For most people, work isn’t just about money. Fulfilling work also provides purpose and structure for our lives. It helps us feel part of the collective experience with shared goals and meaningful roles in our communities. But today, work isn’t working for many Americans. Wages haven’t increased above inflation in 40 years. Many companies are replacing in-house workers with contractors, and on-demand workers—to whom they pay lower wages and offer fewer benefits. Full-time jobs with benefits are increasingly rare, and a lot of work doesn’t even pay a living wage. It seems the relationship between work and reward (the meritocratic dream of America) is breaking down. Many people work hard and yet aren’t paid in accordance with their effort, annulling one of the principles that built this country.
In the future, with increasing automation, and a growing independent work force, we’ll also need fewer people to provide the stuff we need, and work will no longer be the universal provider it has been. Some experts are already dismissing work as yesterday’s answer and arguing that calls for full employment are impossible and unnecessary. And bringing back “jobs” has nothing to do with Mr. Trump’s nostalgic call for America’s past and blaming immigration, and trade deals.
So what can be done? There are many shared economy solutions worth considering; here are two:
(1) development of co-working spaces—substituting for the loss of social interaction for independent workers and providing collectively-owned equipment. (2) Create a new worker category for tax and saftey net purposes: the “independent worker”, with some Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. This compromise category would support subcontractors (i.e. Uber drivers) who are currently paid under a 1099 (vs. W-2) tax code without accruing any benefits.
With the likelihood of technology displacing the working class over-time there are increasing calls (on the left and the right) to consider a universal basic income (UBI), where the state gives everyone enough money to meet daily needs. UBI advocates argue that a simple basic income provides a floor under the neediest that encourages creative work, like looking after children or grandparents.
Ideally, we’d keep the best parts of work, but lose some of the negative effects, including the increasingly unequal distribution of income and the fact that a lot of work remains demoralizing and dangerous. We’re a long way from a post-capitalistic future. Yet, if we add a basic UBI we reform work by freeing everyone to take on work that they want—truly a new American Dream.
Ben Schiller, “To Save the American Dream, We Have to Change the Way We Think About Work,” Fast Company, March 13, 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/3068322/to-save-the-american-dream-we-have-to-change-how-we-think-about-work
Dom Galeon, “Elon Musk: Automation Will Force Governments to Introduce Universal Basic Income,” Futurism, February 14, 2017,
Student Researcher: Alora Phillips (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)