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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Science, Technology and Data

Building a Policy Agenda for the Future of Work

Fear of increased automation in work has undoubtedly caught the public interest. From international organizations to multinational corporations and TV shows, there have been numerous attempts to predict the impacts that automation will have on the economy – especially within labor markets. Analysing the Future of Work is, however, more than just measuring the net impact on jobs. It is about acknowledging the “many forces of change affecting three deeply connected dimensions of an organization: work (the what), the workforce (the who), and the workplace (the where)”[1].

Unsurprisingly, Americans express two times more worry than eagerness about emerging automation[2]. Yet, although 85% of Americans call for policies that would moderate the influence of these technologies, many believe their own jobs are not significantly imperiled[3].

The truth is digitization, automation, and other emerging technologies will disrupt the world of work in the 21st century at least as much as we witnessed during the 20th century, when societies shifted from economies dependent on agriculture to those embracing manufacturing.

According to McKinsey, “14% of the global workforce may need to switch occupational categories” [4]. This is especially true in advanced economies where “retraining and redeploying tens of millions of mid-career, middle-age workers”[5] will be key. But job change is only half of the story. New labor demand will also be created, specifically in areas of historic underspending such as infrastructure and buildings, or emerging fields like climate adaptation. As many as 90 to 120 million jobs may be generated — but only with the right policy environment and proactive decision-making by organizations[6].

Countering the destructive force of technology on existing jobs will require speeding up its constructive force in new sectors. Further, labor will need to be retooled more quickly than it has been historically. Previous work transformations happened at a generational pace — by contrast, the World Economic Forum predicts that “by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling”[7].

Importantly, the individuals affected by the changing landscape will bear the burden disproportionately. As work is aggressively redesigned around human-machine collaboration — individual workers, who are still vastly better than machines at problem solving, communication, and coping with uncertainty, will be required to participate in how work is redesigned. In this context, there is an urgent need for the development of scalable solutions that go beyond increasing productivity. Initiatives such as the German dual-system apprenticeship program, blending school- and work-based learning, is considered best-practice on how to equip people with the right skills to thrive in new work environments. Solutions like this in the US will involve federal, state, and local governments, as well as corporations, educators, and of course, the individual workers themselves. Getting there will require forward-looking thinking and proactive action to circumvent the existing barriers.

Barriers to the Future of ‘Government’ Work are in Incentives and Skill Recognition

Although the discussion around the Future of Work has focused primarily on private sector jobs, public administrations will be affected as extensively (if not more) than in the corporate environment due to the inherent institutional rigidity and irregular workforce development.

So, early research on the topic, performed by our team, together with the Deloitte Center for Government Insights, focuses out of both necessity and thoroughness on the case of the U.S. Federal Government. Departing from a framework we created on the “Government Jobs of the Future”[8], several facilitated sessions with key branches of government in 2018 and 2019 revealed two primary reasons why public sector organizations struggle with the Future of Work:

  • Decision-makers are given few (if any) incentives to engage with the most relevant new technologies, an undeniable variable in any of their decisions.
  • Public servants today are required to possess a broader set of skills – including analytical skills – yet relevant analytic fields such as data science are yet to be fully recognized within federal job classifications.

Informed by these two takeaways, the second phase of our research attempts to move forward with a framework and with initiatives to generate value-adding policy solutions.

Solving the Future of Work Will Be a Collaborative and Innovative Effort

Concerns around sustainability, inequality, demographics, and the constant transformation of business models make it impossible for a single stakeholder to tackle the necessary policy changes on their own.

Yet, even if issues around the Future of Work are gaining traction across the country (e.g. Washington State, New Jersey[9]) and also in the 2020 Presidential race, where Democratic candidate Andrew Yang has anchored his entire policy platform around the issue[10], these conversations typically happen in silos.

Economists and workforce development experts tend to talk among themselves but not with each other. The Trump Administration, in an executive order in June 2017, acknowledged, for example, how apprenticeships should be improved and expanded to prepare America for the Future of Work. The order was immediately given backbone by a task force and important initiatives like (i), a pilot program providing a one-stop shop for employers, job seekers, and educators, and (ii) the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program have followed that Presidential decision.

The agenda ultimately needs to go beyond one issue, one actor, and one sector.  Meaningful and thoughtful solutions will be cross-discipline. Our team, in the context of digital HKS and in partnership with IDEO’s CoLab and the Stanford Cyber Initiative, will convene a Policy and Prototyping Make-a-thon on the Future of Work with leading practitioners, scholars, and organizations thinking about the issue.

The main objective is to leverage the distinct sets of knowledge and experience around a series of key policy design questions to define a stronger, interdisciplinary toolkit, in a series of publicly available White Papers. This Make-a-thon approach, traditionally used to develop products-vice-policy, will challenge participants to think about both practical and scalable solutions that can create ‘good’ jobs in the Future of Work.

With the immediacy of the issue well-established, developing effective policy solutions could not be more vital. And, where the success of human-machine pairing depends on the approach that decision-makers set for their organizations, our team’s initiative will be an important step forward. At this time, one thing is certain — the number of organizations currently devising policies is dwarfed by the number still estimating potential impacts. To change from the status quo will require the application of an ambitious, disruptive mindset while also preserving the comprehensive participation of worker-minded stakeholders. After all, the success of this global transition depends on how organizations, employees, and individuals are empowered to contribute.

Edited by Jake Moore

Photo by Helloquence

[1] Schwartz, Jeff, Hatfield, Steve, Jones, Robin, Anderson, Siri, “What is the Future of Work”, Deloitte Center for Government Insights (2019), available at

[2] Anderson, Monica (2017), Pew Research Center, “6 key findings on how Americans see the rise of automation”, available at

[3] Ibid.

[4] McKinsey & Company (2017), “What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills, and Wages: Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained”, available at

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs Report 2018”, available at

[8] Eggers, William, Datar, Amrita, Gustetic, Jennifer, “Designing future government jobs: a vision for how to optimize human and technological potential”, Deloitte Center for Government Insights (2018), available at

[9] For example, see State of New Jersey, “Governor Murphy’s Future of Work Task Force Issues Call for Research to Help Prepare NJ’s Workforce for Innovations in Technology and Automation”, available at

[10] “Meet Andrew Yang, a 2020 US presidential hopeful running against the robots” by Simone Stolzoff, in Quartz, available at