beyond tests to existing models, such as the Permanent Dividend Fund in Alaska, which provides residents with dividends from oil extraction.

“That’s money that Alaskan residents didn’t work for,” Foster said. “And they also don’t see it as a handout,”

She posed a question to the group at the Next Era event: What if citizens of the world got dividends from technology?

“It’s like the game of Monopoly,” she said on a panel at Stanford. “You get $200 every time you pass go. And that’s because you need cash to play the game of Monopoly.”

Demos Helsinki Founder Roope Mokka addresses the group at the Next Era event on the future of work and income. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Skills training

The rise of automation could mean workers require a new type of education to learn the skills to compete.

“We cannot just leave it to the market,” said Lee at the Next Era event.

Coursera, an online education company, is one of the technology companies thinking about how to help. This week it launched a new initiative partnering with governments and nonprofit organizations to prepare communities for the jobs of the future.

“The challenge of the current and growing skills gap requires a scalable solution,” said Rebecca Taber, head of government partnerships at Coursera. The company’s 23 million learners are now divided nearly equally between the U.S., other developed countries, and emerging markets, she said.* “While this is certainly not a developing economy only issue, the urgency of it might be felt more greatly there.”

The seven launch partners are the U.S., Egypt, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Singapore. In Singapore, for example, citizens can use their SkillsFuture Credits to pay for or offset 600 courses on Coursera. The company will also work with the Civil Service College to provide data analytics and data science training.

Collaborative action

A range of new initiatives are emerging to facilitate cross-sector and cross-border collaboration on the future of work.

For example, last year, the World Economic Forum announced a new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco, with a mission to advance the global conversation on ways to ensure the transition to greater automation is inclusive.

Sean Kline, director of the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment, is putting together a research symposium to convene universal basic income experimenters, including Finland, Y Combinator, and GiveDirectly, to name a few.

And the Next Era workshop in San Francisco will be followed by workshops in the United Kingdom, Japan and Sweden.

“There are basically two propositions on the table,” said Elisabeth Mason, founding director of the Stanford Poverty & Technology Lab. “One is technology will open up bold new vistas for the entire universe and will help us rethink how we work and live in a positive way and the other is we’ll be taken over… possibly by our robot masters.”

The event she organized explored the opportunities and challenges that exist between the two extremes — just like conversations happening across Silicon Valley.

* Update, Jan. 27, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify that Coursera has 23 million learners.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.