New and emerging technologies continue to advance and shape the future of work. In particular, advancements in automation technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly changing the nature of work and the workplace itself. As machines continue to carry out more tasks done by humans, complement the work that humans do, and even outperform some tasks compared with humans, the future of work remains in a state of flux.
The reality is that much of the technological advancements and innovation in the last four decades has not translated into shared prosperity, but rather into an increasingly polarized labor market and rising income inequality. Increases in national productivity have not led to increased incomes for all workers, and the rise of computers and automated tasks has catalyzed job growth primarily among high-education, high-wage jobs and lower-education, low-wage jobs at the expense of middle-skilled “routine” jobs, such as jobs involving information-gathering, calculating, and organizational tasks.
The rise of technology is a larger threat to workers of color. A 2019 Brookings Institution study found that 47 percent of jobs worked by Hispanic or Latinx workers were vulnerable to automation, followed by those of Native American workers at 45 percent, and those of Black workers at 44 percent. In contrast, jobs held by white workers had a 40 percent automation potential.
Of course, technology by itself does not explain the growth in income inequality over the last four decades. International trade policy, the weakening of unions, the declining federal minimum wage, and the failure to update labor and social protections are all major factors and have all facilitated the concentration of incomes at the low- and high-end of the spectrum. However, new technologies have emerged and will continue to emerge in these conditions. Without effort, technological advancements will continue to increase income inequality, weaken worker voice, and widen racial disparities.
A 2019 Brookings Institution study found that 47 percent of jobs worked by Hispanic or Latinx workers were vulnerable to automation, followed by those of Native American workers at 45 percent, and those of Black workers at 44 percent. In contrast, jobs held by white workers had a 40 percent automation potential.
The Future of Work in Illinois report lays out several recommendations to address these issues. For instance, the State should invest meaningful dollars to establish public and private programs that help young people of color access high-skill roles, such as in software engineering and data, so that these programs can provide intergenerational impacts on income and wealth. Additionally, as more new technologies are adopted in the workplace, the Task Force recommends that employers must be required to provide notice to workers in a clear and accessible way and seek workers’ consent regarding all employment-related decisions that are made or assisted by data-driven technologies.
Changing Conditions to Ensure All Workers Benefit from Technology
Research shows that the timeline in which new technologies are developed and adopted is inherently gradual in nature. This provides an opportunity for more intentional effort and policies to ensure that the benefits of technology and innovation can benefit a broader population.
An important factor influencing technology’s impact is how it frees workers from performing mundane and repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on more complex and nonroutine tasks. This often leads to improved service and productivity. Successful companies plan for this transition thoughtfully by standardizing routine tasks and investing in training so workers can handle more specialized tasks. This highlights the importance of strong management practices in ensuring that technologies benefit more than those at the top.
Moreover, the creation of new jobs remains the most significant upside of technological advancement. Technology creates the most jobs when it generates new businesses and industries instead of automating workers’ tasks. E-commerce, and the automation of retail shopping, is an illustrative example. E-commerce has significantly impacted warehousing, transportation, and logistics, including the doubling of warehouse jobs over the last 20 years, many in rural areas. However, as robotics and automation advance in the future, demand is likely to occur for software developers and technicians, and lower-wage workers such as last-mile drivers and warehouse pickers will need labor protections to avoid exploitation.
Protecting Workers in an Increasingly Digital and Data-Driven Future
The rise of data-driven technologies, largely fueled by artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithmic decision-making, has also raised significant equity issues. In particular, employers are increasingly using AI and algorithms to automate processes such as the hiring and assessment of workers. The State of Illinois has already made strides in this regard. For instance, recent laws such as the Illinois Workplace Transparency Act, Illinois Biometric Privacy Information Act, and the Illinois Artificial Intelligence Video Act are some of the most stringent worker privacy laws in the country. However, far more is still needed to ensure that all workers have adequate autonomy and agency in the workplace and are fully protected against inequitable and punitive algorithmic bias.
In hiring practices, research shows increasingly widespread use of predictive hiring tools such as pre-employment skills and knowledge tests, personality tests, and irrelevant screening questions that often discriminate against young people, people of color, and people with disabilities.
In addition to opaque and discriminatory hiring practices, there has also been an increasing use of algorithms to monitor or surveil workers. New technologies enable companies to monitor worker behavior across workplaces, including productivity in warehouses, retail stores, and customer service centers. There is surmounting documentation of such algorithms being misused against workers, such as supporting retaliatory actions against employees.
The reality is much of AI and algorithm-based technologies is still troubled by human biases. Simply put, AI has to be “trained” with existing data and judgments made by human workers, who are also needed to label, tag, and organize data. Ultimately, as more of these technologies are adopted in the workplace, the State of Illinois must also proactively push new policies to ensure transparency and protection for all Illinoisans.
The Future is Here
Technology is already impacting the everyday lives of Illinoisans and will continue to impact the future of work. While the failure of technology to deliver shared prosperity over the last four decades understandably creates more concern than comfort, this failure is not an inevitable byproduct of current technologies. Public and private institutions all play a critical role in ensuring equitable benefits from technology and innovation. Just as workers will need to be empowered with the skills to remain competitive in the labor market, those displaced will need to be retrained and matched to growing occupations. As technological advancements continue to impact the demand for and supply of labor, the State of Illinois and other institutions must actively ensure that worker voice and power remain at the center, and that all workers are entitled to fair work conditions and quality jobs.