Most of the two million college students graduating this year will begin careers that will be unrecognizable to their parents and grandparents. The days of getting stable corporate jobs and single company careers are gone.
According to Harvard University Extension School Dean Hunt Lambert, recent graduates can expect to hold 30 jobs in three different careers over the course of their working lives. Many will be self-employed, or work as freelancers, without access to critical benefits such as health care, retirement plans, and training.
Workers already face the challenge of technology and artificial intelligence changing jobs and entire industries. E-commerce has transformed retail, and big data and automation continue to remake manufacturing. As for tomorrow, autonomous vehicles will revolutionize the transportation industry and drones could further change retail. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that by 2030, in about 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of activities will be automated. As machines are increasingly capable of performing “human” tasks, workers will need to take on new and different responsibilities or find new jobs in different industries.
That is why we need to modernize our laws and regulations. As the nature of work continues to change, we can no longer rely on outdated systems and institutions to prepare and protect our workers. It is critical that we think and act now to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed in the changing economy. Recently, the New Democrat Coalition launched an Economic Opportunity Agenda focused on a future that works. In it, the Coalition lays out a vision for closing the skills and opportunity gap, rethinking the relationship between employers and workers, and empowering workers and entrepreneurs.
As jobs and careers change, the United States continues to rely on an education and training system that was built in the 19th century and is designed for the 20th. In our parents’ generation, a high school or post-secondary degree could provide job security and a stable income. Today, even a four-year college degree is insufficient to provide the skills necessary for a successful career.
To keep pace with the rapid changes in technology and the American economy, the government, employers and employees must work together to create a more flexible system of skills-based, lifelong learning opportunities for workers to continuously acquire new skills throughout their careers. We must implement policies that modernize and expand access to both traditional and online education programs that provide career and technical education, and skills development so workers can advance in or change their occupations.
But it’s not just our education and training systems that need to be modernized. The 20th century social contract between employer, employees and government helped build a strong middle class and established the foundation for the American economy to become the strongest in the world. But many of the laws and regulations governing the employee-employer relationship are increasingly obsolete.
For example, unemployment insurance was created in 1935 as a central pillar of the social insurance system for American workers. But the unemployment insurance system was designed for traditional workers in full-time jobs, so it’s unsurprising that the percentage of unemployed workers who receive unemployment benefits fell from about 50 percent in the 1950s to less than 30 percent since 2010. For the approximately 15 million workers who don’t work for a traditional employer, the 20th century laws and regulations that were designed around the existence of an employer-employee relationship simply don’t apply.
There is no reason for these critical supports to be available only to a lucky few. Benefits should be fully portable, following workers throughout their careers.
The changing nature of work presents unique labor force and technological challenges that are exacerbated by stagnant wages and low rates of business formation. To grow the economy, these challenges require balanced legislative solutions that benefit workers and their ability to negotiate, and allow employers to develop and retain a skilled workforce.
With innovative policies that update our laws and regulations for the 21st century, and employers who are willing to be part of the solution, we can prepare American workers with the tools they will need to succeed in a rapidly changing economy.