Some of the negative changes in the workplace brought on by new technologies can be countered by institutions like universities setting higher standards.
The past 30 years have seen a revolution in communication and analytic technology, one that has begun to shape the nature of firms and the types of work that exist in the labor market. Internet communication technology (ICT) allows firms to share information across the world at speeds that are nearly instantaneous and practically for free. With this explosion of information has been a concerted effort on the parts of firms, governments, and individuals to capture and analyze the torrent of information being produced every second.
ICT is driving transaction costs to zero, and with it comes a hollowing out of traditional corporate infrastructure. Tasks that were once cheaper to do in-house can now be outsourced to private contractors in the U.S. or around the world. The firms that are most heralded as ‘the next big thing’ are no longer producers of widgets, but platforms that connect individuals. Facebook and Twitter do not provide content, but provide access; Uber and Lyft are not taxi companies, but rather platforms that connect individual demanders and suppliers. On the other side, incumbent firms are using ICT to develop to-the-minute data on sales patterns, allowing them to track exactly when and where their workers are needed. Whether it’s in the form of surge pricing, ‘just-in-time’ scheduling, or contracting out nearly every function of a company, the use of ICT has profound and evolving implications for consumers and workers.
With the explosion of technology has come a scramble to achieve maximum efficiency and minimal cost. As production expands horizontally, as opposed to vertically, Millennials are discovering that a life-long career simply can’t exist in a market that’s trending towards more and more freelance and contract work. One result of all this is that Millennials have begun to look to the stories of retirement parties and 30-year Rolexes as anachronistic Mad Men-style stories of an age long gone. We don’t think of ourselves as working for the same place for long periods of time, and any notion of a pension or a retirement plan is hard to imagine.
The second troubling effect of this is a lack of accountability of the largest and most powerful corporations. The old economic model of in-house labor allowed labor disputes, liability, and accountability to be tracked to a single corporate entity. As firms increasingly turn to specialized contractors to build their websites, staff their calling centers and warehouses, drive their taxis, and run their cafeterias, corporate responsibility becomes similarly defuse. When workers lose overtime pay at an Amazon fulfillment center, should the contractor or the parent company be at fault? Should the private contractor hold all the accountability, or should Amazon accept some responsibility? There is no sense that this new wave of “sharing economy” businesses is doing anything other then creating structured marketplaces, and skimming money off the top. This leaves the people doing the work – as Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts – without anything to hold on to. As firms continue to contract, and subcontract, the economic befits to workers shrink dramatically, and there is an increased incentive to cut costs and corners. These cases are just coming to the surface, and no doubt will shape the labor landscape immensely.
It is precisely because of this complex and rapidly changing social situation that anchor institutions like colleges and universities need to take the lead in providing wages and careers that make sense. Anchor institutions, which are generating more attention in the post-recession economy, are those mission-driven institutions that are large sources of capital, purchasing, and employment, and which are tied to their communities. Unlike traditional firms, an anchor cannot move to another country for lower taxes, and they are often public or receive large amounts of public investment. Anchors hold a special place in our society: they are not corporations governed by a single-bottom line reality, and their missions are often directed toward and even mandate the promotion of the social good.
They also have real economic clout: One classic anchor type, universities, account for approximately 3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and they employ more than 3 million people. The hospital industry has an even larger impact with some 5 million employees. And these anchor institutions, tied as they are to location, are perfectly positioned to end the race to the bottom that is happening in other sectors. They will be able to reap the benefits from more money being injected in a local community, and they will grow as the social safety net continues to grow around them.
Anchors, working together, can do more than create a few hundred jobs at good wages with a real retirement plan. Anchors working together can set strong city-wide baselines for wages, and serve as a driving factor for economic development, public safety, local purchasing, and quality-of-life initiatives. Further, anchors actually have a values-based, mission-driven call to this work. As Millennials become a greater share of the workforce, it is on us to ensure that the economy of the future is one that promotes responsibility, accountability, growth, and equality. The technological strides of the past few decades have been enormous, and while they have allowed businesses to continue on a race to the bottom, they have also connected and mobilized a generation. In order to shift the national dialogue, the Campus Network has always believed that one must start at the local level. In order to ensure that the businesses of the future work for everyone, it must be shown that they can. The global brand of anchor institutions, from top tier universities to pioneering hospitals, have the soapbox, the moral imperative, and the means to drive this change, and a more democratic economy can begin to grow based on the successes of anchor reinvestment.
Alan Smith is the Associate Director of Networked Initiatives at the Roosevelt Institute.
Julius Goldberg-Lewis is the Midwestern Regional Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at the University of Michigan.