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J-PAL North America’s newest initiative explores the work of the future

Nonprofit and industry leaders, researchers, and policymakers gather for a kick-off conference to discuss how to make work more equitable, efficient, and just.
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Practitioner Evelyn Diaz discusses working with J-PAL affiliate Sara Heller on a randomized evaluation to determine the impact of a summer jobs program in Chicago.
Practitioner Evelyn Diaz discusses working with J-PAL affiliate Sara Heller on a randomized evaluation to determine the impact of a summer jobs program in Chicago.
Photo: Spencer Crawford/J-PAL North America

“The future of work will be determined by who yields power and for what purposes. We are in a moment of great transition — we have an opportunity to imagine what a new social contract can be,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice and co-director of Caring Across Generations as she kicked off last Friday’s launch of J-PAL North America’s Work of the Future Initiative.

Gupta opened the confercence with a powerful call to action for participants to shift the narrative around “the future of work.” The newest initiative from J-PAL North America, a research center in MIT’s Department of Economics, the Work of the Future Initiative seeks to identify effective, evidence-based strategies that increase opportunity, reduce disparities, and help all workers navigate the work of the future.

Millions of workers throughout the industrialized and developing worlds could be affected by automation, rising inequality, stagnating educational attainment, and other labor market trends in the coming decades. Many workers lack access to jobs that pay living wages, have jobs with insufficient benefits or protections, or lack the necessary skills or education to progress within their industries in the face of technological change.

By spurring research on effective ways to help workers thrive in today’s changing labor market, the Work of the Future Initiative aims to center worker voices and create a more equitable future of work. The conference addressed a number of big questions, including: How can the future of work be made more equitable, efficient, and just?

“J-PAL North America’s Work of the Future Initiative was launched to catalyze rigorous research on these urgent questions,” explained David Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and co-chair of the new initiative.

Autor also serves as vice-chair of the Institute’s complementary Work of the Future Task Force, a recently-launched group of MIT faculty and researchers exploring how emerging technologies are changing the nature of human work and what types of education and skills will enable humans to thrive in the digital economy.

The Initiative’s academic leadership, including Autor, co-chairs Matthew Notowidigdo of Northwestern University, and J-PAL Scientific Director Lawrence Katz of Harvard University, recognized that across the country, policymakers, industry leaders, and social service providers are actively seeking solutions to labor market challenges.

Many well-intentioned, potentially effective ideas remain untested, however, leaving policymakers without the necessary evidence to assess what will be helpful, neutral, or harmful. Too often, academic researchers, government agencies, and nonprofit and industry leaders are working on these critical problems in isolation, and don’t have the time or resources to tap into each other’s expertise.

J-PAL’s newest initiative seeks to fill this gap by generating new research to help answer these important questions. It will catalyze this kind of rigorous, actionable evidence through an innovation competition model and a researcher-facing request for proposals (RFP). 

The innovation competition is currently accepting promising research proposals from practitioners across the country, and will work with selected partners to develop a feasible, rigorous evaluation of a program or policy focused on the future of work.

Selected applicants will receive technical support from J-PAL staff, flexible funding to get an evaluation off the ground, and access to J-PAL’s network of leading academic researchers to help them design and implement randomized evaluations of their programs.

Evelyn Diaz, president of Heartland Alliance and a panelist at the kick-off event, explained why this kind of rigorous evaluation is critical to an organization’s success. “There is a fear of failure about evaluation, and we need to change the narrative,” Diaz said. “The focus should instead be on how we are learning.”

Those seeking to learn more about the competition are encouraged to sign up for J-PAL's informational webinar on June 26. Through the competition, along with a bi-annual, researcher-facing RFP, the initiative aims to generate actionable research on questions related to the future of work.

Meawhile, with conferences like last Friday’s kick-off event, the initiative will also serve as a convener to bring together leading voices in the future of work space. At the kick-off, participants from academic institutions, nonprofits, philanthropies, and the private sector gathered to share insights, learn from each other’s different experiences, and brainstorm solutions to complex research questions.  

Event highlights included a number of engaging, interdisciplinary panels on challenges and opportunities related to the work of the future.

Gupta and Katz, for example, participated in a lively discussion with Abigail Wozniak from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis on how to shift narratives around the future of work.

Later in the day, Notowidigdo presented key findings from his recent research agenda on the Work of the Future, co-authored by Autor and Northwestern University graduate student Anran Li, and an interdisciplinary panel of industry and nonprofit leaders and academic researchers provided thoughtful commentary on the research agenda.

Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, echoed the review paper’s call for more rigorous research on these topics. “There is a lot of uncertainty about the effect of automation technology on employment. Setting up experiments that will be able to measure those effects is critical.”

David Autor also presented innovative research on how work has — and hasn’t — changed over time, and the implications of this research for worker well-being, and an interdisciplinary panel of researchers and practitioners discussed how they formed mutually beneficial research-practitioner partnerships.

To wrap up the day, J-PAL North America Executive Director Mary Ann Bates moderated a wide-ranging panel on the changing nature of work in the United States that included Katz, J-PAL affiliate Damon Jones, and Julie Gehrki, vice president of philanthropy at the Walmart Foundation.

Bates’ opening remarks on the motivating principle behind the initiative set the tone for the rest of the day’s discussions. “The reason why we care about these topics is because of people,” she said.

By spurring research on effective ways to help workers thrive in today’s changing labor market, J-PAL’s newly launched Work of the Future Initiative aims to center worker voices and concerns and create a more equitable future of work.

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