Sustainable Growth

Weaving a Safety Net for the Next Economy: Portable Benefits and the On-Demand Worker

March 22, 2016  • Natalie Foster

Key Points

  • At SXSW, Aspen Institute's Future of Work Initiative convened a roundtable to discuss what work will look like in the new economy.
  • More data is needed to craft effective policy, but the time to begin creating a policy vision is now.

What will work look like in the new economy? Every generation experiences an evolution in work. The 1990s saw major disruption in a number of key American industries and regions as a result of globalization and technological innovation, leading to displaced workers and stagnating wages.

Reverberations still echo loudly today. The next wave of innovation promises even deeper and more extensive disruption. We have heard a lot about the threats that automation, task-based employment, and artificial intelligence pose to all kinds of workers in the coming generation — not only to low-wage work, but to high-skilled and knowledge economy jobs, as well. Our challenge at the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative is to address these evolutions in industry as an opportunity to cultivate American competitiveness, resilience, and an appropriate social contract for the new economy through forward-looking policy.

In an attempt to unpack the vast and multi-faceted challenge posed by next economy macro-trends, the Future of Work Initiative convened a roundtable discussion at the tech conference SXSW in Austin, Texas, on the Future of Work. The 30 participants included elected officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, researchers, and worker advocates. The session centered on portable benefits and the on-demand economy worker as a gateway to broader discussions about corporate leadership, economic inclusion, and public-private innovation.

Here are highlights from the event:

  1. More data is needed. Again and again, we heard that decision-makers lack the data to craft prudent policy responses to new forms of work. The upcoming Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Contingent Worker Supplement is keenly anticipated and offers a very significant step in the right direction, but additional research will be needed to empower experimentation in cities and states.
  2. States and cities as incubators. Policymakers at all levels must think creatively about how our social contract, established in the early 20th century, can adapt to meet the needs of workers and businesses alike in the new economy. While federal policy might be a key piece of long-term reforms, there is a great near-term opportunity for innovation and experimentation at the state and local level.
  3. The big picture. On-demand economy workers are part of a much larger and deeper crisis of income instability and inequality in America. The gig economy can be an inroad to progress on this macro challenge, but it is not the whole story.
  4. The time is now. While the full effects of automation and advanced computing have yet to arrive in the workplace, public attitudes are already beginning to reflect anxiety about job security and advancement in a labor market that is driven by task-specific employment, rather than salaried jobs. The window for companies, advocates, and government to shape an optimal policy response may be narrower than we think.

A year-long bipartisan effort, the Future of Work Initiative looks forward to driving debate and developing concrete solutions on this set of issues, with special attention to the on-demand economy, in the coming months. To receive updates and join our effort, please sign up for our Future of Work Briefing.

Natalie Foster, strategic advisor, and Carolyn Zelikow, program associate, work within the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative.