The Future of Work and Family Prosperity

May 15, 2018 | Aspen Family Prosperity Innovation Community

Last week, as the Department of Labor announced the latest round of employment numbers, I was fortunate to be with the Aspen Family Prosperity Innovation Community—experts and innovators committed to helping families with low incomes become participants in the economy—engaging in a new conversation about the future of work.

The Aspen Family Innovation experts came from around the country and represented the political spectrum.  As Robert Doar from the American Enterprise Institute said, “This community being bipartisan is important. It’s a commitment to explore, but not agree. It’s an opportunity to try those things out.” We were on a shared mission to identify opportunities for people on the margins of our economy –opportunities to earn good incomes, raise stable families and fuel our nation’s economic future.

From our early post-WWII founding, prime ministers to parents with low incomes have described the sweet spot of the Aspen Institute as our ability to bring together the right people for the right conversation at the right time. As our nation considers the impact of an aging and diversifying population, automation, new needed skills, portable benefits, and shrinking labor force participation, to name a few, this was indeed the right time to have a conversation to shift the economic lens of the country that has economic growth and well-being of family as equal goals.

Joining Ascend at the Aspen Institute in this new conversation was the American Enterprise Institute, Urban Institute, The Center for Public Justice, Family Values @ Work , The Center for Law and Social Policy, Legal Aid at Work and the National Partnership for Women and Families.  Together we drilled down on practical solutions, both in the public and private sectors, taking into account emerging trends in the workforce.

With ears open for different points of view and a profound desire to ensure that the American Dream can in fact pass from one generation to the next, we decided to fall in love with the problem we are all collectively trying to solve: What will it take to create meaningful work and advancement opportunities that will propel our country, economy and, most importantly, child and family health and well-being forward  – for this generation and the next?

Fueled by an investment by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ascend at the Aspen institute has created a learning and action community of leaders who are focused on new, bold strategies and solutions that strengthen parents’ employment, economic security, health and well-being. If we want innovative solutions, we must begin by asking different questions. How can we make these policies appeal across the political aisle? What have we learned from data and behavioral research that can inform our thinking? Who needs to lead so the right people will follow?

With the rapid velocity of technology change, it’s not surprising that when we talk about the future of work most people automatically envision a Jetsons-like future in which robots invade our workplaces and take over all our jobs. Robots and artificial intelligence will certainly play a role, but when we talked about the future of work, we talked about the values that need to ground this change and growth – fairness, caring, responsibility, hard work and equal opportunity.

With insights from diverse advisors and speakers, we examined what we know about the skills needed for the future workforce as well as emerging bright spots for new pipelines and types of jobs. Mark Popovich, director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative within the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program described two large potential influences that should push more companies to address job quality: $9 trillion in “impact investing” funds that is beginning to attend to employment practices as well as $2 trillion in local, state, and federal procurement budgets that could tilt towards good companies that offer good jobs for frontline workers.

Gina Adams, senior vice president of government relations for FedEx, gave us an honest assessment of the challenges for both the private and public sectors, telling us, “We have to build trust with employees. And while that trust is building, policymakers need to focus on what will be good for companies – it can’t just be good for one sector.”

Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice and co-director of Caring Across Generations, underscored the growth potential of the care economy as well as the unmet needs of workers who also are caregivers.   Dr. Sarah Enos Watamura, a child development expert, brought the power of brain science and shared research about how parents’ – yes, fathers’ too – brains change after they have a child, highlighting the science case for policies such as paid family and medical leave and universal home visitation. But she also shared insights into how those brain changes impact, and in many cases improve, parents’ lives in the workforce.

Our innovation community discussed a range of new propositions, from the engagement of the sacred sector employers to a new social insurance program to provide paid family and medical leave. But our conversations have just begun.

Child and family prosperity is our powerful shared North Star, guiding us to work together to change the narrative, shape the investment flow and create a strategy for a future of work that taps the potential of all Americans.

Snow was falling when we kicked off conversation, and by the end of the three days together, the grass was green and the sky, baby blue.  We need to imagine the next season, the next era of possibility for family-supportive policies.  Our economy is strong, a new tax bill has passed and cash reserves are high, so let’s invest in human potential that will pay dividends for generations to come and grow our economy in ways we have only begun to imagine.  As the Aspen Family Prosperity Innovation Community continues to wrestle with our country’s thorniest and most critical challenges, I invite you to join us on this journey. If you have bold, new, innovative ideas about how we can ensure family prosperity, share your thoughts on Twitter and tag @AspenAscend  #AspenInnovators.

Header photo caption, from left to right: Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice and Family Prosperity advisor; Annette Bernhardt, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at UC Berkeley Labor Center; Mark Popovich, director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative at the Aspen Institute; and Anne Mosle, vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute. 

Header photo credit: © The Aspen Institute: Photo by Daniel Bayer.

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