“We need to develop a people-centered, rather than task-centered, economy.”

What We're Reading blog

There is no question that across the country there is great uncertainty about what the future will look like and much debate about how we can best adapt. And today’s thought leaders, policy experts, academics, and other key influencers use varying methods to calculate the impact of technology and globalization on the American Middle Class.

They look for answers in economic data, social surveys, and historical trends, but perhaps they are missing something crucial to establishing an understanding of where we stand today and where we might stand tomorrow. Rather than search for answers, we must first access whether we are even asking the right questions.

In their book, Disrupting Unemployment: Reflection on a Sustainable, Middle Class Economic Recovery, i4j Co-Chairs David Nordfors and Vint Cerf reframe the conversation around technology’s ability to displace jobs by emphasizing, instead, our collective need to displace unemployment. A compilation of chapters written by various i4j (Innovation for Jobs) leaders, the book offers visions for what the job market and society could look like if we focus on the innovation needed to support the job market rather than innovation needed to cut costs, boost productivity, and increase consumerism.

“The American Dream and quality of life for the next generation is about to get worse rather than better, if individuals do not become smarter faster.”

What the book argues for is a fundamental change in how we view our future economic needs. Too often, the discussion around the changing world of work narrowly looks at the future of a task-centered economy rather than at a people-centered economy. If we can put people at the core of how we innovate, we can promote job growth that aligns with the needs of the Middle Class and supports American workers and a strong economy. To do this, we need to call to action the entrepreneurs of the world.

Globally, we have gotten very good at innovating technologies. And while the social and economic benefits of this innovation abound in obvious ways, we sometimes miss that within this innovation lies an opportunity to innovate jobs rather than occupational tasks.

Over the years, I have certainly come to understand the importance of entrepreneurs and the growing need to encourage and develop entrepreneurship in Americans across their entire lifespan. But I have often focused on this through the lens of small business development as the backbone of the American Middle Class and the creation of new technologies. As I read this book, I came to understand another important facet of the equation, that of using our nation’s entrepreneurs as innovators of job development and disrupters of unemployment. But the entrepreneurs can’t go it alone.

“The innovation for a jobs ecosystem needs a common language for a very eclectic variety of stakeholders, many of whom have not shared much language until now. Macro- and micro-economists, labor and innovation public policymakers, nonprofit and for-profit entrepreneurial organizations, philanthropists, and investors are among the many stakeholder groups that need to work together in this new ecosystem.”

Worker-centered innovation requires a collective change. What we need is for companies responsible for job creation to “rethink how they define work,” for schools to remodel education as a mechanism to teach students “to learn how to learn,” for civic institutions to focus on giving marginalized demographics “the tools and platforms they need to find meaningful and rewarding work,” and for us as individuals to “take the initiative to develop our skills more rapidly if we are to remain competitive in the global labor market.”

“Considering how to disrupt employment brings us to the challenge of replacing old institutions that have long been seen as the pillars of modern middle-class economies.”

I found the people-centered approach to the future of work remarkably refreshing. So often in my research I find I spend half the day optimistic about our ability to positively shape the future and half the day worrying that we are doomed because we are not adapting fast enough.

But with this book, I found myself not only optimistic, but also eager to get started on a personal and national level. And as much as the rapidly-changing economic forces we feel create a sense of daunting uncertainty about the future of work, they also create a sense of inspiring uncertainty about the future of workers.

As the authors of the book put it, “we can’t say what the ecosystem that will disrupt unemployment will look like…For the present, finding the right questions may be even more important than answering them.”

Check out more from my What We’re Reading blog here.