Progress in the 21st Century Does Not Have to Leave Workers Behind

July 23, 2019

Between machines and outsourcing, technological change and trade in the 21st century have impacted much of how the American economy functions. As a result, workers are not only facing renewed challenges in their day-to-day experience on the job, with algorithmic scheduling and greater management surveillance, for example; but also in their experience within the economy more broadly, such as with the rise of “gig” work and fissured workplaces.

With such changes, however, comes a need to think critically and thoughtfully about the ways in which transformational shifts in our society interact with the entrenched structures and resulting makeup of our current economic system.

In “Rightsizing the Workplace: How Public Power Can Support a 21st Century Labor Market That Works for All,” Roosevelt Fellow Rakeen Mabud provides guidance on how to tackle these changes with an approach that is grounded in understanding that power dynamics shape our economic outcomes. The issue brief, a companion piece to Left Behind: Snapshots from the 21st Century Labor Market, builds on Roosevelt’s diagnosis of the economy and illustrates how today’s skewed power dynamics affect workers across the board, even those in jobs as seemingly unrelated as domestic workers and truckers.

Mabud elevates what few others do: that technological change and globalized trade are neither explicitly forces of good nor of evil. Rather, without new rules, the changes they bring will amplify the glaring inequities and existing weaknesses in our current system. Employers will continue to exploit workers—only this time they’ll be able to do it better because new technologies, left unchecked, allow them to monitor their employees’ every move. Without modernized labor laws, corporations like Uber can treat their employees as  “independent contractors” instead of employees, allowing them to skirt on providing workplace rights, protections, and benefits. While workers may be able to use social media and apps as organizing tools, the companies who own and manage these tools will ultimately own the data and profit off the activity of those users. In other words, the ways technology is used—or abused—by those in power will define whether it can be a source of positive, life-improving change or can further entrench America’s second Gilded Age.

The 21st century economy is changing.  As the workplace changes with it, all workers, including truck drivers and domestic workers, deserve and need the support of government power—through reforms to the public and private sectors, as Mabud outlines in her report—to ensure that technology and trade work for the American people, rather than the coffers of America’s wealthy.