Today, the Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force released The Work Ahead, a report on the American workforce in the 21st century. It does not make for comforting reading. The Work Ahead portrays a country where automation and other technological advances have rendered the economy unrecognizable—employment is no longer linked to economic security, the labor market is brutally divided between a prosperous tech-savvy elite and the struggling tech-illiterate, and the educational system is ill-equipped to prepare workers to succeed. And yet The Work Ahead does not blame technology per se, but a government and society that have consistently failed to adjust to economic reality—leaving workers to navigate a rapidly changing world without sufficient support or guidance.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As the report points out, the US has traditionally led the world in its efforts to educate and employ its citizens—whether that’s universal public education, broader access to college, defining the manufacturing economy, or launching the modern tech industry. Now it will take a similar effort to adapt to age of automation—among other efforts, the Task Force recommends reforming postsecondary education to promote lifelong learning and job training, reducing barriers to mobility (like needless licensing requirements), and strengthening the safety net to support workers as they transition between careers. WIRED Site Director Jason Tanz caught up with Penny Pritzker, former commerce secretary and co-chair of the council’s nonpartisan task force, to discuss the findings.
Jason Tanz: We write a lot about the future of work at WIRED, where we tend to think of it as a technology issue or an economic issue. We don’t think of it as much as a national security issue. Why does the Council of Foreign Relations consider this part of its purview?
Penny Pritzker: Because without a strong economic base you can’t have a strong national security base. You hear that all the time, not just from someone [like me] who is a former secretary of commerce but from our military and national security leaders. And this is an issue that requires generational change and a change in our culture—to embrace the fact that automation and artificial intelligence and globalization and pervasive use of robots are affecting the very nature of work. We’ve got to help more Americans be able to adapt and adjust and thrive given this massive change that we’re facing.
JT: You talk about the broken link between work, opportunity, and economic security. How did that happen and what role did technology play in it?
PP: This is a challenge facing our government at the federal, state and local levels, business leaders, and educational institutions. We need to come together and change our approach and relink education, work and opportunity. And we also need to acknowledge that we no longer have a system where you go to school and go to work for a career. That’s not going to be the norm any more. You’re going to have to be a lifelong learner because we have such great evolution occurring in technology and we’re all going to have to keep up-skilling ourselves.
JT: Does that imply that in the future everyone will be a technology worker?
PP: In some form or fashion. Look, every one of us is a tech user if you have a mobile phone. And our country needs to remain a global leader in technology. We need to continue to invest in R&D. We’re not walking away from the reality of the rise of automation or AI. We need to prepare the American worker and American youth and mid-career person to be more able to adjust and adapt as this technology changes.
And it’s a continual evolution, which means we need a different mindset. We have to accept the fact that people may change jobs 10 to 15 times over their lifetime. This is the new reality. If we don’t adapt to the new reality, not only are we going to undermine our economic security but national security will be called into question.
And the other challenge is it’s creating a divide between those who are succeeding in adapting and those who are struggling. That’s creating regional disparity, greater economic inequality, and greater frustration. There’s real angst out there. The Pew Research Center found three-fourths of Americans are worried about a world in which computers and robots do more of the work. They fear for their own prospects but also for their family’s future. We owe the American people better information. We have got to be more transparent about the skills that are required for jobs. Employers have got to be clear about what they need from their workforce. We can use technology to provide better information, so that the kinds of skills and experiences someone needs in order to have a firm grasp on economic opportunity are readily knowable by everyone.
JT: A lot of people have blamed social media or racism for the rise in anti-immigration or anti-globalism sentiment in the US. But your report suggests that economic anxieties and fears about the future may be the root cause of a lot of it.
PP: I’m not going to point the finger at one thing. But I think this is the economic issue of our time, and it is contributing to the angst and anger and frustration. Are we doing everything we can to address this issue of automation, artificial intelligence, and changing technology? I would say the answer is no. That’s why we lay out in this report some things we can do: More support for displaced workers, modernizing our benefits so they are centered around individuals as opposed to jobs, maximizing the earned income tax credit.
We also need more transparency for parents trying to advise their children. I saw this as secretary of commerce. We had something called manufacturing day where thousands of manufacturers opened up their facilities to hundreds of thousands of young people around the country and families showed up—not just the kids. And the parents said, Help me help my child understand how they can be successful workers. What do I need to make sure that they’re being exposed to?
JT: Some people, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, think that the link between work and economic well-being is irreparably broken, and that we need to look at something like Universal Basic Income. Did you explore that at all?
PP: We did and we rejected it as a solution. An important part of wellbeing, among many factors, is also having work and purpose and being a contributing member of society. We’re not pessimistic about the fact there will be jobs. We’re optimistic there will be many new jobs. And there’s dignity in a job.
JT: This is a big shift—what you call a generational change. Are there mid-career workers that have been in an industry their entire lives that don’t want to enter a new career, don’t want to be retrained, don’t want to become technology workers? How do you change those attitudes? Are people wrong for being anxious?
PP: I don’t think the anxiety is that they don’t want to become a technology worker. I think it’s that they don’t know how to become a technology worker. I’ll give you an example: Eduardo Flores from the south side of Chicago. He was a logistics manager for 27 years in a very large warehouse. He lost his job to automation. Here’s a gentleman who was over 50 and had not interviewed for a job for decades because he was good at his job. At a job fair he meets an organization called Skills for Chicagoland’s Future that I helped found that helped coach him to gain confidence to go on an interview and explain the skills he had in current parlance. And today Eduardo has a new job, he’s at Freedman Seeding, he’s a production supervisor, and he has a pay increase.
Workers like that need retraining, but they also need our social safety net to help them bridge as they learn new skills. Most people find themselves without guidance and don’t know where to turn. They’re without a paycheck and unable to support their families. They feel all that insecurity. And they wonder what happened, because they were playing by the rules. We believe that in our local communities, at the state and local level, we need to have much clearer prospects for mid-career workers to transition themselves.
JT: One last question: What’s the responsibility of the tech industry to address this problem and what are specific actions it can take?
PP: They’re not the only player, so I don’t want to put this all at the feet of the technology companies. But what they can do, for example, is participate in training and retraining, creating cultures for folks who are not knowledgeable in the latest and greatest technology. That’s one. Two, they could better understand the skills of mid-career workers and managers. Many tech companies put teams together to address various new technologies, how to both create the technology and bring it to market. There are many people who may not be technologists who can be part of those teams—with leadership skills, management skills, etc. And third is data sharing. Technology companies are really phenomenal at bringing together and analyzing data. And one of the things we’re calling for is more transparency around data. For example we need better data around credentials—what credentials represent which skills. We need better data about career paths and what should a young person learn or get to know, or what should midcareer person be learning or get to know so they can improve their prospects. So there’s a lot that can be done within the technology community, and there’s room for many diverse voices both inside and outside Silicon Valley to provide both solutions and opportunities.