Around the Institute

2019: Year in Review

December 31, 2019  • Future of Work Initiative

As the year and decade come to a close, we are thankful for the support and interest we have received in examining how work is changing and what can be done to help workers and businesses meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Throughout the year, we have focused on policy solutions to improve economic security for both traditional and non-traditional workers, to expand  access and investment in effective education and training programs in response to increased automation, and to reduce pressures on businesses to focus on short-term profits over long-term value creation. We have highlighted how the economy is changing through events and collaborations with a wide range of partners, including the Autodesk Foundation, Cognizant U.S. Foundation, MIT Work of the Future, General Assembly, and X, the Moonshot Factory.

Below are some of our most notable accomplishments of the past year. We look forward to continuing to work on these important issues in the coming year.

Happy Holidays,

The Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative Team


Non-Traditional Work & Portable Benefits

Today, millions of workers lack benefits that are essential to financial security. Developing portable benefit models promise to help address this problem, improve the lives of workers, and strengthen the American economy. This year, the Initiative released an updated resource guide, Designing Portable Benefits: A Resource Guide for Policymakers, which examines key questions for policymakers to consider when designing a portable benefits model.

This year, several states introduced and passed legislation to extend eligibility for benefits and protections to non-traditional workers. For example, Washington State launched a paid family and medical leave program, which will allow workers to take up to 12 weeks, as needed, when they welcome a new child into their family, experience a serious illness or injury, need to take care of an ill or ailing relative, and for certain military connected events. Notably, self-employed individuals, including independent contractors, sole proprietors, partners and joint ventures, may opt in to the program to receive access to this critical benefit. Experimentation with different models of achieving universality and portability is ongoing, as policymakers around the nation consider how best to design new workplace benefits—whether designing paid leave programs, or developing more comprehensive portable benefit systems. In addition, California passed significant legislation that redefines how workers across the state are classified. The Initiative published a blog post that provides some background on worker classification in the U.S., explains what California’s new law does and does not do, and highlights some areas for continued policy innovation to ensure work provides dignity and security in the 21st century.

There was also significant activity at the local level. In Philadelphia, the city passed a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights to grant paid time off as a portable benefit to 16,000 domestic workers. Building on the passage of similar legislation at the state and city level, the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act was also introduced at the federal level. This bill addresses all five areas of need for non-traditional workers we identified in our paper Designing Portable Benefits: A Resource Guide for Policymakers: (1) fair pay, (2) workplace benefits that map to the reality of their work arrangement(s), (3) workplace protections, (4) a way to advocate for better working conditions, and (5) attention to worker classification issues.

To learn more about the millions of non-traditional workers, visit our Gig Economy Data Hub. The Data Hub serves as a resource to answer critical questions about the state of independent and gig work in the United States.

Automation & Training

Emerging technologies—including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced robotics—have the potential to automate many tasks currently performed by workers, leading to renewed questions over what the future holds for the American workforce. To address questions around both the opportunities and challenges of automation, the Initiative published a two-part publication: Automation and a Changing Economy. Part I, The Case for Action, explores how automation has impacted work, and its ability to provide economic security and opportunity. Part II of this report, Policies for Shared Prosperity, outlines a program to address automation’s challenges and opportunities. The paper calls for an all-of-the-above approach, from targeted interventions to those with systems-level impact; from place-based policies to national-level reforms.

In conjunction with the publication of Automation and a Changing Economy, the Future of Work Initiative, with support from the Autodesk Foundation, hosted an event to discuss how automation is impacting the labor market and policy solutions for a rapidly evolving 21st century economy. At the event, Congresswoman Haley Stevens of Michigan and former Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who currently serves as a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, spoke to the role of policymakers in addressing automation and guiding workers through the changing nature of work. In a briefing on Capitol Hill, the Initiative also brought together policy experts who have focused on existing programs to better address the needs of today and tomorrow’s workers as they grapple with an increasingly automated economy. The briefing featured keynote remarks from Rep. Derek Kilmer and highlighted how modernizing existing programs could help our nation’s workforce.

One industry that is being transformed by new technologies is the agricultural industry. The Initiative, with support from X, the Moonshot Factory (formerly Google X), brought together a range of experts for a design workshop to discuss current trends and challenges facing agriculture and agricultural work, new technologies and their potential impact on the industry and work, and ideas for potential intervention. The findings from this discussion were outlined in a new workshop report.

Inclusive Capitalism & Human Capital

At the same time that businesses should be investing more in their workforce, they face shareholder pressure to produce short-term profits, even if that means they must forego investments that would create value in the long term.

In 2017, the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative National Advisory Council was formed with the belief that the changing economy and the impact it has on work requires new ideas and strategies to help workers and businesses adjust and thrive. This year, the Advisory Council released a set of recommendations entitled Solutions for a Changing Economy.  While there are a wide range of potential policy interventions to renew the promise of capitalism by making it work for more people, promoting human capital investment, which directly benefits workers and companies, was an area of particular focus for the Future of Work Initiative National Advisory Council. Governor Jack Markell, Chair of the National Advisory Council, highlighted the group’s interest in testing new ideas and advancing solutions: “The Advisory Council is encouraged by the activity taking place, especially by policymakers at the state level and by social entrepreneurs, to better understand and respond to the challenges we face, and shares the ideas in this report to continue to promote a sense of urgency and potential actions for policymakers to consider.”

In January, the Initiative and General Assembly (a private education and training provider) convened a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill, bringing together experts from the public and private sectors, to examine strategies to spur greater investment in human capital. One policy option discussed was updating the accounting treatment of human capital investments, through the creation of new accounting models that would consider training as an investment, rather than as an expense.

State & Local Policy

Governors and state legislators are on the front lines of helping prepare their constituents for the many ways that work is changing. And in 2019, state policymakers increasingly focused on issues around the future of work. The Future of Work Initiative published a State Policy Agenda highlighting a set of policy options that would help address the changing nature of work in the 21st century. The goal of this agenda was to serve as a starting point for state leaders as they build a vision for the future of their states.

As part of the Initiative’s focus on spurring policy innovation at the state and local level, the Future of Work Initiative partnered with the Cognizant U.S. Foundation to support four U.S. cities—Chicago, Ill., Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix, Ariz., and Hartford, Conn.—in advancing local policy, training, and education initiatives to ensure workers thrive in the jobs of today and tomorrow. Through convenings in the four cities, the Initiative will help map resources, identify solutions and encourage collaboration to build continuous learning systems. Research findings on the cities will be released in 2020, providing a road map for other communities across the country in designing effective models for lifelong learning.

Different states have taken different approaches to tackling the issues and challenges around preparing their workforce for the future. Some states, like California, Colorado and New Jersey, established Future of Work Commissions or Task Forces to explore questions and identify solutions. Future of Work Initiative Executive Director Alastair Fitzpayne has the privilege as serving as a member on the New Jersey Future of Work Task Force. In addition, Washington State’s Future of Work Task Force released its report that examines how the state should respond to the changing nature of work. To help state policymakers better understand the range of possible approaches, the Initiative published a blog post outlining best practices for future of work commissions.

Looking Ahead

As we look ahead to 2020, we look forward to continuing to explore the ways in which work is changing and recommending policy solutions that help create a 21st century social contract.