At the beginning of this year, I shared my concern about the grave threat inequality poses to democratic values and institutions. Indeed, when individuals no longer feel they have equal access to opportunities, or the power to control their own future, hopelessness begins to set in. This hopelessness breeds discouragement and despair, disillusionment with government, and disconnection from the institutions that bring order and meaning to our lives.

Worst of all, hopelessness can undercut individual potential and collective possibility. And nowhere does it loom larger than in the so-called fourth industrial revolution, which threatens to rob many people of their livelihoods, their dignity, their security, and their ambitions.

But we do not need to be driven by hopelessness or fear. Yes, there are some daunting challenges on the horizon: Unprecedented technological change—including automation, artificial intelligence, and algorithmic decision-making—will impact workers around the world, and transform labor markets with a speed we can scarcely imagine now. We know that different places and demographic groups will not all be affected in the same ways. Technology is not the only factor, but the seemingly uncontrollable quality of it leaves us in a quandary, with a myriad of questions.

Addressing urgent questions

The questions on the so-called future of work are clear: How will technology affect jobs and the labor market? Which kinds of jobs will be replaced, what new jobs will be created, what is the quality of those jobs, and how will the relationship between employees and employers change? Which of these changes are around the corner, and which are years away? And how will we ensure that those who have been historically excluded—whether by race, gender, geography, or immigration status—are not further marginalized by these labor market shifts?

Too often, discussions about the future of work center on technology rather than on the people who will be affected by it. And they rarely acknowledge how the concentration of political and economic power shapes the way technology is developed and deployed. Instead, the entire discourse is led by champions of technology—management consultants, engineers, venture capitalists, and scientists—and tinged with inevitability, rather than being the product of thoughtful human decision-making, the consequences of which will affect countless lives.

These conversations are happening in the United States and across the globe, at truck stops and in breakrooms, in the headlines of publications, corporate boardrooms, and the hallways of political power, as so many of us try to understand our place in this future. But while lessons from history can serve as a guide, we remain unprepared to answer many of these questions, or to enter the uncharted territory ushered in by this era.

Inequality and the future of work

For us at the Ford Foundation, the question of work could not be more vital, or more tied to our larger fight against inequality. Addressing this issue is central to our mission, and essential to the stability and success of our democracy as well.

And so, while more and more workers, families, and policy-makers around the world are concerned about the future of work and workers, we at Ford remain focused on the underlying forces that are driving greater economic inequality. In the United States, for example, with stark and growing inequality, the very idea of the American dream is based on the opportunity to work and find a ramp onto the mobility escalator—to secure and steer your own life and the lives of your loved ones, to strive for more and hopefully succeed. And that dream is gravely threatened.

At the same time, it is clear that technology is not the only force or factor threatening the dignity and quality of work, or the security of workers. The US is an extreme case in point. Even during a time of tremendous corporate profits and unprecedented stock market success, we see the stubborn persistence of decades of wage stagnation. Furthermore, a number of factors make workers today more vulnerable and insecure: the continued weakening of workers’ collective bargaining power; lack of access to paid leave, the ever-widening racial and gender wealth gap, the dilution of corporate responsibility to workers increasingly distanced from the bosses they benefit, the belief in “shareholder primacy” above all, and the decline of public investments in public goods and services (infrastructure, public education, etc.).

Meanwhile, campaign finance laws expand the influence and voice of corporations and the wealthy, while labor is more productive and therefore profitable than ever—in part because of technology—but workers don’t feel they are getting their fair share of the rewards. Unsurprisingly, there is a growing feeling that the economic system is rigged. All these things have eroded the place and power of working people in American society, and contributed to a belief that shared prosperity is an increasingly remote possibility.

Focusing on workers

At the Ford Foundation, we believe the people closest to a problem should be at the center of the solution. In this case, that means workers should have a seat at the table where the discussions and decisions are happening. Too often, employees are effectively disenfranchised in the decisions that affect their lives, and disconnected from the executive suites where their livelihoods are determined. That is why we are supporting those helping to shape the future of work—and more to the point, the future of workers.

Despite today’s focus on technology, the debate about the future of work originated with workers. The original policy discussion was initiated by labor organizers in the 1980s, when concerns about technology’s impact on unions and the labor market first emerged. In 1983, the AFL-CIO’s Committee on the Evolution of Work even produced a report entitled, presciently, “The Future of Work.” Yet today, workers’ voices seem to be the most neglected and forgotten, their power the most under siege. And so first and foremost, we need to ensure that workers remain the focus of all future of work efforts.

We will continue to invest in essential institutions and individuals that are advocating for workers today, and creating policies and systems to ensure workers have power in the workplace and the global economy tomorrow—organizations that include the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, the National Employment Law Project, and many others. As much if not more than artificial intelligence or automation, these 21st century labor movements and the people they represent—the inheritors of a long tradition representing the dignity of working people—should be driving and informing the future of work.

Broadening the conversation

At the same time, we aim to support a wider range of stakeholders who can shape the future of work, and find ways to include the worker perspective in their discussions, too. Right now, although leaders in many different sectors of the economy are discussing this issue, both globally and more locally, they rarely engage with each other. These siloed conversations raise narrow sets of issues and one-dimensional solutions like the proposed universal basic income—in effect, a way to replace the income from work, on the premise that work will inevitably disappear—rather than adopting a more holistic view of what workers face.

Knowing these isolated conversations will be insufficient, we will support organizations that strive to change the prevailing narrative around the future of work, and seek to connect experts and elevate new ideas. In doing so, we aim to spark and strengthen platforms and processes that will give all stakeholders—especially workers—a voice in the public policies and business practices discussions that impact their lives. I will underline that investment practice is one very important element of that; investors can be part of moving business to the “high road” that is worker-friendly, as well as environment-friendly.

And as we support what I call the three I’s—institutions, individuals, and ideas—fighting for workers, we will invest in solutions that address these concerns, from strengthening public policy to encouraging corporate practices and business models that improve families’ economic security. Whether it’s the innovative work of the Labor Innovation for the Twenty-First Century Fund or the analyses of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, we hope to build on the policy successes of the last decade and explore new protections that reflect the varied forms of employment today—from gigs to subcontracting to more traditional salaried employment—and fill in the gaps in the larger system.

Of course, we recognize that labor markets—and the issues affecting them—are global and deeply interconnected, and so we are considering how we can help craft a more equitable future of work with our partners around the world. In many parts of the global South, precarity is the norm rather than the exception for workers, and what has been true for the vast and unregulated “informal sector” could threaten the promising middle-skill jobs—in manufacturing, medical diagnostics, coding, and other occupations—that emerging-market economies have created over the last generation.

Most importantly, we know that the resources of the Ford Foundation are very modest when compared to the scale of the problem, and partnership is the only way to forge lasting solutions. Indeed, to build the future we seek—full of dignity, opportunity, equality, security, and hope—we need business, labor, government, philanthropy, civil society, and academics around the world to join this effort.

The stakes are high

It’s not hard to imagine what might happen if we do nothing. In past industrial revolutions, vast new wealth was generated, but there was massive dislocation in the labor market. Many people lost their livelihoods. Countless families and communities were hurt and hollowed. But this time, the scale and pace of change are greater, as are people’s expectations of economic mobility. The implications are beyond anything we’ve experienced before. We can’t afford decades of dislocation, unemployment, and downward mobility or the political and social conflict that would ensue. Societies already plagued by inequality can’t bear such levels of upheaval and tumult.

Let us remember that it is “we the people” who ultimately determine the place and the impacts of technology in our society. As we press ahead into this new era, we look forward to funding leaders and organizations who are dedicated to protecting the dignity of work and ensuring that technology improves workers’ lives. Together, we can advance the cause of justice by ensuring it for workers—now, and into the future.

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