Over the past two decades, a Great Decoupling of productivity from wages and jobs has begun rewiring economies, pushing out labor as the central factor in economic life. The reason for this is simple: Productivity gains are now principally technology-driven – benefiting the rise of the Internet, automation, behavioral analytics, and social media, as well as increasingly robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning (AI/ML), and the internet of things. As productivity increasingly decouples from labor and becomes a function of technology, the effects are being felt throughout economies and societies. Productivity gains have accumulated disproportionately at the upper end of the wealth spectrum as income inequality grows and social mobility becomes more difficult. At the same time, this pushes labor into gig jobs as work becomes more tenuous. It is not a question of jobs per se, but of the quality of jobs.
Against this backdrop, the Aspen Institute Germany hosted a 4-part workshop series together with Microsoft Berlin consisting of the following sessions: 1) Lessons from Past Industrial Revolutions; 2) Rethinking the Social Contract; 3) Automation and the Education Cycle; and 4) Opening Up the Policy Maker’s Toolbox. These discussions aimed to tackle the questions: How can Europe, the United States and other industrial powers thrive in the face of the great decoupling? How can public policy efforts work to preserve and deepen the dignity of work and meaningful economic participation in the deep digital age? If the changing relationship between productivity, technology and labor is left unaddressed, the risks are high: public anxiety toward AI, robotics and other technology is likely to increase and populist backlash is to be expected.