Mind the gap:  Technologies, trends, and policies that will shape the future of work

Mind the gap:  Technologies, trends, and policies that will shape the future of work
Spring 2019

3 credits, CUNY Graduate Center
Ann Kirschner, University Professor, CUNY Graduate Center (room 4110)
Dean Emerita, Macaulay Honors College

Wednesday 415p – 615p at the Graduate Center, room 3306

office hours:  Wednesday 230 – 4p and by appointment.

The course is open to all GC and IUDC doctoral programs (Columbia, NYU, Princeton, Rutgers and others) and Macaulay Honors College students, and is cross listed as an elective with the CUNY Graduate Center departments of MALS; The Futures Initiative; Political Science, Sociology, and Urban Education.



Mind the Gap will study the future of work.  We will address this question: As we think about the range of possibilities for the future of work — from the utopian to the dystopian — what are the policies, technologies, and social systems that should be anticipated today to ensure positive outcomes?  We will take an interdisciplinary approach to developing our skills as analysts and policy-makers, looking at trends in technology, globalization, and demographics, and evaluating alternative interventions by government, industry, educators, and other stakeholders. The course will also bring in distinguished speakers to share their experience and ideas.

The future of work is also the future of education. Woven through this course will be the thesis that the road to social transformation lies through strategies for equity and upward mobility through learning.

Coming soon to your neighborhood…Driverless cars.  Stores without cashiers. Supermarkets stocked with food that was harvested by robots and delivered by drones.  Restaurant with automated burger flippers. Classrooms stocked with virtual reality headsets and no teachers. Nursing homes with comfort care e-surrogates.  Hospitals with virtual doctors. Brain-computer interfaces that cure blindness and fix spinal cord injuries.

Sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or the Second Machine Age, we are on the cusp of an era in which artificial intelligence, automation, genetics, robotics, blockchain, data science, nanotechnology, 3D printing, quantum computing, computer vision, virtual reality, to name just a few, are transforming how we live, learn, and earn.

In previous eras, major shifts in technology created as many new jobs as they destroyed.  Many of these technologies do far more than automating simple tasks: they accelerate and augment our thinking. It is therefore important to ask: will this era be the same?

Some predictions are that about 50% of all jobs can and will be automated. Will these emerging technologies create jobs or destroy them? Will these shifts magnify the trends towards income inequality?  As more and more people choose or are forced to choose contingent labor roles, what will happen to the employer-employee relationship and to productivity? Are we doomed to a period of massive unemployment and social unrest?

Or will technological advancement lead to a new utopia? Are we headed for smart systems that will usher in an era of greater leisure time, elimination of repetitive tasks, and expanded access to education and health care? Will colleges and universities adapt to provide continual evolution of skills— or cease to be the dominant providers of specialized education?  Will our government adopt universal basic income or other new safety nets? In a world with far fewer jobs, where will people find satisfaction in their daily lives?

The stakes could not be higher.  As Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of New America, says in the conclusion to the SHIFT report on Work, Workers, and Technology:

Now is the time to discuss these issues, while we still have the chance to shape our responses to a future we can imagine, even if we cannot precisely predict its scale and scope. Unemployment, underemployment, and even serial uncertain employment create deep stress, which, in turn, spawns rage and resentment. That is not a society that we want to live in. It is also the antithesis of the American dream, the promise of opportunity and possibility for anyone willing to work hard enough to seize it. If you cannot find work no matter how hard you try, or you work three jobs but cannot get ahead, hope will turn to hate; the drive to create will turn into the drive to destroy.

The course:

Mind the Gap will address this question: As we think about the range of possibilities for the future of work — from the utopian to the dystopian — what are the policies, technologies, and social systems that should be anticipated today to ensure positive outcomes?

The course will examine the historical role of work, the outcomes of previous technological shifts, and the ethical dimensions that should inform our planning for the future. The focus will not only be on technology but on drivers for change, the context in which they are taking place, from changing demographics to globalization to climate change.

Of course, there is no one true version of the future: only futures.  The course assumes that the future is a page not yet written, and that we have a window of time in which business, government, and the individual can proactively adapt and shape a better future.  How do we get them all to pull in the same direction, mindful of the dangers if they do not align in their understanding and plans to deal with these emerging opportunities and challenges?


The course will be conducted in a seminar format, emphasizing class presentations and participation. There will be visitors drawn from leaders in policy, technology, and economics related to future of work.

Each seminar meeting will conclude with a weekly lightning round, where students will present a recent article/new study based on their chosen topic within the broad subject of the future of work.  These should be “ripped from the headlines,” i.e., contemporary studies or recent articles that are not necessarily scholarly  but represent something in the way of advancing our thinking.

An example:  how big is the gig economy?  and how transformative?  two eminent economists recently revisited a previous study and concluded that estimates had been grossly overestimated.  Here’s a WSJ article summarizing the new thinking, with links to the study, an important update on this trend shaping the future of work.

Please note:  the lightning round is NOT specifically linked to the topic of the week, but to your chosen subtopic within the broad arena of future of work.

Another example:  if you happen to be interested in the issue of technology and ethics, you might present this recent article on the obligations of engineers to take into account the ethical dimension of their inventions.


1. Students will be responsible for writing and posting and then presenting a summary of your independent lightning round.

  • The written post should be short — no more than 1-2 pp long, about 300 words. I prefer that you do this every week, but as a minimum, I expect you to complete at least 5 of these over the course of the semester.
  • What did you get out of this article?  Reflect on it…push back on it…tie it to something else you’ve read or thought or believe we should be considering.
  • These should be posted here BEFORE the beginning of the class to which the assigned reading is linked. Deadline:  Monday at 10A.  Please tag them as Lightning Round.  
  • Posts will be graded on a check (you did it) or check plus (you did it and provided some extra, well-written insight that advanced our understanding).
  • Note:  your grade for class participation will include your online comments on your classmates or my postings, so for those of you who prefer to talk less and write more, here’s your opportunity.

2.  Students will do an oral history interview with a subject of their choosing on the subject of work.  Together, we will develop an interview guide and you will use it for your interview, which you will then present to the class to help us shape our sense of satisfaction and affirmation in work, and well as its frustrations and challenges.  

3. As a mid-term project, each student (or students working in groups of two or three) will choose and present My Big Idea. This should focus on a policy proposal based on a well-defined problem and a solution, considering audience, feasibility, impact.  For the rest of the semester, your lightning rounds will focus on developments in and around that idea and project. The class will critique My Big Idea.  

4. As a final assignment, students will develop My Big Idea and present a case for policy, technology, or system that will lead to a better future of work.  “Better” in what way? Up to you. This can take the form of an 8-10pp paper, focused on your big idea.  But I’m entirely open to options: you might do this as a group project, in which case it would have to be more than a paper, maybe a paper plus some collaborative material that you define, eg a website, a literature search, a set of recorded/facilitated interviews with domain experts, a scenario for a big idea. And think of wildcards: Pick five recent books, say, on universal basic income, or contingent labor, or future of higher ed, and review them from the perspective of the course, and interview the authors.

Some examples of interesting future of work/policy papers done for this seminar:  

— Proposal for Unemployment Education Insurance

— Road Usage Revenue Options (after introduction of Autonomous Vehicles)

— Who is At Risk?  Analysis of unemployment projections segmented by demographics

— Proposal for Use of Blockchain for OSHA Reporting

Got a better idea for your final project? Try me!

Grading:  ½ class participation (including lightning rounds and online postings), ½ final project