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Change Generation

6 Ways Cities Can Prepare For The Future Of Work

From benefits that don't come from your job to a basic income, cities need to be the laboratories to find solutions for a world where most tasks are automated.

6 Ways Cities Can Prepare For The Future Of Work

[Photo: EschCollection/Getty Images]

Work isn't what it used to be. Jobs are being automated out of existence. Fewer of us are tied to single, long-term employers. Up to 25% of tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance, and agriculture may be lost to robots and artificial intelligence by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. And traditional nine-to-five jobs may go to the way of the dodo bird. As Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, said recently: "My father had one job in his lifetime. I will have six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will have six jobs at the same time."

A new report from the National League of Cities (NLC)—an advocacy group representing 19,000 cities, towns, and villages—looks at how to prepare for such a future. It argues that cities are likely to benefit most from technology, but also that they'll be "epicenters of potential tensions and upheavals associated with automation." Cities, it says, need to come up with policies—from new types of infrastructure to new forms of unemployment insurance—to mitigate the shift to nonconventional employment.

Here are a few ideas:

Invest in broadband

About two-thirds of Americans already depend on high-speed internet for their jobs. By 2018, that's likely to go up by another 25%, according to figures from the Internet Innovation Alliance. "Reliable gigabit speed (or higher) fiber networks are critical to supporting traditional large and small businesses as well as micro-enterprises that conduct business from homes or other nontraditional locations," the report says.

Invest in community spaces

With more us working independently and outside of offices, there's a greater need for neutral coworking spaces (and less need for gold-plated company HQs). "Work is most people’s primary social network and an important source of identity," says NYU professor and sharing economy expert Arun Sundararajan. "As more and more people do not have this institutional affiliation, and are working more independently, cities will need to work to develop new community infrastructures, to be community creators for their freelance workforces."

New forms of insurance

Short-term workers need two new types of protection, says Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancer’s Union. The first is against "wage theft," where employers fail to pay freelancers, or pay them very tardily. New York City recently passed a law penalizing employers who exploit contract workers. The second is against income irregularity. "A new model that is more appropriate for the new economy might account for several instances of unemployment during the course of the year, but those instances would be very short," she says. "This represents an opportunity to smooth out the impacts of episodic income."

Portable benefits

Typically only workers on full-time contracts get a full range of employee benefits, including disability, retirement, or health coverage. Workers on flexible contracts or no contracts—now representing up to 40% of the workforce—do not. Portable benefit schemes, which are administered independently of the traditional employer-employee relationship, could help fill a gap, say some unionists, gig economy CEOs, and others. These would be prorated based on the time you put in (one hour working for Uber might equal one-fortieth of what a full-time worker gets at Uber, for example) and attach individuals wherever they work.

Make it easier for criminals to work

One in three Americans has a criminal record, affecting their ability to find work. More than 100 cities "have taken measures to eliminate employment barriers for otherwise qualified individuals who have records," including banning boxes on application forms forcing individuals to disclose their pasts (i.e., the "Ban the Box" movement). "City leaders are in a position to ensure that all of their constituents, regardless of their past indiscretions, have the opportunity to rehabilitate and contribute meaningfully to society through work," the report says.

Basic income

Most ambitiously, cities can experiment with alternative welfare policies like basic income, where individuals get a living wage to cover their fundamental needs. The idea has advocates across the political spectrum, and cities could be early testbeds. Utrecht, in the Netherlands, is about start a basic income pilot, for example. In the U.S., basic income experiments are more likely at the local rather than federal level, observers say.

See more from the NLC report here.

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