Associations in an End of Work Future

Changes in the workforce, especially those affecting poor and vulnerable people, could be a call to action for associations that strive to create new value for their members.

The workforce displacements ahead could affect people that ordinarily wouldn’t expect to find themselves falling into the category of “poor and vulnerable”. Yet the need for education and training and new social support systems will be critical and associations can be a huge part of the solution.

The Foresight Alliance, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, analyzed the growing body of futures research on anticipated changes in work and the workplace. The report recaps trends and issues that will affect everyone, with a special focus on the poor and vulnerable, and posits great questions that could invigorate the mission of many associations and nonprofits.  

The Foresight Alliance forecasts in the “the short to medium term, automation will likely make more workers vulnerable, substantially increase job churn, require new skills that could be beyond the reach of the poor and vulnerable, and potentially shift some workers to lower-skilled, lower-wage jobs.” More flexible work arrangements may offer work yet not with the security jobs provide.   Skilled workers may still be in demand but unskilled or displaced workers face a grim future.
The report forecasts “education and training will become more the responsibility of the worker, more skill-and-experience focused than degree-focused, and lifelong rather than a distinct life stage.”

Doesn’t this sound exactly like association professional development?  Associations are in the business of helping members stay up in their field; this responsibility will be a vital priority in the decade ahead. 

The Alliance futurists examine the potential decoupling of work and income and explore some of the emerging thinking about alternative models for the fair redistribution of work, income and capital. If the economy could produce abundance without full employment, what are our alternatives? Whether you believe that future is possible or not, you should pay attention to this question they pose: “when working for pay is no longer a useful measure of self-worth, what will take its place? Wealth may be redistributed, but there is no system for redistributing the emotional benefits of work.”

Associations and nonprofits do offer meaningful work to members and volunteers in many forms. They run on social capital. In 1995, Jeremy Rifkin concluded the third sector would be essential in his book The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era.” His forecasts seemed a stretch in 1995; today, his conclusions look prescient.  Rifkin described a social economy centered on “human relationships, on feelings of intimacy, on companionship, fraternal bonds, and stewardship—qualities not easily reducible to or replaceable by machines.”  

If these forecasts about the end of work as many people have known it do bear out, associations and nonprofits can remember the greatest value they offer is connecting people with one another to achieve what they cannot do alone. They could need associations to redefine meaningful work and help them find their new place in an altered economy.