Employment and Jobs

Catching Up to the Future of Work: State Commissions Address an Evolving Labor Force

October 7, 2021  • Camryn Banks

For the past decade, many conversations about the “future of work” have centered on advancing automation and equipping workers with digital skills. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, showed us that the future is here, and its challenges are far more expansive. Instead of being replaced by robots, we now see workers taking up platform-based work arrangements, and abandoning jobs with limited flexibility.

Widespread remote work has blurred boundaries between home and work. Inadequate benefits have forced workers to make concessions between their work and their health. In the midst of a pandemic, many Americans endure underpaid and unprotected jobs paired with a fractured social safety net. The “future of work” moniker has become outdated – the “future” has since arrived, and these changes are long overdue.

Recognizing the urgent need to take immediate and research-driven action, several states have established task forces or commissions aimed at building the blueprint for a brighter future. These efforts to examine the future of work, identify core challenges, and advance policy solutions to improve labor conditions hold promise to inform policy decisions moving forward.

These commissions face multiple intersecting challenges: the need for protection against declining job quality, the need for a safety net inclusive of the gig economy, and the urgency of advancing technology. Many workers today face stagnant wages, unpredictable scheduling, and barriers to unionization. The so-called gig economy offers some respite to scheduling challenges, but projects risks onto workers, misclassifying many and leaving them without a safety net otherwise provided by traditional employment. For gig work and traditional employment alike, technological advancements like automation, algorithmic decision making, and remote work present workers with both risks and opportunities.

Workers, advocacy groups, and nonprofit organizations have long voiced strategies to address these challenges. Protests, hashtags, and strikes have become increasingly visible as workers mobilize. State commissions build on these efforts. While each state’s group has developed an agenda and objectives distinct to its needs, these commissions all aim to address urgent challenges of economic recovery and to build sustainable systems that mediate future challenges for workers and businesses.

California’s Future of Work Commission, established by Governor Newsom’s executive order in August 2019, was the first to grapple with the challenges of the pandemic. The 21-member commission convened periodically over 18 months and produced an in-depth report summarizing their recommendations for improving California’s labor market, amplified by an event hosted by the Economic Opportunities Program in March 2021. The report provides five priority recommendations to reach by 2030. They are to 1) ensure there are jobs for everyone, 2) eliminate working poverty, 3) create a 21st-century worker benefits model and safety net, 4) raise the standard and share of quality jobs, and 5) prepare workers for transformations in climate and technology. These recommendations were unique in their focus on job quality and the social contract alongside the impacts of technology, reflecting the challenges people faced through the pandemic.

More recently, Massachusetts established a 17-member commission focused on understanding challenges facing the workforce as part of an economic recovery package. On June 29, 2021, Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser and House Representative Josh Cutler hosted the first of five hearings to identify and develop solutions for the evolving Massachusetts workforce. The first hearing’s presentations – including one from Future of Work Initiative Director Shelly Steward – discussed social mobility, universal workplace benefits, training for quality jobs, and access to technology. Steward regarded state-level commissions as a strong step toward achieving stability in arrangements, flexibility for a realistic work-life balance, and opportunities for career development via training and education.

Illinois was the most recent state to form a Future of Work Taskforce, which held its first committee meeting of 22 members last week. The task force is focused on restructuring worker protections, supporting economic development, sustainability, and jobs for the future. The first meeting included remarks from experts, a forum-style discussion for committee members to emphasize topics they hoped to address, and a panel of workers sharing their firsthand experiences.

These states follow others who established commissions prior to the pandemic. Indiana, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, and Washington hosted future of work, jobs, and economy task forces over the past five years to inform policy efforts. Future of work policy adaptations are not uniquely American, as the European Union has also fostered commissions dedicated to workforce quality improvement.

These bodies each produced research and recommendations with the potential to shape decisions. More recently formed commissions should consider tracking their influence on policy in order to ensure recommendations translate into change.

Many policy areas will shape the future of work, from unemployment insurance to guaranteed income to caregiving to remote work. As immediate solutions are introduced, it is also important to build understanding, foster leadership, and listen to those impacted by changes. Publicly appointed bodies, like Future of Work Commissions, allow leaders to undertake this important work and pave the way for a brighter recovery.


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The #futureofwork is here. State governments’ commissions and task forces are researching challenges facing workers today. Read more from @banks_camryn of @AspenFutureWork.

State commissions and task forces are working to mitigate declining #jobquality and inadequate benefits. See how they’re shaping the #futureofwork in this blog by @banks_camryn of @AspenFutureWork.

States are taking action to remedy a fractured economy, commissioning research-driven #FutureOfWork tasks forces to make policy recommendations on labor and tech. @banks_camryn of @AspenFutureWork explains.


Learn More

The Future of Work Initiative aims to identify, develop, and amplify 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. The Future of Work Initiative is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.