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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

DETROIT, Mich. — There's no better symbol of what the American worker's life used to look like than Detroit: A stable, lifelong career at a booming factory, a union membership and a pension.

The big picture: Workers' lives in the future won't look like that. Already, new technologies and the gig economy are breaking down those very forces of stability that defined jobs over the last century — and the future of workers hangs in the balance.

That great upending was the theme at the Fulcrum Conference on the future of work in Detroit, where I moderated a panel Wednesday morning.

  • One of the undeniable impacts of technology is "weakened worker power," says Michelle Miller, a panelist and the co-founder of Coworker.org, a peer-based platform for workers.

What's happening: Technologies developed to connect people and serve as equalizers have, in many cases, pulled people apart and exacerbated existing inequities in the workplace.

  • Gig work: Companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates are employing armies of gig workers, and Amazon is contracting tens of thousands of people to drive its delivery vans. While these are new opportunities for flexible work, enabled by the tech boom, these jobs are also leaving millions of workers without benefits. "Even at the most well-intentioned firms, these workers don't have the same standing as full-time employees," Miller says.
  • Automated managers: Some companies are even using technology to track workers' performance. Consider Amazon's automated productivity tracker in its fulfillment centers, which can warn and even fire employees without any human supervisor input.
  • Automated recruitment: Startups are also rapidly developing and marketing resume readers and other recruitment software to human resources departments. But many of these tools have shown bias. "This is saying a robot is less biased than a human, and that's just not true," says Diane Antishin, a panelist at Fulcrum and VP of HR at DTE Energy in Detroit. "We need to think of the biases that are built into these tools."

On top of these trends, workers' bargaining power is dwindling. In 2018, 10.5% of Americans were part of unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down from around one-third of Americans in the 1950s.

Yes, but: The rise of gig work and remote work comes with a slew of perks, too, experts say. New types of jobs that allow workers to set their own hours or work from home can bring people into the workforce who otherwise might not have been able to enter it.

The bottom line: Companies are still designed to cater to full-time employees who work out of big factories or offices. "Workplaces need to change," says Yrthya Dinzey-Flores, who spoke at Fulcrum and was most recently a VP at Warner Media Group. "And there is still this refusal to change."

Go deeper: The two-faced freelance economy

Go deeper

Updated 49 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Political consultants pocket taxpayer cash

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Members of Congress are turning to the same political consultants who got them elected to blast out taxpayer-funded communications from their government offices, records show.

Why it matters: While those members are barred from politicking with official funds, the firms have expertise in boosting elected officials' images for political gain and are in high demand for both campaign and government work.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Transplants rebound from COVID lull
  2. Vaccines: WHO: No evidence that healthy children, teens need boosters — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America
  3. Politics: Government website for free COVID tests launches early
  4. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older
  5. Variant tracker
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Schumer pushes for doomed filibuster changes

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer addresses reporters Tuesday. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the Democratic caucus Tuesday night he plans to propose instituting a one-time "talking" filibuster requirement, and bypassing the 60-vote threshold for major legislation, to pass the party's election reforms package via simple majority.

Why it matters: While Schumer acknowledged both votes are expected to fail — and some vulnerable Democrats up for re-election feel it will put them in a tough spot — he argued it's worth putting members on the record for historic legislation.