The world is in the midst of a profound transformation in the nature of work, as smart machines and other new technologies remake how people do their jobs and pursue their careers. The pace of change will almost certainly accelerate, and the disruptions will grow larger. In the United States, where work is the basis for most of the income and benefits that make a secure life possible for Americans and their families, the transformation has been especially wrenching. Even with the reasonably strong job growth of recent years, the divide between those succeeding and those struggling is growing, regional disparities are increasing, economic inequality is rising, and public anger is deepening political divisions.
The challenge facing the United States today is to rebuild the links among work, opportunity, and economic security for all Americans in the face of accelerating technological change. Governments, businesses, educators, and other institutions need to do far more to help Americans adapt and thrive in the face of these disruptive forces. Failure to do so will increase the pressures for retrenchment that are already causing the United States to back away from global leadership. A United States that cannot provide better job and career options and greater economic security for its citizens will be less competitive and less of an example to the world. It will have fewer resources available for national security. Domestic struggles over the sharing of economic gains will further distract and divide the country, and make it less willing and less able to act effectively in the world.
As technology disrupts industry after industry, the United States needs better ways to help Americans access the many new opportunities technology is also creating, in particular by strengthening the link between education and employment prospects. The country needs stronger support for job creation, especially for better-paying jobs. It needs to make the skill demands of jobs much more transparent, so job seekers know the credentials required to move ahead on their own career paths. It needs to ensure that all Americans can gain the skills and knowledge that they—and the economy—depend on for success. And the United States needs to improve the benefits and returns from work for all Americans.
The United States has a proud history of economic leadership. It was the first country to offer public high school education to all its citizens and the first to open the door widely to postsecondary education. It became the manufacturing powerhouse of the world and led the writing of economic rules that helped spread the benefits of economic growth globally. It has continued to lead in the development of new and even wondrous technologies that have the potential to nurture smarter, healthier, and more enriching lives for people across the world. But to prosper and to lead, the United States needs to find new ways to meet the workforce challenges of the twenty-first century.
The seven major findings of the Task Force are:
- Accelerating technological change will alter or eliminate many human jobs. Although many new jobs will be created, the higher-paying ones will require greater levels of education and training. In the absence of mitigating policies, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are likely to exacerbate inequality and leave more Americans behind.
- Embracing technological innovation and speeding adoption are critical for U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. Openness to trade and immigration are also vital for maintaining U.S. technological leadership.
- Strong economic growth that leads to full employment has been the most consistently successful approach for raising the wages of Americans.
- The lack of accessible educational opportunities that are clearly and transparently linked to the changing demands of the job market is a significant obstacle to improving work outcomes for Americans.
- U.S. efforts to help displaced workers are inadequate. Unemployment insurance is too rigid and covers too few workers, and retraining programs are not based on the best global models.
- Too many jobs are going unfilled because of restrictions related to credentialing, mobility, and hiring practices. More could also be done to create new opportunities in higher-unemployment regions.
- Current workplace benefits—from sick leave to retirement plans—are too often available only to full-time employees, and are not adapted to the emerging world in which more workers are part-time, contract, or gig workers.
The Work Ahead offers recommendations for government, business, educators, and nongovernmental institutions. Moving forward will require creativity and courage by leaders in many fields—not business as usual. Many of the recommendations draw from smaller-scale initiatives already underway around the country. Some would be immediately beneficial, while others will require long-term commitments.
The seven major recommendations of the Task Force are:
- Governments should adopt an explicit goal of creating better jobs and career paths for Americans. Initiatives should aim especially at attracting investment and revitalizing entrepreneurship.
- The United States needs to remain a world leader in technology and innovation. This should be supported by increased public and private research and development (R&D), support for commercialization of new research, and an open door to highly skilled immigrants.
- Governments should implement policies aimed at maintaining strong growth and demand for labor. Employers should commit themselves to a “high-road workplace” that offers employees decent pay, training, scheduling, and benefits. Special measures are needed for communities struggling to attract investment and jobs.
- The United States should set and meet a goal of bringing postsecondary education within the reach of all Americans and linking education more closely to employment outcomes.
- Unemployment insurance should be overhauled to reflect the realities of the current economy, and mid-career retraining programs should adopt the best features of the European “flexicurity” models.
- Governments and employers should work to reduce barriers to labor mobility for Americans, including high housing costs, occupational licensing restrictions, and inflexible hiring practices.
- The United States should create portable systems of employment benefits tied to individual employees rather than to jobs themselves. Employers should also help fill the gap by expanding benefits for their part-time and contingent workers.
Finally, the Task Force recommends that the president and the nation’s governors create a national commission on the U.S. workforce to carry out research, share best practices, and conduct public outreach on workforce challenges. This should be the start of an urgent effort to put workforce issues at the center of the national agenda.
At the turn of the twentieth century, when the United States was unsettled by similarly rapid technological change, the high school movement produced a boost in educational attainment that was critical to U.S. economic success and to the country’s rise to global leadership. Success in the twenty-first century will require the same type of bottom-up, cross-generational effort, with Americans demanding that governors, local leaders, businesses, and educational institutions rise to meet these challenges. There should be vigorous competition among states to pioneer new models and lead by example. The federal government needs to encourage, support, share, and build on such efforts. With such a broad-based movement, the United States can build a more productive, inclusive, and resilient economy for all Americans—becoming once again a model for the world.
The most important challenge facing the United States—given the seismic forces of innovation, automation, and globalization that are changing the nature of work—is to create better pathways for all Americans to adapt and thrive. The country’s future as a stable, strong nation willing and able to devote the necessary resources and attention to meeting international challenges depends on rebuilding the links among work, opportunity, and economic security. U.S. success in the twentieth century was built on the foundation that hard work and commitment by its citizens would be rewarded with jobs that provided reasonable material comfort, prospects for advancement, and a secure retirement.
That promise—of a life in which work offers opportunity and a measure of financial security—has eroded for too many, undermining faith in American institutions and weakening support for strong U.S. global leadership.
It took nearly a decade after the start of the Great Recession in 2008 for the unemployment rate to fall to its prerecession level, the slowest recovery since the Great Depression. Even with the continuing, steady recovery, the percentage of Americans working has fallen significantly, and many are still working only part-time or are marginally attached to the labor force.1 Far too many of the jobs created over the past decade have been lower-wage and part-time positions, many without the health care, paid leave, and retirement benefits that have long been the hallmarks of stable and secure employment. The lingering effects of the recession varied hugely across the country as well, with coastal and technology-based cities mostly recovering quickly and much of the industrial Midwest and South lagging.2 The relationship among work, opportunity, and economic security has been undermined for too many Americans, contributing to a spreading discontent and disillusionment that is damaging the fabric of the country.
The United States today faces an enormous twin challenge: creating new work opportunities, better career paths, and higher incomes for its people, while developing a workforce that will ensure U.S. competitive success in a global economy that will continue to be reshaped by technology and trade. If the United States cannot find ways for its companies to succeed and for its workforce to share more fully in that success, the political pressures for retrenchment—including trade protection, immigration restrictions, and possibly even restraints on technology and automation—will grow.3 The result will be an economically weaker, less confident, more divided, and more vulnerable United States, one that will retreat from global leadership. The consequences of such retrenchment will be a more unstable and less prosperous world—undoing the enormous gains made over the past seventy-five years. A United States that does not offer paths to success for more of its own people will harm not only its own prospects, but those of other countries as well.
The links among work, opportunity, and economic security have been weakening steadily for decades, and more precipitously in the twenty-first century. Real wages for Americans in the middle of the income distribution are up a mere 3 percent since 1979, and those at the bottom have lost ground.4 Inequality has widened more sharply than in any other advanced economy, with the gains accruing especially to the wealthiest; the difference in earnings between Americans in the top 10 percent of the wage pyramid and those in the bottom 90 percent has more than quadrupled since the late 1970s.5 The effects are lasting from generation to generation. In 1970, more than 90 percent of thirty-year-olds earned more than their parents had at the same age; today that number is barely half.6 And the trends have worsened over time; some 80 percent of U.S. households saw their incomes fall or remain flat in the decade after 2005, even as costs of such necessities as education, housing, and health care rose.7
Why has the link between work and rewards weakened? There is no single cause, but three in particular stand out—the rapid pace of technological change, heightened global competition, and growing barriers to opportunity.
Technology has long been the great engine of American prosperity, and the United States today remains the most innovative economy in the world.8 Innovation and the spread of technology are the drivers of productivity growth and the foundation for rising living standards, but advances in computing and robotics have also made it increasingly possible for companies to replace human labor with machines. While many new opportunities will likely be created to replace those lost, American workers face big obstacles in acquiring the education and skills needed to prosper in a more automated work environment. While there are different predictions about the pace and scale of the coming technological disruption that will be brought by artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles, and other breakthroughs, there is widespread agreement that disruption will increase. As many as one-third of American workers may need to change occupations and acquire new skills by 2030 if automation adoption is rapid, according to an estimate by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI).9
Trade expansion has similarly brought many benefits to the U.S. economy, creating new markets, attracting foreign investment, and lowering the prices of consumer goods, from clothing to food to the latest generation of smartphones. And it has benefited the world. More people—both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of global population—were lifted up from extreme poverty over the last two decades than in any other period in human history, with the poorer countries closing the income gap with their wealthier counterparts.10 Most of the gains came in countries that opened themselves to global commerce. But trade has also placed American workers in competition with overseas workers earning much less, and has freed up U.S. companies to invest and expand on a global basis. That has diminished prospects for some Americans, especially with the disappearance of manufacturing jobs that once provided a path to the middle class for those with modest levels of education.11 The United States lost some six million manufacturing jobs in the 2000s before recovering slightly in recent years; the remaining twelve million manufacturing jobs today account for less than 10 percent of nonagricultural employment.12 Intense international competition is likely to continue due to the global nature of supply chains in so many industries.
As many as one-third of American workers may need to change occupations and acquire new skills by 2030 if automation adoption is rapid.
Growing barriers to opportunity have also increased the obstacles for those seeking work. Occupational licensing has exploded: in 1950 only one in twenty American workers needed an occupational license; today one in four does. And most of these licenses are issued by states and are not automatically recognized by other states.13 Restrictive zoning has prevented the expansion of housing in many of the large cities where job opportunities are growing fastest. Public subsidies for housing have shrunk, and lack of investment in transportation infrastructure makes it harder for employees to commute long distances so they can live in cheaper housing. High-speed broadband, the arteries of the modern information-services economy, is still unavailable in many parts of the country, cutting people off from many of the opportunities of the twenty-first-century economy. And new business start-ups have slowed, diminishing the number of young, fast-growing companies that were once engines of job growth.
Unfortunately, too many U.S. political and business leaders were late in recognizing and responding effectively to these growing challenges. Many state and local governments are experimenting—often in close cooperation with nonprofit groups and foundations—with creative responses in education, worker retraining, apprenticeships, and local economic development initiatives. But these efforts have not reached critical mass across the country. Some employers are finding ways to tackle their own workforce challenges, often in the absence of supportive government policies, but self-help is usually beyond the reach of smaller companies. Federal policy has failed to keep pace with a changing economy and is doing far too little to help Americans navigate the new challenges. An effective response will require concerted action by all levels of government, as well as action by companies, educational institutions, foundations, labor unions, and others.
Work is important not only for people’s economic success but also for its ability to provide purpose and meaning, self-respect and dignity; work builds communities and allows individuals to contribute to the larger well-being of society. Every American should have the opportunity and resources needed to prepare for and pursue work that offers them a fair chance at both economic security and meaningful contributions to society. The United States should dedicate itself urgently to rebuilding the links among work, opportunity, and economic security for Americans.