The ongoing transformation of how we earn a living

We continue to work on Michigan Future’s first ever state policy agenda. The goal is to recommend state policies that will help all Michiganders do better economically in the context of today’s and tomorrow’s realities. Not to try to use policy to turn the clock back.

What has become clear to us in doing the research for the report is how the nature of work is being transformed. And given that wages and benefits from work is how most of us primarily earn what is needed to pay the bills and save for our retirement and the kids education, the policy agenda must start with helping people get good-paying work.

But to do that we are facing significant headwinds. The reality today and almost certainly tomorrow is there is a lot of work that is not good paying. Not to mention less and less jobs have good benefits, if any at all.

There are at least five big changes in how work is organized that job seekers will have to adjust to:

  • Jobs are increasingly service-providing not goods-producing. Goods-producing is primarily work in farming, mining, manufacturing and construction. Now about 20 percent of American employment and continuously declining as a share of national employment.
  • Good-paying work is increasingly going to professionals and managers who work in offices, schools and hospitals. Yes there are good-paying jobs that do not require a four year degree. And certainly there are  good-paying jobs not done in offices, schools and hospitals. But good-paying work with good benefits is increasingly going to those with four year degrees or more and is increasingly concentrated in knowledge-based services.
  • Smarter and smarter machines are accelerating the creative destruction of jobs, occupations and even industries. But which jobs, occupations and industries will be most affected and when is unpredictable. So your job and occupation today are less secure than yesterday and even less secure tomorrow than today.
  • Because of smarter and smarter machines, work is increasingly right brain. Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind posits that new good-paying jobs increasingly will go to people who are creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.
  • Increasingly contingent: more and more of us working for ourselves, not an employer. Contingent (gig economy) jobs so far tend to be low paying and without benefits.

To us that means that those most likely to have good-paying forty year careers are those with the best rock climbing and free agent skills. Rock climbers instead of ladder climbers. The notion of a career ladder–– predictable and linear steps upwards––in a world that is constantly changing is obsolete. Rather people will need to be like rock climbers––constantly adjusting to new opportunities and challenges. And then resourceful so they can take advantage of those opportunities. Add to that increasingly the ability to be your own employer. Finding good-paying work and good benefits and managing your own finances.

That means we need public policy to prepare us to be rock climbers and free agents. Which means a complete transformation in how we approach education. No longer about building primarily occupation-specific skills and no longer limited to pre K-16. But also to offer supports for periods of temporary unemployment. And, maybe most importantly, to augment wages and benefits for those in the many low-paying jobs either through employer mandates like the minimum wage and/or an expanded safety net like the earned income tax credit and universal health insurance.


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