Around the Institute

A New Chapter for the Future of Work

February 18, 2021  • Shelly Steward

The future of work is not a distant point decades from now we must try to predict. Instead, what work looks like tomorrow depends on how we address historical injustices that shape opportunities today. Recognizing the importance of confronting the past in order to build a better future, the Future of Work Initiative is proud to become a part of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program and eager to continue and expand our work to help chart a different course and build a more inclusive economy.

The year ahead presents staggering challenges. We are approaching a year of persistent and unprecedented unemployment concentrated among women and workers of color. A weak and fractured system of workplace benefits and protections has left millions of workers who were able to keep their jobs without basic safety precautions or paid sick leave. And the flexibility of remote work has been concentrated among high earning and disproportionately white workers, while new tools of digital surveillance have been increasingly applied to already marginalized groups. These entwined challenges demand comprehensive solutions that the Future of Work Initiative and our Economic Opportunities Program colleagues are well positioned to advance collaboratively. Since its formation in 2015, the Future of Work Initiative has examined technological change, nonstandard work, and responsible capitalism, focusing on state and federal policy levers. For more than 25 years, the Economic Opportunities Program has advanced an inclusive vision of economic justice, promoting job quality, effective, equitable worker education and training, and opportunities for self-employment and business ownership. Together, we look forward to identifying, developing, and amplifying solutions that address the challenges of today while building toward a future in which workers are safe, empowered, and equipped to thrive in our changing world.

Though technology continues to transform work, what matters most is not the specific tools that are introduced, but the ways in which risks and opportunities they provide are concentrated. Moving forward, our work will be centered on pivotal questions faced by workers, employers, policymakers, and communities.

  • First, how can we comprehensively reimagine workplace protections and benefits? Our system of benefits and protections is riddled with exclusions that disproportionately fall on workers of color, rooted in deep occupational segregation and worsened by the rise of the gig economy.
  • Second, as new technologies are introduced into workplaces, how can we harness the positive potential of emerging technologies while mediating the possible negative impacts? New tools have the potential to improve productivity, unleash creativity, and empower workers, but also bring risks of exacerbated inequalities, widespread displacement, and heightened surveillance.
  • Finally, how can we leverage knowledge of a changing occupational landscape to inform worker education and training? We must equip workers with skills and knowledge they can apply immediately along with the adaptability to learn throughout their careers. At the same time, we need to ensure that all jobs provide fair conditions and opportunities for growth over a career.

For each of these, the Future of Work Initiative seeks to build and disseminate knowledge rooted in workers’ experiences. We aim to identify, develop, and advance policy ideas at the local, state, and federal level, backed by evidence. And we strive to build community and activate leaders to carry these conversations forward across sectors and around the globe. In addition to our public-facing work, we will look inward to reflect how our team can strive to embody the principles we are working toward.

The year ahead will be a challenging one, and a crucially important one. As an Initiative, we approach it with gravity, resolve, and optimism. Working with colleagues across the Aspen Institute, we seek to listen to and be guided by those most impacted by our labor market’s current failings as we help pave the way for an equitable future for generations to come. We are eager to embark on this next chapter of our work and invite you to follow along.

You may subscribe to the Economic Opportunities Program newsletter, which includes updates from the Future of Work Initiative, here. Please follow us on Twitter @AspenFutureWork.