Around the Institute

Reflections on 2020 and the Future of Work

December 18, 2020  • Alastair Fitzpayne

At the beginning of the year, it was impossible to imagine what would unfold over the course of 2020. As the year comes to a close, we are confronting the ever-worsening tragedy of a global pandemic, and hoping that 2021 brings relief and recovery from the health and economic toll that it has taken on our country and the world. The pandemic has dramatically accelerated many of the trends shaping the future of work, from e-commerce to automation to remote work. Its disparate impacts on people of color and women reflect the ongoing urgency to develop equitable solutions. Though these trends and challenges predate the pandemic, it has made policy conversations about how best to help workers confront these challenges even more critical.

This year and over the past five years, the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative has been focused on these questions—exploring how work is changing, and identifying specific solutions that policymakers at all levels can advance to meet the challenges and opportunities of a 21st century economy.

The economic insecurity facing millions of workers as a result of the pandemic illuminates a broader problem: our safety net is inadequate and is in need of strengthening. The safety net available to workers in America is full of holes—and those holes are biggest for workers of color. To begin to address these gaps, we called for a rebuilt, equitable workplace safety net. We partnered with our colleagues at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program (FSP) to reimagine a 21st century benefits system that provides financial security to all, with a focus on inclusive, portable, people-centric, and interoperable benefits. Together with FSP, we launched Benefits21—a new initiative of the Global Inclusive Growth Partnership, a collaboration between the Aspen Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. We convened discussions on how to build a pathway to an inclusive recovery and how to modernize benefits systems.

Over the year, as part of Benefits21, the Future of Work Initiative explored how to make specific benefits more portable and universal, including: unemployment insurance, paid leave, training, and retirement. Our continued efforts this year build on the research and analysis the Initiative conducted in 2019 that culminated in our publication, Designing Portable Benefits: A Resource Guide for Policymakers. In 2018, we proposed changes to modernize the Unemployment Insurance system to account for gig workers. This year, as tens of millions of Americans applied for Unemployment Insurance, we highlighted the importance of reforming this critical safety net program to include all workers, and praised the creation of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

We also know that workers in nonstandard jobs need more than access to benefits—they need critical workplace protections that many permanent, full-time workers have enjoyed for decades. In partnership with the Urban Institute and A Better Balance, we issued a new report—Reimagining Workplace Protections: A Policy Agenda to Meet Independent Contractors’ and Temporary Workers’ Needs—that provides specific policy recommendations to expand essential protections to more workers.

But as we work to modernize benefits and protections for all workers, an obstacle in doing so is the lack of data and common language around evolving work arrangements. In 2018, we launched the Gig Economy Data Hub in partnership with Cornell University’s ILR School to help researchers, journalists, policymakers, and others better understand the scope and nature of the gig economy and nonstandard work. We have continued to build the Gig Economy Data Hub, adding new data sources, and encourage you to visit and provide feedback on how we can further develop this resource.

Almost a year into the pandemic, we have lost ten million jobs and the number of Americans who have lost their jobs permanently continues to climb. Most economists predict a slow recovery, highlighting the need for innovative ideas that can help people re-enter the labor market. Policies that expand access to and investment in education and training programs are a critical piece of this puzzle. But putting Americans back to work and building a skilled workforce is not a challenge that any one entity can solve alone. It requires a coordinated approach at all levels, with collaboration across policymakers, employers, education and training providers, worker advocates, and nonprofit organizations. To explore the role that cities can play in addressing this challenge, with the support of the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, we released a new report—Building a Lifelong Learning System: A Roadmap for Cities—that draws on findings from roundtables hosted in Chicago, Phoenix, and Hartford, and recommends specific steps that cities can take to develop a lifelong learning system. Expanding on the conversations we convened with experts on the frontlines of this challenge, we hosted an event—including remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin—to illuminate the barriers and opportunities of creating an equitable, accessible lifelong learning system.

Employers will play a critical role in helping our country recover from the economic shock of the pandemic. This year, with the support of Lumina Foundation, we proposed recommendations to strengthen the tax incentive (Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code) that employers use to provide education and training to their employees, and proposed a broader agenda aimed at helping employers upskill and retrain their employees. And we know that for many workers seeking education and training, cost remains a barrier. To explore the options students have to finance education and training, we issued a report which provides an overview of how Income Share Agreements could be designed and operated to improve economic opportunity for American workers.

This year has been uniquely challenging and it is credit and testament to all of my colleagues at the Future of Work Initiative who have contributed to our work: Kathryn Alvarez, Anna Fife, Natalie Foster, Hilary Greenberg, Erin McAlister, Zach Neumann, Ethan Pollack, Libby Reder, and Shelly Steward. Many of our projects have involved the entire team and I am deeply appreciative of their creativity, teamwork, and willingness to overcome any obstacle to advance our work. Any success our program has enjoyed is the result of their hard work and willingness to be exceptional team members.

Looking ahead to 2021, the structure of the Future of Work Initiative will change. The Initiative will join the Economic Opportunities Program at the beginning of next year. As part of the transition, I will step down as the Executive Director of the Initiative at the end of this year, but will continue to stay involved at Aspen as a Senior Fellow and Advisor. I’m excited to share that Dr. Shelly Steward, who currently serves as our Associate Director of Research, will direct the Initiative’s activities going forward.

Finally, it has been an honor to serve as the Executive Director of the Future of Work Initiative and work alongside such a dedicated team. I am also indebted to our Honorary Co-Chairs, Senator Mark Warner and former Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels, and the work that was done by our National Advisory Council, which was led by Governor Jack Markell. The future of work has become the work of today, and the need to develop policies that respond to these challenges is more urgent than ever. Hopefully, the work that we have done since our program’s inception will help inform new policies and spur needed action. I am confident that the Initiative will continue to be a leading voice in this evolving and necessary conversation.

Alastair Fitzpayne, Executive Director, Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative