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Is This the End of Jobs as We Know Them?

A robot
Scott Kuinversa demonstrates the capabilities of the Atlas robot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April 2013. © Anne Hermes/Getty

As technological advances continue to transform the global economy, many of us are anxious about how these changes could impact our lives and the lives of those around us. Some of us worry technology may make our jobs obsolete and lead to unemployment. Others are concerned about whether our children will be able to find work (and if they will ever truly leave the nest). For many, the “one job” career is long a thing of the past. One in three U.S. workers—53 million people—are now “contingent,” already contending with the changed structure of work, perhaps juggling multiple jobs and serving as temporary, “gig,” or self-employed workers.

This new labor landscape can lead to freedom and innovation; a clever person may not have to feel tethered to one job for the rest of her life. But it can also mean great anxiety and displacement, including the possible loss of large numbers of jobs. Doomsday projections exist, including a 2013 University of Oxford–affiliated study [PDF] that found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs were at risk of disappearing due to technology.

Other experts say that technology is but one factor among many affecting the labor market of the future, citing population and health, politics and power, and culture and values as other forces that influence work tremendously. We believe technology looms behind all these factors. Is it possible to embrace the promise of technology while making sure that it does not further exacerbate economic and social inequalities?

This is not just about robots taking over, an idea that has become a pop culture cliché. Deeper shifts in the structure of work, the types of work, and how workers relate to their employers all combine to make this one of the most profound times of economic transition in world history. As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner for economics, has noted, massive shifts in the economy historically have led to the displacement of many workers, as was the case, for example, during the Industrial Revolution. To leave the search for alternatives—other types of work or a robust safety net—to the whims of the market is to risk letting too many people fall through the cracks.

These shifts have their greatest impact on those who have historically faced the greatest challenges in accessing economic opportunity: communities of color, low-income and immigrant communities, women, youth, and the formerly incarcerated.

The Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs has initiated a two-year “learning inquiry”—scheduled to sunset in 2015—about emerging technologies and the future of work. We seek to understand the scope and scale of the challenges and opportunities that may exist. To do so, we have engaged a diverse group of academics, activists, economists, and corporate, governmental, labor, and technology leaders to address some of the biggest questions about the transformation of work and what work might look like in 30 years. They have explored a wide range of topics, from the ways the darlings of Silicon Valley like Uber can shake up entire sectors, to gender issues in cyberspace, to “fair work time scheduling,” in which corporations increasingly set schedules based on algorithms rather than human managers.

Through commissioned research, inspiring design formats, provocative conversations, and hands-on learning experiences (including with the futurist’s Mecca, the MIT Media Lab), we aim to raise questions about emerging technologies and the changing context of work, jobs, and income for the most vulnerable among us, and what we might do to help create positive, alternative possible futures.

We believe we can make a meaningful difference in how this transformation unfolds if we ask the right questions, infuse our thinking with new and better information, and get ahead on strategies for participation. We welcome your interest. What are your thoughts on the future of work, who “wins,” and who gets left behind?

More on the Future of Work Inquiry

Update (December 7, 2015): Additional files have been added to the More on the Future of Work Inquiry section. Maggie Corser, Patricia Jerido, and Laura Forlano contributed to this post.

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