The very concept of how, where and why we we work is undergoing a tectonic shift, to the extent that the industry currently most ripe for disruption may well be industry itself.
It’s projected that the majority of the workforce will be freelance within the next 10 years, while ongoing digital and technological advances will serve to make some jobs more flexible and others obsolete. Only the most nimble workers will survive this transition seamlessly. Since 58 percent of the freelance workforce is female, their jobs will be the majority of those affected.
At the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday, CBS News/CNN correspondent Bianna Golodryga moderated a robust panel on “The Future of Work” featuring a pair of Fortune 500 executives (Melissa Arnoldi of AT&T and Jennifer Rademaker of Mastercard); a stand-out tech founder, venture capitalist and social entrepreneur (Leah Busque of TaskRabbit); and an influential academic, author and world economist (Dambisa Moyo). The discussion that ensued centered less on the question of “How can we ‘fix’ where we are?” and more on how we can best get to where we need to go—and what can be done to ensure that women don’t get left behind.
Diving right into one of the most transformational aspects of today’s work—the emerging relevance and clout of the gig economy—Golodryga first asked Rademaker how Mastercard, a brand that presents itself as deeply interested in its customers’ financial health and well-being, is addressing current challenges unique to its clients who “gig.”
Drawing from recent internal ethnographic research, Rademaker evoked her “muse,” whom she calls Shelly: a wife and mother in Ohio who, along with her husband, has “patched together” an income of around $50K, juggling four different jobs. While the income volatility inherent in such a lifestyle often leaves Shelly a “wreck,” Rademaker told her story as an example of how Mastercard and its partners are working to develop “real-world, tech-driven solutions” to help customers like Shelly and her family “manage the dry spells and anticipate upcoming shifts in income and cash flow.”
Responding with similar enthusiasm to the market opportunities that emerge along the fault line between innovation and instability, Busque described how she was inspired a decade ago to build the freelance platform TaskRabbit, a company that was in the forefront of the sharing economy curve. “I started in 2008—a really tough time,” Busque said. “The whole idea of rideshare, of jumping into a stranger’s car, was weird…. But what inspired me as an engineer was seeing new technologies emerging—mobile, the iPhone, location-based awareness. I thought I could mash together these technologies to connect people in real time to get real things done.”
Busque presented herself as more of a “doer” than a visionary, but she did speak to her sense, back then, that “the future of work was changing and [these new technologies] would play into it.” She continued, “But if you asked me a decade ago is this where I thought everything was going? No!”
While acknowledging that the financial crisis in 2008 drove many to freelance from need, Busque argued that since then a fundamental shift in values and worldview has given today’s freelancers more agency. She said she dislikes the term “gig economy,” which she called “demeaning” to accomplished workers who freelance by choice. Citing the fact that 60 percent of the “Taskers” on her platform list flexibility as a key benefit to freelancing, Busque was bullish on the opportunities—and responsibilities—this shift presents: “Flexibility is the option to create one’s own work flow, but to also be able to adjust that work flow to better meet otherwise random needs.” She continued: “There needs to be a ‘marriage’ between choosing flexibility, while also managing instability. This presents a tremendous opportunity for businesses and workers … we are looking for the next generation of companies that will solve the HR crisis.”
The same “crisis” is also a concern for AT&T’s Arnoldi, who spoke to the top-down challenges of managing a human workforce that values flexibility versus rapid advances in labor automation. Like Busque, Arnoldi takes a market-driven view of the “opportunity” this moment presents. While machines may well take some jobs, she argued, they’re also giving rise to new ones. The trick is to manage the transition smoothly by investing in training and skills development for humans.
Arnoldi also heralded this moment as a “watershed” for women, saying that while there’s still room for improvement, corporations like hers are more willing than ever to work with employees—most often women—who prioritize “human-centric” benefits like flex time and parental leave: “AT&T has done a great job of understanding how to support women in the workforce.” She continued, “Absolutely, we’re not anywhere where we need to be from the female perspective, but we’re always looking over our shoulder to ask what’s happening next, and do we have everything we need? We need to pull other women in front of and behind us.”
Busque jumped in bluntly. “Let’s be honest: work is not working for women,” she said. “They’re 60 percent of college graduates, but there are still so few in leadership roles. They drop out to take on child care, but 80 percent say they’d stay if corporate flexibility were better.” Arnoldi enthusiastically agreed.
As the sole economist on the stage, Moyo began by looking backwards to identify linkages between the current labor evolution and the initial shift to a manufacturing economy more than a century ago. She considers the tech shift just as proportional and, not surprisingly, was the only participant who spoke of government responsibility and policy solutions to manage collateral damage to the workforce. “The job of government is to protect its citizens,” she said.
Moyo asked how many workers over 40 actually spend their time learning new skills—especially the high-level tech skills that are required for many of these emerging roles. “It’s a very big ask of individuals to do that.… Not all of us are coders or scientists.” She projected that the need for service-oriented skills like language and culture management—areas where women have traditionally excelled—will likely not diminish, but much depends on how the transition to automation and other advances plays out.
Golodryga closed the discussion by bringing up a recent study from Deloitte & Touche that showed the future workforce will “work longer” but will also be more female and more diverse. She asked the panel to offer their own predictions for the future. Moyo chose diversity, saying that growth from Africa and other parts of the world will upend the notion of a boardroom filled only with white males from certain schools. Arnoldi suggested that robots and humans would peacefully co-exist. Busque envisioned an economy with an even split between freelancers and corporate employees, perhaps with corporations like Facebook and Google participating in the sharing economy by splitting staff. Rademaker said she hoped that, in ten years, the women who are speaking up now—whom she called “this remarkable new generation”—will have achieved power and influence to change things for the better.
And, on that note, they all agreed to meet up again for Women in the World 2028.
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi.