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The Transformation of Work in an On-demand Economy 

February 15, 2016

Rapid changes in technology are significantly affecting the types of work we do and the very basics of how work is organized. Increasingly, platforms are a common denominator – whether they are performing new functions in traditional businesses or generating entirely new business models. These fast-changing dynamics will be the focus of the March 15 On-demand Economy Conference, led by MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE).

From union leader John L. Lewis to the rock singer Huey Lewis, “workin’ for a living” stirred up strong emotions in 20th-Century America. During that time, employers, economists, politicians and social scientists steered the work-related agenda. But as today’s new paradigms take hold, technologists are at the center of the fray.

Businesses, policymakers and workers still worry about the implications new labor and work models will have on people and productivity, but the ripple-effects of the on-demand economy—aka, the Uber-ization of work—are unlike other recent periods of labor history.

Today’s ubiquitous digital, mobile and social technologies are driving economic and societal shifts, and causing a redefinition of traditional labor roles.

The role of technology will be addressed with fresh insights as follows:

  • IDE co-director Andy McAfee will lead a discussion on The Future of Jobs and Work, examining some of the hard truths we see today: The hollowing out of the middle class; short hours and shifting schedules; the rise of on-demand platforms from Upwork to Uber to Mechanical Turk; declining union membership; increasing globalization and accelerating technological progress. Clearly, he says, jobs aren’t where they used to be, and work is not what it used to be even a generation ago. This panel will discuss the trends reshaping the labor market, and what changes and interventions are needed. (Watch and read a HuffingtonPost interview with Andy on this topic here.)
  • The Role of On-demand Platforms panel, led by MIT researcher Andrey Fradkin, (pictured at right) will feature the key players creating the transformation including Jonathan Hall from Uber, and Peter Coles from Airbnb. 
  • The Changing Structure of Labor Matching and how the matching of customers and service providers is increasingly intermediated by digital and mobile oriented platforms will be the topic IDE Director Erik Brynjolfsson focuses on at the event. (Erik discusses the on-demand economy at the 2015 World Economic Forum here.)
  • Additionally, The New Social Contract for Labor will be explored by Barbara Dyer, president & CEO of the Hitachi Foundation (pictured at left) and her panelists. Assuming that the post-World War II social contract that supported a tandem upward movement in productivity and wages worked well for long-tenured employees and established firms up until 1980, what might be a viable social contract today for those engaged in on-demand and other fissured employment settings?
  • Plenary keynote speaker, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA ), will describe his own interest as well as the government’s perspective on the on-demand economy.