The future of work is having a midlife crisis

Policymakers should ask more questions and focus less on their favourite answers

This article was written by Jeffrey Brown, Head of Technology Policy at the Bertelsmann Foundation and Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder of The GovLab. It was originally published on Apolitical on March 16, 2020.


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Workers around the world are starting to realise the myriad ways in which technology will disrupt their working lives over the coming decade.

The arrival of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation, and cobots are leading wage earners everywhere to ask: will this thing do my job by 2030?

This seemingly simple question is often asked tongue in cheek, but it belies a complex and mounting anxiety among workers that has catapulted the “future of work” into prime time ⁠— and the public’s consciousness.

The future of work is having a midlife crisis

Seven years after the release of Frey and Osbourne’s bombshell study proclaiming that 47% of tasks in the U.S. could be automated by 2033, global commissions, presidential candidates, organised labour, and CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies have all taken up the mantle of future of work policymaking.

But just as the need for actionable policies draws nearer, the future of work is failing to live up to its hype. Instead, the amorphous concept has devolved into a Pandora’s box of wandering definitions, confused framing, and contradictory statistics.

For example, take the wildly varying estimates of the number of jobs that will be lost—or gained—due to technology in a given year. These narrow, one-dimensional statistics are often cherry picked and used as incontrovertible evidence for a singular and all-encompassing policy response that “solves” the future of work as if it were an algebraic equation scrawled on a chalkboard.

Poor framing and definitions have needlessly damaged the quality of public policy generated around the future of work. How did we get to this point?

But, much like climate change, the future of work defies simple solutions. To date, future of work analysis and solutions have fanned uncertainty rather than providing a sustainable path forward. To be clear: We do not need a reframing of what the future of work is and isn’t. Rather, we need to acknowledge that the future of work has outgrown its rebellious, anything-goes ideas phase and is now facing a midlife crisis in which it must buckle down and appeal to a higher purpose.

In our view, the higher purpose should break from the past to ensure that policymakers are armed with the tools, questions, and frameworks to develop sustainable future of work policy that enables everyone to reap reward from new technologies.

Zooming out

But first, a reckoning is needed in which the field’s shortcomings are assessed. Consider, for instance, the current framing of the future of work debate, which is delivered through a steady drip of studies analysing the experiences (and anxieties) of different groups. Various studies find that women and workers of colour are more likely to be affected by automation, while others highlight the plight of white men or white-collar workers employed in financial and legal services.

While such analysis has done a great deal to highlight specific future of work challenges facing subsets of society, the reality is that technology and automation will affect everyone. Percentage estimates for groups of workers likely to be impacted will do little to advance sustainable policy that works for everyone. Rather, policymakers should instead focus on asking better questions and define who they are creating policy for in the first place.

Our broader goal is to develop a new science of questions—one that could widen the conversation about which issues really matter, and that could help organisations harness the potential of the data age in making decisions about how to allocate finite funding, time, and other resources

Poor framing and definitions have needlessly damaged the quality of public policy generated around the future of work. How did we get to this point? Taking stock, it is clear that we jumped to solutions (such as Universal Basic Income) without first taking a breath to ask if we are asking the right questions. We need a better way of identifying the issues that matter — both when it comes to the future of work, and more generally.

Valuing questions over answers

As any fourth-grade teacher would tell you, there is no such thing as a bad question. But in order for the future of work to emerge from its midlife crisis, we need a break from the cycle of prioritising moonshot solutions over all else. And it is up to policymakers to seek out and ask the right questions.

That is why The GovLab and the Bertelsmann Foundation are partnering to launch the future of work domain of the 100 Questions Initiative, in which we crowdsource the most critical questions for policymakers to address as they relate to the future of work. Our broader goal is to develop a new science of questions—one that could widen the conversation about which issues really matter, and that could help organisations harness the potential of the data age in making decisions about how to allocate finite funding, time, and other resources.

Framing questions in recognition of this fact can allow us to develop policies that consider the interests of everyone. The resentment many citizens express towards government today will not be solved overnight nor are there any easy solutions to it. By defining questions well, though, we can unlock the potential of data and data science to begin addressing some of these concerns. We can — question by question — provide the public with answers that matter. If we continue at the current pace, at the very least, policymakers risk wasting precious resources to “solve” poorly defined problems that stem from the wrong questions. At the very worst, they risk compacting public policy liabilities that will be left for future generations to sort out.

If the 2010s were the decade of lofty buzzwords mixed with optimistic futurism, the 2020s should be the decade in which methodological rigour and data take over to guide the development of sustainable future of work policy. It is only by zooming out to ask the right questions that we can truly “solve”’ the future of work’s midlife crisis. — Jeffrey Brown and Stefaan Verhulst

Engage with us on the 100 Questions Project