Conference Recap: The Future of Capitalism and the Future of Work

Robots and their artificial intelligence brethren are not coming for our (human) jobs, if you ask Heidi Shierholz, former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor. Shierholz, now at the Economic Policy Institute, was a keynote speaker at The Future of Capitalism and the Future of Work, a one-day conference hosted by the Murphy Institute last Friday.

Leading the panel “The Robots are Coming”, Shierholz helped kick off a day that included conversations about the current and future intersections of technology, capitalism and labor. In her remarks, Shierholz noted that technological advances have indeed taken jobs from workers, but they have never caused a decrease in net jobs for the economy as a whole. She suggested that technological advances tend to be phased in gradually – she used the example of driverless 18-wheelers: investors aren’t going to spend billions of dollars buying all of the trucks tomorrow and immediately replace them with driverless versions, it will be over a long period of time– which affords the labor market time to adjust. According to Shierholz, the technological tsunami is often overblown and used as a tactic to intimidate labor.

Not blind to technology’s impact on low wage labor, Shierholz acknowledged that her analysis about net jobs and gradual adoption of technology does not promise a bright future for low-wage labor.

Highlighting power-biased technological change, the panel mentioned freelancing, micro-tracking of employees, and just-in-time scheduling, all of which 1) fragment labor’s power 2) disempower workers 3) prohibit people from planning for family/childcare and 4) consolidate more power and returns to capital. Shierholz argued that it was less about robot skill supplanting human skill (noting that a lot of automation roles are for portions of a FTE, not the entire job), but the power imbalance and widening wealth inequality that accrues when technology breaks up labor and multiples the returns on capital.

We’re thinking about the impact that automation’s “creative destruction” can have on jobs. This panel left us with a few more questions for investors:

- How can we invest in technological advancement without undercutting our devotion to quality jobs and wealth building for low-income households?
- How can we account for who will benefit and who will lose from the transition? Will its benefits be evenly distributed or further challenge those already marginalized?
- What role should investors play - especially those such as labor pension funds who ultimately represent the interests of workers?
- What fiscal, trade, and labor legislation is needed to ensure technological advances do not come at the expense of low-wage workers (hint: job training is not enough by itself)?

Fundamentally, we cannot ignore the intersection of low-quality work and racial justice in the United States.  With the topics of power and low-wage workers invoked so often, and at a conference that has the word “future” in its brief title twice, the following two points need to be raised:

- For a conference that revolves around the future of work, we would have liked to see more people of color as panelists. As the United States gets closer and closer to becoming a majority minority nation, it is increasingly impossible to discuss the future without centering people of color.
- A recurring question throughout the day was “Why now? Society has confronted technological doomsdays before, why the panic now?”. A panelist suggested that it might be because people who work in the media and communications fields are feeling the pressure of technology coming for their jobs, so they’re more inclined to write about it. If we truly don’t want to leave low-wage workers behind, we have to discuss the negative implications of automation not just when potential loss hits close to home, but far before that.

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Transform Finance has taken interest in this topic, specifically through the lens of the investor role in developing a just future of work. Our main research project on the subject is looking at how investor capital can leverage emerging best practices for worker protection due to trends in automation, fragmentation, and globalization, and monitoring the role that capital flows have in accelerating these trends. This project is representative of our approach to the role of the investor in society as a whole; they must be held accountable for the impact, good or bad, they have with regards to labor and all other outputs.

In this endeavor to engage investors around the future of work, we are compiling case studies, theories, and analyses into an article with NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business. We also have spoken on several panels, including at the Mission Forward conference and a SOCAP365 panel, for which a summary can be found here.

If you’re interested in engaging with Transform Finance around the future of work, please reach out to us at info@transformfinance.org.