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The nature of work is changing dramatically in the U.S. and experts say this is just the beginning.

Economists estimate that anywhere from 14 to 80 million American jobs are at risk of displacement from automation. Meanwhile, employers are transitioning millions of jobs once held by full-time employees into independent contractor, on-call, and temp gigs that don’t offer the same benefits or protections.

I discussed these trends Saturday with a panel of experts at Crosscut Fest in Seattle. Representing the private sector was Caleb Weaver, public affairs manager at Uber. Manhattan Institute senior fellow Oren Cass and Seattle University economics professor Meenakshi Rishi brought an academic perspective. David Rolf, the union leader currently serving as President Emeritus of SEIU 775, represented organized labor.

The statistics on the changing nature of work may seem alarming but they don’t have to be, according to some leaders. At this year’s SXSW conference, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “we should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work … we should be excited by that, but the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die.”

It’s an idea echoed by Rolf. I asked the panelist what their utopian and dystopian visions for the future of work were and, like Ocasio-Cortez, he said one possibility creates prosperity through automation.

“Are we going to have the machines do all the work for us, create all the wealth that we can harvest and share? Then we can all spend our time writing poetry, playing music, and enjoying our favorite TV shows, our family, our communities, our churches, whatever we do,” he said. “It’s certainly one version of extreme utopia.”

Oren Cass (left) and David Rolf.

But Cass countered. “We know what happens when people don’t work or have to work and they don’t spend the time composing poetry,” he said.

“Work … turns out to be incredibly important to people’s identity, their self-esteem, their life satisfaction to family formation, to outcomes for their our kids to help their communities,” he added.

Although they didn’t agree on everything, the panelists did find some common ground on ways society can prepare for the coming tide of automation and other seismic shifts in the future of work. They said that each of the following institutions needs a radical makeover.

Education

When asked whether she could wave a magic wand and enact one education reform to prepare workers for the jobs of the future, Rishi answered: “universal basic education.” She said that the current American education system might promise to provide that but falls short.

Meenakshi Rishi.

“Our system for training, at a minimum training those who are not bound for jobs that require a college education, is broken beyond repair,” Rolf added.

“The policies we should be talking about, first and foremost, are an approach to education that doesn’t focus on college,” Cass added. “For people who want to go to college and succeed in college, college is great, but that is not most people. And for most people, we offer roughly nothing. Investing much more heavily on behalf of the individuals and their capacity to be workers and then conveying to the entrepreneurial community that there’s going to be an invested-in, capable workforce to build around is crucially important.”

Labor policy

Current labor regulations were designed for a workforce of full-time employees, leaving many of the contingent workers of today without crucial benefits like healthcare. Uber’s Weaver said those regulations are limiting for companies like his, which are powered by independent contractors.

“One of the struggles that we feel significantly in our space at Uber is a regulatory structure that was built 50, 70 years ago … so how do we think about creating a regulatory structure that actually tries to open that path to other ways of work that leverages new technology, leverages new opportunities, whether it’s something like remote work or platform work,” he said.

Caleb Weaver.

Rishi jumped in, stressing that U.S. immigration policy also needs an overhaul to prepare our economy for the future.

“What concerns me about the United States right now is we are not adding many more people to the workforce relative to our population,” she said. “There are people that are discouraged from the sidelines and there are people who are willing to work that are not being invited to become part of the labor force because of our asinine immigration policy.”

Organized labor

The third piece of the puzzle is organized labor, which several panelists stressed needs to be updated to meet 21st Century demands.

“We should talk about organized labor — and not the 1930s-style system that we have that is not working especially well at this point — but finding a new structure that is actually going to support workers, and provide an infrastructure to get them to more productive jobs,” Cass said.

Rolf noted that labor unions historically were responsible for creating good middle-class jobs.

“God didn’t make the automobile worker into a great factory job,” he said. “It was a lousy factory job. It was dangerous. It could be deadly. It was low paid. It lacked dignity and then humans intervened.”

But manufacturing no longer powers the American workforce, and so the organizations representing it must adapt, Rolf said.

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