April 1, 2020

What the COVID-19 Crisis Can Teach Us about Shaping the Work of the Future

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan called on representatives of important stakeholder groups to come together to build a new social contract for work in the United States -- with an aim of creating a more resilient, more equitable, and more inclusive society.


What can we learn from the COVID-19 crisis to make our economy, our society, and the future of work more resilient, productive, inclusive, and fair?

That was the question raised by MIT Sloan Professor Thomas A. Kochan during a presentation on March 31 that was part of an online event for the MIT Sloan community that focused on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kochan is the George M. Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, and a member of the faculty steering committee for the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan. 

In his presentation, Kochan pointed to a number of overarching lessons about the U.S. economy that the COVID-19 crisis points to:

  1. The U.S. should repair and strengthen its tattered social safety net.  Kochan called for a social safety net where no one who loses a job would lose health coverage; paid sick leave and paid family leave would be enacted nationwide; companies would be incentivized to, if necessary, reduce workers’ hours rather than lay them off; unemployment insurance coverage would extend to independent contractors in the “gig” economy; our society would be preparing the workforce to redeploy them for work needed in the future; and immigrants wouldn’t fear retaliation when applying for benefits they’d earned.

  2. We also need to fill the worker voice void in the United States. In his presentation, Kochan referred to research he conducted with MIT Sloan colleagues that found that almost half (48%) of nonunionized workers in the U.S. would be interested in joining a union if they could -– a considerable increase from surveys in previous decades. Kochan also noted the increased activism by U.S. workers in the last few years -- from teachers to Google employees to Instacart contractors. But, he observed, the U.S. President is not bringing management and labor leaders together to address the current crisis –- something that has been done in countries in Europe and was done in the past in the United States.

  3. We should shift from reacting to technology “pushed” by vendors to “pulling” technology to respond to important societal problems. “We’ve got to ask ‘What are the problems we’re trying to solve?’ and then pull technology in to support how we solve those big problems in society,” Kochan explained. As examples, he cited the need to expand broadband Internet access to everyone in our country and to reconfigure production to address critical shortages of healthcare materials and equipment during the pandemic. Kochan also called on MIT specifically to expand its online education platforms and programs to reach more workers and help them train and prepare for the work of the future.

  4. Important stakeholders in the United States should work together to form a new social contract about work. Kochan called for leaders in business, labor and worker advocacy, government, education, technology, and entrepreneurship to work together, leveraging their collective wisdom, to develop a new social contract about work -- and create a society that is more equitable, more resilient, and more inclusive.
    --Reported by Martha E. Mangelsdorf

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