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Is There a Future for Work?

Nantiya Ruan

Technological advances and the global economy have redefined employment relationships. The workplace is constantly being reimagined along with the worker’s place in it. Of course, this is not the first wave of reformulation: Work has been transformed though the industrialization age of the 1800s, to the electrification times of the early 1900s, the computerization or digitalization era beginning in the 1970s, to the current “Industry 4.0” or “second machine age.” This is just the latest wave of advancement that requires reinvention of work and redefined working relationships.

But today, commentators and social scientists are warning that something unique and different is afoot. Information technology and automation permeate most industries, not just a few, giving rise to intelligent self-learning systems, cloud robotics, and deep learning algorithms. However, the unprecedented pace of growth of these technological advancements has resulted in a workforce that simply cannot keep up. A 2013 Oxford University study analyzed 702 occupations and concluded that forty-seven percent of all U.S. jobs are at a high risk of being displaced by technological advances in the next decade or two. Similarly, a 2015 McKinsey Report found that forty-five percent of work activity tasks are currently capable of being automated. An analysis of the revenues and profits of 100 of the largest publicly traded companies in the U.S. from 2001 to 2013 found that while revenues and profits rose considerably during that time period, employee head-count growth lagged far behind. MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call this the “Great Decoupling,” the current era of increasing economic abundance and concurrent deterioration of income and job prospects. This Article addresses the ramifications of this age of automation on the most vulnerable of workers, and while analysis of comprehensive solutions are beyond the scope of this Article, we suggest strategies that may save us from further erosion of productive work and provide a decent economic future for the poorest of workers.