History of the Future of Work Program

In the thirty years after World War II, incomes grew rapidly for most Americans and unprecedented numbers were able to join the middle class. Beginning in the early 1970s, however, the real wages of male workers without a college degree began to fall, and today these workers earn real wages markedly lower than those of their counterparts thirty years ago. Since its inception in 1994, the Foundation’s Future of Work program has supported over 200 research projects examining the causes and consequences of this long-term deterioration in the availability and quality of jobs in the lower tiers of the U.S. labor market.

In the first few years of the program, RSF made about 80 awards for large-scale studies of aggregate labor market data. Investigators assessed the evidence that a number of factors had put downward pressure on the wages of low-education workers, including foreign outsourcing, immigration, the decline of unions, deregulation, and technological change. Other scholars studied the social effects of poor-quality jobs and insecure employment – on mental health, alcoholism, family formation and stability, and the cohesiveness of communities. Still other research addressed policies to equip more Americans with the skills demanded in the modern economy, from improving the way schools teach basic cognitive skills to making higher education more affordable for students from poor families. Finally, a few scholars took up the ambitious task of forecasting how the continued computerization of the economy might shape demand for various skills in the future.

Low-Wage Work

In 1998, the Future of Work program switched gears, commissioning a series of in-depth case studies of hundreds of individual firms in over 25 industries in the United States to gain a more detailed picture of how changing competitive pressures were affecting the organization of work within firms and the quality of jobs available to high school educated workers. This project culminated in the 2003 publication of the Russell Sage volume Low-Wage America: How Employers Are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace, edited by Eileen Appelbaum of Rutgers University, Richard Murnane of Harvard University, and Annette Bernhardt of New York University. The case studies described in Low-Wage America reveal a disturbingly common pattern: firms, facing intensifying economic pressures, have sought to hold the line on labor costs by freezing wages, cutting benefits, and reorganizing production, often in ways that intensify work and erode job quality. In the United States where unions are weak, minimum wages are low, and workers with limited education are plentiful, the deterioration of low-wage work has been widespread. Exceptions have been few and far between, and are found mainly where local labor market institutions – high minimum wages or strong unions, for example – make it difficult for firms to compete by reducing wages and job quality. Interestingly, in such cases, firms have found other ways to compete successfully – often by making investments in training or capital equipment to increase worker productivity and thereby bear the costs of maintaining higher wages and better working conditions.

The influence of institutions on the quality of American jobs demonstrated in the U.S. case studies inspired a major new initiative begun in 2004: a comparative study of low-wage jobs in five European countries, where firms face similar competitive pressures as in the United States, but operate under very different institutional regimes. Research teams from Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom conducted case studies of working conditions in five jobs, all of which pay low wages in the United States: call center operators, food processing factory workers, nursing assistants, retail clerks, and hotel housekeepers. The teams examined how differences in the degree to which employees are unionized, whether firms follow low-cost or high-quality strategies, and whether firm ownership is national or multinational affect the quality of jobs in each industry. A series of books reporting on the results of the case studies in each country was published in 2008.

In the next phase of the project, participants from the European studies and from the study of low-wage work in America collaborated on a cross-national comparison of low-wage jobs in the five European countries and the United States, analyzing how different institutional arrangements affect management practices, job quality, and wages. The study’s central concern was whether international trends are the inexorable result of worldwide intensification of economic competition, or whether institutions in some countries have been more successful than others in resisting economic forces and maintaining a higher level of pay and job quality for low-wage workers. The volume Low-Wage Work in the Wealthy World (2010), edited by Jérôme Gautié of the University of Paris, Pantheon-Sorbonne, and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, reports on the cross-national findings and draws implications for U.S. labor policy. While low-wage work in Europe and in the United States often entails much the same drudgery, the incidence of low wages ranges widely – from a low of 8 percent in Denmark to a high of 25 percent in the United States – and the quality of life for low-wage workers varies substantially across the countries studied. The researchers find that the “inclusiveness” of each country’s industrial relations system, including national collective bargaining agreements and minimum-wage laws, and the generosity of social benefits such as health insurance, pensions, family leave, and paid vacation time, together sustain a significantly higher quality of life for low-wage workers in some countries. These results demonstrate that the quality and incidence of low-wage work is more a matter of national choice than economic necessity, and that government policies and business practices inevitably have consequences for the quality of workers' lives. (In 2012, Schmitt updated his research in a report for the Center for Economic Policy and Research entitled "Low-Wage Lessons.")

Following on the large-scale industry surveys of low-wage work in the United States and Europe, the Foundation supported a landmark survey of “off the books” work in low-wage industries in three American cities: Unregulated Work: Analyzing Workplace Violations in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. Funded in 2008, the study assessed the prevalence and impact of workplace violations, such as hazardous working conditions, forced overtime and off-the-clock work, and minimum wage violations. The study’s findings demonstrate that low-wage workers are vulnerable to a broad array of violations and that the phenomenon is widespread. While some groups are more vulnerable than others, all workers are at risk, regardless of race, gender, or immigrant status. Over 25 percent of the workers surveyed were paid less than the legally required minimum wage, an average loss of $2,634 in annual wages per worker. The complete national and city-specific reports on the survey’s findings are now available online as Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America's Cities.

Care Work

In keeping with the Foundation’s long-standing interest in the declining economic prospects of low-wage, less-educated workers, the Future of Work program has turned to an in-depth examination of a major field of low-wage work in the United States – the provision of care to dependent populations. Child care, elder care, care for the disabled, and home health care now account for a large segment of the U.S. low-wage labor market, and the demand for such work will only increase as the baby boom generation ages. Traditionally provided via the informal economy of the family, and often considered "women's work," care work increasingly entails a mix of family, public, and private provision. As care work shifts increasingly from the family to the market, serious questions arise about how well such care can be delivered by market exchange. To better understand the issue, in 2009, the Foundation founded a working group on Care Work in the United States. Under the direction of economist Nancy Folbre of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, nine leading social scientists have been tackling the vexing policy problems that arise from the imbalance between a growing demand for care and the family, market, and state attempts to meet that demand.

The working group addresses a range of theoretical and practical questions about how well care can be delivered by market exchange: How do we measure the quality of care? What is the likely future demand and supply of care work? Why does care work remain low-paying, with sparse or nonexistent benefits, when quality care is so highly valued and the demand has increased? And what is the impact of immigration on the provision and price of care work? The working group addresses some of these questions in For Love and Money, published in 2012. Drawing on diverse disciplines and areas of expertise, the book develops an innovative framework to analyze existing care policies and suggest potential directions for care policy and future research. For more information on the on the working group’s current projects, please click here.

In 2013, the Future of Work program began examining ways to change workplaces via new management practices, instead of the more traditional focus on changing workers via training and education, in order to improve job quality. This new direction builds on the Foundation’s extensive case studies of American firms across 25 industries, undertaken in the late 1990s to see whether U.S. firms could complete successfully while maintaining worker-friendly management practices, as well as the subsequent RSF case studies of low-wage work in Europe.

Should you have any questions about the Future of Work program, please contact us at programs@rsage.org. Otherwise, all information on applying for a research award can be found at How to Apply.


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