New Report Explores The Work Of The Future

Beyond the hype


Adi Gaskell

3 years ago | 4 min read

Since MIT's Task Force on the Work of the Future was created a few years ago, they have provided a regular analysis of how the nature of work is unfolding. This body of research has recently been pulled together into a comprehensive report that examines the work of the future.

The report begins by rebuffing many of the scare stories about work being automated away, and reminds us that roughly 63% of the jobs performed today didn't exist a generation ago. 

Instead of a technology-powered apocalypse, therefore, we are seeing an evolution of work that is powered by technology. This then frames the pressing issues of our time as one of improving the quality of jobs to ensure that prosperity is shared across the economy.

Beyond the hype

The researchers begin by trying to gain a realistic understanding of the technologies that are driving change across the world. These technologies have been hyped considerably, which can make realistic perspectives on them hard to glean.

For instance, recent research from Columbia Business School highlighted this fact.  The research found that when companies hire AI staff, they can expect to see a sales boost of nearly 15%, while also expanding both their geographic reach and their product offerings.

The researchers analyzed job postings from Burning Glass Technologies alongside employment profiles from Cognism. The analysis found that hiring AI talent creates a self-reinforcing cycle, as the investment in AI boosts revenue, which in turn allows for further investments in AI.

“For decades, we thought that artificial intelligence would be the future of technology, but we always looked to it with fear that investment in AI would ultimately take away jobs,” they explain. 

“But today, our findings show that investment in AI not only increases company sales and expands geographic reach, but it creates jobs, opening up new opportunities that would not have existed before. This information is vital for any company that needs a push to be bold and look to the future.”

Driving opportunity

The MIT team argue that there has been a disconnect between innovation and opportunity, and this has led to fear of the future, with any gains confined to a wealthy few rather than the many. 

The researchers argue that this fear manifests itself in distrust of institutions, political and regional division, and even mistrust of innovation itself.

The report concludes that technological change is creating new work at the same time as eroding other forms of work. As such, it's a process of change rather than destruction, with the overall employment picture remaining strong even as technology has progressed considerably.

They do accept, however, a general hollowing out of the workforce, with high-skilled workers becoming more productive, and therefore prosperous, as a result of new technology, but middle-tier workers often losing out. 

This has been compensated by a rise in lower-paying jobs, especially in service industries. This helps to explain why aggregate income has not risen as fast as productivity, as in reality there are stark divides across society between the haves and have nots.

Gradual change

The report also highlights that for all the talk of creative destruction, the winds of change are actually unfolding pretty slowly. For instance, it's 16 years now since the first DARPA Grand Challenge into driverless cars, and Google's Waymo has been in existence for 11 years. 

This illustrates the relatively long journey most technologies go on before making their big breakthrough.

Often, it is far easier to hire people to do the job than it is to embark on the lengthy and difficult process of developing new technologies. This is especially so as many of the new technologies are designed to augment rather than replace humans.

The report also highlights the relatively weak link between labor productivity and income. The authors argue that this is largely due to the poor state of policy innovations, which have left middle- and lower-income workers unsupported.

"It's untenable that the labor market has this growing gulf without shared prosperity," the authors say. "We need to restore the synergy between rising productivity and improvements in labor market opportunity."

Institutional innovation

The authors suggest that it is the disconnect between the technologies of today and institutions that were designed with yesterday in mind that may cause any short-term pain across the labor market.

A range of labor policy modernization is proposed, including an upgrading of unemployment insurance to allow, for instance, benefits to be paid in part if someone loses their second job and to better reflect the nature of the gig economy.

This also needs to include a significant improvement in skills development to allow people to adapt to changes in their career and industry. Never has the availability of accessible skills development been more important, yet innovations have been slow to reach those who need them the most.

Ultimately, it would be foolish to succumb to fears surrounding the development of new technologies, as this would make the situation worse rather than better. For the fruits of those innovations to be felt across society, however, will require changes, especially in areas such as education and labor policy. 

While the report doesn't contain anything particularly groundbreaking in its recommendations, the fact that these recommendations are still largely unactioned after several years worth of debate perhaps underlines the value in reinforcing the message.

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Adi Gaskell







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