Digital economy can be path to inclusive capitalism

Increasingly staffed by temporary workers, the workplace is moving away from the secure, long-term jobs that were long the path to the American dream.

In his new book, “Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary,” work futurist and economic historian Louis Hyman explains what’s happening and how the booming new gig economy can offer freedom and opportunity, not just precarity.

“Security for workers and social obligations have fallen to the wayside. We need to help people understand where we have choices and we need to create more inclusive capitalism,” said Hyman, associate professor at the ILR School.

“People like having control over their lives. That’s one of the hopes of an independent work force. But how do we bring economic security? Autonomy and economic security are core American values. How do we turn the digital economy into something that works for everybody?”

While many blame Uber and other digital economy apps for the growing number of temporary jobs, look instead to the reorganization of the corporate workplace over the past 40 years, said Hyman, director of ILR’s Institute for Workplace Studies, where ILR’s Future of Work series is based.

“Uber is not the devil. Uber was made possible because the rest of the workplace is so bad,” he said.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Hyman wrote, “The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes.

“This insight is crucial for anyone concerned about the insecurity and other shortcomings of the gig economy. For it reminds us that far from being an unavoidable consequence of technological progress, the nature of work always remains a matter of social choice. It is not a result of an algorithm; it is a collection of decisions by corporations and policymakers.”

For those who mourn the death of old-time secure employment in which a worker could hold onto a job for decades, Hyman points to the dark side of that model; women, people of color and immigrants were often excluded from those jobs.

Ninety-four percent of net new jobs in the past 10 years sprang up outside of traditional, full-time employment, Hyman said, and a third of workers are making part or all of their income in the alternative work world.

The burning question, Hyman said, is “How do we create economic security for everybody? How do we turn the digital economy into something that works for everybody, not just the 1 percent?”

The digital economy allows individuals to reach the global market, Hyman said, but it will require new mindset. “Instead of fighting flexibility, we need to understand how to use it to empower workers to take advantage of this revolution.”

Part of making the new economy accessible and profitable for individuals, he said, will be building a new security net – one that would perhaps include portable benefits that would be carried from gig to gig.

Learn more about Hyman’s book in this Slate interview.

Mary Catt is assistant director of communications for the ILR School.

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