The workplace is never static. From the era of specialized craft workers, to the Industrial Revolution, and now to the digital age, the way people work has regularly undergone major transformations. But the technological innovations currently underway may rival or even surpass the magnitude of these previous periods. Although technology will disrupt an incredibly broad range of industries and jobs, perhaps no sector illustrates this trend more than the platform economy. “On demand” or “gig” workers already face an increasingly challenging environment, and technology promises to make these problems worse unless there is a suitable regulatory response—including harnessing the very innovations that pose a threat.
Building upon my previous work, which has explored how technology and new business forms like those in the platform economy have impacted the workplace, I address this looming crisis by predicting technology’s impact on the workplace and how policymakers and other actors should respond. In contrast to existing academic literature, which focuses principally on the technology of today, I look to where technology is likely to take work in the future. Relying in part on interviews of academic and private-sector experts in various scientific and policy fields, I engage in a forward- looking approach that is aimed at providing a more expansive and informed perspective for policymaking efforts related to the evolving workplace. We have already seen proposals to counteract some of today’s more controversial uses of technology by employers—such as the increased use of on demand work in the platform economy—but more often than not, legislative and regulatory reform measures aimed at new technologies are outdated from the moment of their implementation. By shining a light on technological issues into the future, I provide policymakers, judicial actors, and those who seek to influence policy a better sense of which issues are on the horizon and how their decisions will impact society in the years ahead.
Technological advances have already begun to change the way many people around the world engage in work, but further developments promise far more dramatic disruptions in the job market. For instance, robotics and other types of automation, although still a relatively small part of the economy, are quickly becoming a cost-effective option for a broader range of tasks. As a result, workers in many industries—such as the driving and service jobs that make up a large part of the platform economy— will likely face significant job losses and changes in the way they perform work. Additionally, various types of monitoring and surveillance technology are increasingly placing workers under their employers’ control and watchful eyes. Other technologies are still in their infancy, but are likely to mature rapidly over the next couple of decades. One example is artificial intelligence, which promises to radically change how many workers do their jobs, how businesses hire or assign duties, and whether humans are even necessary for particular tasks. Similarly, virtual reality is expected to eventually emulate the complexity of in-person communications, which will tear down many of the barriers that currently tie most jobs to certain geographic locations. This will dramatically alter how and where jobs are performed—converting a substantially larger portion of the labor force into gig workers and perhaps even leading to a time when there are few “workplaces” as traditionally conceived.
These anticipated disruptions beg for regulatory reform. In addition to addressing the severe job displacement that will accompany most of these technologies, policymakers will be forced to grapple with the substantial changes in workers’ relationship with their employers and the type of work that
they perform. One contemporary illustration of this issue is endemic to gig work: the classification of workers as “employees.” The classification problem faced by workers at Uber and other platform companies will almost certainly escalate unless we can find a better way of addressing who is entitled to workplace protections. We are already seeing some private responses, such as alt-labor organizations like the Uber Guild, but much more is required. As a result, I explore reforms— including those that take advantage of emerging technologies—that might mitigate some of the negative effects of workplace innovations and promote changes that benefit workers, employers, and society as a whole. I also address ways to lower structural barriers to such reform, including proposing a “law of work” that would provide a consistent and comprehensible body of law that lowers the cost of compliance for employers and promises better enforcement for all workers, whether or not they are formally considered “employees.”
It is imperative that we consider and prepare for the future. Although innovation can produce many benefits, without a suitable policy response advances in the workplace are expected to impose substantial and long-lasting harms. By examining the likely trajectory of these developments and how they will impact the workplace, I aim to promote efforts to address the impending harms and reform an already outdated workplace regulatory regime.