Will the future of work be a utopia or a dystopia?

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics will have a dramatic impact on the future of work. Already, today’s most valuable technology companies employ about one-fifth as many workers as the most valuable companies in the 1960s. Estimates of workforce displacement due to automation range from the OECD’s 14 percent of current jobs to the European think tank Bruegel’s 54 percent. Automation will disproportionately affect low-skill workers that are least able to adapt to these changes. On May 14, Center for Technology Innovation Founding Director Darrell West unpacked these trends in a presentation and a panel discussion held at Brookings based on his new  book “The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation.

Looking ahead, West sees the American economic and political systems at a crossroads: one path leads to a utopia with a more inclusive society, more leisure time, and culture; the other leads to a dystopia with high unemployment, inequality, and no guaranteed social benefits. Avoiding dystopia will require reimagining work to include non-employment alternatives such as caregiving and volunteering, and rethinking education as a lifelong endeavor. Lastly, the U.S. will need a new social contract that separates benefits from traditional forms of employment. Society must change to reflect the changing nature of work and employment.

The U.S. has experienced large political and economic and transformations in the past and responded in kind. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a rapidly industrializing workforce led to a national income tax, direct election of senators, and women’s suffrage. Today’s transformations could see similar political effects. The 2016 presidential election revealed deep political divisions that could worsen if nothing changes. How we answer the political question of personal versus social responsibility will determine whether we arrive at utopia or dystopia in the future.

The panel discussion featured Molly Kinder, a senior advisor on work, workers, and technology at New America, and Tracy Zuckerman Van Grack, a senior vice president of communications and public policy at Revolution. They saw change, risk, and opportunity in the adoption of new technologies. Much recent job growth has come from new jobs titles, like data analysts, and automation can eliminate drudgery and increase interpersonal interaction, adding greater value to existing jobs. This was the case when the introduction of ATMs allowed bank tellers to interact more with customers.

However, there are disparities in the distribution of opportunities in growing high-tech industries. Seventy five percent of venture capital investment goes to California, Massachusetts, and New York, and only 10 percent of venture capital funding goes to women. New jobs that are resilient to automation must be available to parts of the country and populations currently left out of the tech economy. Policy and political responses at the federal level could begin to address these disparities and capitalize on the many success stories at the state and local levels.