Stories

An uncertain future for workers

work desk
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