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Work of the Future Today

June 2019
Meghan Perdue
Digital Learning Fellow
Online course sparks conversations on the work of the future
shapingwotfscreenshot

Photo caption: Meghan Perdue, Digital Learning Fellow, interviews Christine Walley, MIT Professor of Anthropology, about her work on the lived experience of de-industrialization in American cities. 


The popular MITx course, Shaping Work of the Future (which just concluded its fifth run on on May 10th), has been led by Tom Kochan (MIT Sloan School of Management) since its inception in 2014. The course traditionally focused on issues relating to labor policy and organization in the 21st century, however, the world has changed in the last five years. Concerns about inequality, automation replacing workers, and upholding equality and diversity in the workplace have become paramount in national and global conversations.

In 2018, MIT recognized the significance of these issues in launching the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, bringing together experts in technology, economics, and industry to understand how technology is and should be impacting human work, and how civic institutions can respond with smart policies to encourage equitable and sustainable growth. It was clear that the time was right to remodel the online course. Kochan recruited Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the Task Force and MIT Industrial Performance Center, to co-lead the course with him, as well as Inez von Weitershausen, a postdoctoral fellow to work on the course. They recruited me, as well, to produce the remodeled Shaping Work of the Future. Together, we created more than 40 videos in approximately three months, focusing on the boundaries of human and technical work.

“Work of the future” is a conversation that we as a society are having both informally and formally—at the bar and through applied research, at flagship global events like the World Economic Forum and on the nightly news. It’s a complicated topic with data, buzzwords, and feelings. There is nostalgia for past ideas of the dignity of the factory worker, farmer, and coal miner. There is the pain of communities losing good jobs and not replacing them, and the fear of which jobs will disappear next. I wanted this class to address these issues and map the unknowns, providing participants the opportunity to discuss contentious and important ideas with each other so they could then go out into their communities and talk to others.

Over 5,200 students enrolled in the course, from ages 15 to 95, from countries as widespread as Mongolia to Namibia—though most of the students came from the US or Canada (47%), had an advanced degree (54%), and were between the ages of 26 and 40 (45%). They were HR professionals in major, multi-national corporations looking for strategies for technology integration and upskilling workforces, freelancing mothers navigating the gig economy, and older workers concerned about ageism in the workplace or the decreasing jobs in their area. They were people from around the world, interested in these topics for a myriad of reasons. They wanted to share their stories and talk to each other. During the course, the students made thousands of posts, creating a community.

The course is eight weeks long and functions as an orientation to the conversation happening around the future of work. We started off by reviewing the overall challenges and opportunities posed by globalization, technological change, and societal change in the 21st century, including an interview with David Weil, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. We then covered the history of work in the 20th century, focusing on the creation and breakdown of the post-WWII social contract of work. Christine Walley, professor of anthropology at MIT, weighed in on the social impacts of deindustrialization in America. David Mindell, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, discussed similarities and differences of the current technology revolution to the past. In the third week, we brought in a wide variety of technologists discussing their research in AI, robotics, and driverless cars—and the impact they foresee these advances having on work. We discussed strategies for incorporating technology into the workplace, and brought in guests from Mercer and Oliver Wyman to lead the students through a case study of a bank looking to upgrade its IT functionality.

In the next four weeks, we focused on key stakeholders in the social contract of work. In the week on education, John Gabrieli, Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, discussed the neuroscience of learning. Sanjay Sarma, President of Open Learning at MIT, weighed in on developments in learning research and online education. Paul Osterman characterized the work being done at the community college level to provide equitable and accessible training opportunities. In the labor week, we talked to leaders such as Brian Lang and David Rolf, and AFL-CIO Secretary Liz Schuler. During the week on business and industry, we talked to John Reed, former CEO of Citigroup, about changes in the financial industry through the 1980s and 1990s; Kent Greenfield, Professor of Law at Boston College (his new book highlights the reasons why corporations should turn to a stakeholder model); and John Van Reenen, Professor in Management and Economics at MIT, who presented his work researching good governance in large corporations. Then we turned our attention to the role of government, looking at innovative policy ideas that could help promote innovation while ensuring equitable gains from technological development—as well as looking at how other countries like China are handling these problems.

At the end of each of these four weeks, we asked students to propose two actionable solutions for to mitigate the problems we discussed in the class, and then to discuss and debate the proposed solutions. We aggregated all the proposals and presented back to the students the most popular policies—eight proposed in each section—and then asked the students to pick their top five and rank them. This resulted in the class social contract, presented here.

Many students prioritized the value of affordable, accessible, flexible education resources developed through collaborations between industry and institutes of higher education, and funded by industry and the government. They also agreed that workers need to engage in new forms of organization and negotiation with business leaders, and need a representative at the board or executive level to ensure that the needs of the workforce are being considered as companies integrate new technologies and training plans. The students expressed great concerns about rising inequality, and proposed solutions for business and government to address stagnant wages and portable benefits for everyone to have access to the same basic resources like health insurance, retirement funds, and family care leave time. They proposed that business culture needs to change to learn to take a more long-term view into account, and incorporate all stakeholders into that equation rather than only focusing on creating short term value for shareholders. They advised that the government support businesses in these endeavors by creating tax incentives that value these long-term strategies, as well as tax subsidies for human labor rather than capital investments.

They made over 2,000 unique proposals for how to solve problems associated with inequality, globalization, and automation. Beyond just debate and discussion, they really wanted to know how to make these proposals actionable, to see them taken up by the powers that be in our education systems, labor groups, businesses, and governments. Of course, this is the challenge we all face. As one student said, “I participated in a lot more discussions than I anticipated and learned a lot more than I bargained for…now let’s go out there and spread the gospel.”