Many years ago, I spent a sultry summer in south Florida interviewing families about housing opportunities. A very large apartment complex was denying African-American families apartments that they made available to white households. We spent weeks in the hot Florida sun talking to families, reviewing reams of documents and conducting interviews, trying to piece together what was happening. When my colleagues and I found a letter from a property manager resigning because he could no longer go along with the landlord’s ruse we finally had the proof we needed to obtain a $1 million settlement, one of the largest of its kind at the time. Without that crucial piece of evidence, explicit discrimination would quite likely have gone unproven.
It may seem a stretch to connect my experience in South Florida with the future of work. But that case gave me a heightened appreciation of the tensions between the flexibility the free market needs to thrive, and the protections needed to ensure that there is truly a level playing field for those historically left on the sidelines in our economy. The same tensions are evident as we move forward into the brave new world of employment that technology is helping to shape.
As the Department of Labor’s impressive symposium on the Future of Work made clear, we are in the midst of dramatic shifts in the structure, quality and availability of work. Technology is changing industries, blurring legal categories and altering employment practices in ways we could not have imagined. There is excitement and opportunity in these changes, including the promise that technology can be used to empower workers who have been marginalized. But there is also enormous potential for bias to creep in, especially given this nation’s history of discrimination, and for the new structures that are being developed to reinforce rather than address inequality. One example: Data mining firms can rely on inaccurate or expunged criminal records to filter job applicants from a hiring pool—a process, invisible to the applicant, that can embed racial discrimination. Bias can also affect emerging systems that rely heavily on customer feedback.
For all the promise of the new economy that is premised on innovation, flexibility and rapid evolution, it is important to keep in mind that unbounded discretion has a long and problematic history in this country.
At the Open Society Foundations, we are building on our two-year inquiry into the future of work to examine how these forces will reconcile in the years to come. Bringing together people from tech, business, government and worker advocacy, we examined the many ways technology affects the economy—the kinds of work we do, how we do it, how much of it is available to us, and how work and workers are managed.
We found that technology was re-configuring jobs more often than it was replacing them; that innovation is outpacing government’s ability to regulate it; that technology allows for new kinds of freedom as well as control; and that while the emerging models of work benefit some, it disadvantages others. One clear takeaway: We are just beginning to assess what is needed to maximize the chances that these changes will overcome, rather than exacerbate, existing inequalities, and progress will require ample attention, data and insight. In short, innovation is disruptive, and carries with it both the potential to promote a new age of work and to reinforce existing biases.
As technology catapults us into uncharted territory, it is incumbent on us to ensure that the future of work does not simply replicate patterns that have long existed for those historically hindered from economic mobility — including workers of color, workers with disabilities, immigrants, and the formerly incarcerated.
As the Department of Labor’s session made clear, we are in the early stages of figuring out what needs to be done to fully understand the forces shaping the future of work and make sure they are directed in the best ways possible. Our efforts must include those at the forefront of the new economy, from technologists to business , who can use their ample talents to recognize and address the implications of the shifts to come. And it is essential that these efforts include the voices and perspectives of the workers and their allies who are harnessing new technologies to shape the current labor market and create better jobs in the future. We applaud the Department of Labor’s decision to dig into these issues in greater depth, and look forward to joining with all those engaging in charting the path forward.
Ken Zimmerman is director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations.