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Labor Day and the Future of Labor

As millions celebrated labor day this week, it is worth taking a step back to reflect on where the “labor movement” is today and what its future holds. What does that mean for us in the HR tech space and for cities affected by this seismic change of labor needs?

As millions of people across the U.S. celebrated labor day this week, it is worth taking a step back to reflect on where the “labor movement” is today and what its future holds. Before making any sweeping platitudes, let’s define the “labor movement” as the new class of people and businesses that came about in the wake of the industrial revolution. Needless to say, every facet of that movement is being reinvented today by advances in smart and capable computing.

Contextually, certain parts of the U.S. still find themselves in a bleak reality in the wake of the Great Recession, albeit 17 million folks have gotten jobs since the crisis. This surge in manufacturing reflects a better state of exports, doubling down on the notion that the global economy has taken a turn for the better.

“The future of work is now,” says Moshe Vardi. “The impact of technology on labor has become clearer and clearer by the day.” Such sentiments have been echoed time and time again, yet it still is remarkably difficult to visualize what such a future looks like, let alone where we (individual members of the workforce) fit in it.

“The impact of technology on labor has become clearer and clearer by the day.”

At the sake of sounding a bit reductionist (maybe it is good to be reductionist sometimes), the major underlying truth when it comes to the future of work is that there is no major underlying truth. Geographical differences, differences in demand/supply and skills (obviously) play a major role in defining where this “future” lands first, and to the dismay of most futurists, will probably do so a lot slower than expected.

In past years, by virtue of evolutionary adaptation, we used our brains, our big muscles, and our fingers to lead cognitively interesting, though stressful and short lives. As the modern labor force moved away from hunter-gatherer to data-hungry, the ability to add value using our backs to move heavy objects and our fingers to perform fine manipulations in cognitively-interesting ways has, relatively, declined. The very definition of value is as ambiguous as ever, linked to ever-changing variables.

A relatively recent study found that 47% of American workers held jobs at high risk of automation in the next decade or two. If this happens, technology must create roughly 100 million jobs. What does that mean for us in the HR tech space? How will existing HR departments (will they even exist in the next ten years?) cope with this massive surge in new demand?

Manufacturing jobs are concentrated in particular areas where employers keep local economies afloat. Over the last thirty years, the loss of 8 million manufacturing jobs has crippled major regions in the U.S. – both economically and culturally. A case-in-point is in the Rust Belt, where the decline in jobs started after World War II and where wages were higher than in the rest of the country even after controlling for many observables.

In a way, these cities most harshly affected by seismic economic changes present a gleaming opportunity, from a purely economic (read: greed) perspective (leaving social impact aside, although it certainly plays a role). Patrick Doyle, in his report about Pittsburgh, makes the case that Pittsburgh and other second-tier tech cities—including Raleigh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis—are places with strong university pipelines, affordable living costs, great quality of life, and collaborative tech ecosystems. His point that “the culture of Silicon Valley is really a bunch of twentysomethings solving twentysomethings’ problems” resonates like no other. Who better to focus on “real world problems” than those who have suffered from them? Given the right set of circumstances: capital, government support and talent—almost all of which could be engineered, cities are positioning themselves as meccas for the future.

“The culture of Silicon Valley is really a bunch of twentysomethings solving twentysomethings’ problems."

Most articles about this change focus around robots, and work at some point being optional (cool, no more work!).  The point that I (as well as Doyle) am trying to make is that the result will likely be more, not less work and angst. We'd still have to find our place among the robots, except this time without work as a guidepost for defining a sense of purpose, and cities currently going through economic disadvantages will become lighthouses for major problem-solving and job-creation. The future of labor is indeed bright, albeit vastly different from where we stand today. 

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