The concept of work looms large in the American imagination. Whether it was the workers who laid the first railroad tracks or took shifts at our first factories, workers transformed the American economy into the envy of the world. Work provides a paycheck, status and dignity. In the 21st century, technology and globalization have forever changed the workplace and the social contract. Unfortunately, the laws and traditions that help workers have not. Work is changing faster than ever. In the past, many workers joined a company and remained until retirement, taking advantage of employer-provided health care, pensions and insurance. This model is fading as firms move, restructure and even die as a result of global competition and technological change. Eastman Kodak was an American icon that brought magic into homes around the world with color slides and photographs. At its peak, Kodak employed almost 150,000 people. Five years ago, Eastman Kodak went bankrupt as new technology made the company obsolete.
Technological progress leads us to new economies and opportunities, but it often also leads to great economic and political disruption.
Technological progress leads us to new economies and opportunities, but it often also leads to great economic and political disruption. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and wage growth. The “gig economy” now offers new sources of income through companies like Task Rabbit, Uber and Airbnb, but without the traditional security companies like Kodak provided.
It is now essential that lawmakers modernize laws and regulations to seize the opportunities and anticipate and manage disruption. That’s why we established the Future of Work Task Force within the New Democrat Coalition. The New Democrat Coalition is a group of forward-thinking, pro-innovation Democrats in the House of Representatives working to fashion laws for the economy of the future. We have convened public panels with workforce experts, business and labor leaders. We have studied the growing literature on the future of work and talked with Americans experiencing workplace change.
We have identified four major trends affecting how Americans work. First, while automation and artificial intelligence increase productivity, they also lower some wages and eliminate certain jobs. Second, the accelerating pace of technological change requires workers to more frequently change occupations. Third, the rise of the “gig economy” puts more workers into jobs that lack traditional worker protections and benefits. Finally, the increasing complexity of modern business has slowed new business formation, dampening the engine that creates good middle class jobs.
The New Democrats are working on a 21st century system of worker benefits and protections. According to the Rockefeller Institute, the independent workforce could account for one-third to one-half of the total in 2020. As many workers change jobs more frequently, traditional employer-provided benefits and protections will not meet their needs. We believe workers should have access to benefits and protections that are portable and connected to them regardless of where they work.
As more industries rely on automation and new technology, the economy will depend on a workforce with a flexible set of skills.
As more industries rely on automation and new technology, the economy will depend on a workforce with a flexible set of skills. Historically, workers left school and relied on their employer for on-the-job training. Today, more workers need to be self-reliant in updating their skills to keep their jobs or compete for new ones. We must build and promote a culture of lifelong learning.
Growth and opportunity require robust new business creation. New businesses have created on average 1.5 million jobs a year over the last three decades. We must spur entrepreneurship and make it easier to start new businesses everywhere, not just in places like Palo Alto and Manhattan. We must work together to lower overly burdensome regulatory obstacles to innovation and entrepreneurship, limit the growth of “non-compete” clauses in employment contracts, and increase access to capital.
The 40-hour workweek, the establishment of a federal minimum wage, employee benefits, and the right to organize protected workers during the post-war economic boom and built the American middle class. These achievements created the foundations upon which our economy has established the promise of the American dream. But now we must find real solutions so future generations of Americans have the opportunity to compete in the economy of the future. Let’s work together to make sure that dream remains strong for ourselves and for our children.