Five Principles for Engagement on the Future of Work(ers) and Two Big Ideas

In these videos, Sarita Gupta (Jobs with Justice) talks about collective bargaining and the future of work and Michelle Miller (Coworker.org) describes the concept of “surveillance capitalism” and data generated by workers. Please watch and share these videos! 

Below, Emma Oppenheim (Open Society Foundations) and José García (Ford Foundation) share how they're thinking about the future of workers.


The future of work is everywhere. Between the two of us, we’ve attended countless conferences, meetings, report releases, or other future of work-themed events. In philanthropy, many of us are grappling with the changing nature of the economy and employment, and how it intersects with our programmatic priorities. The terrain is shifting quickly as new research is released and advancements are announced, and it can be hard to keep up with the ongoing conversations.

As members of Funders for a Just Economy (FJE), a program of the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), we’re coming together to track this arena, better described for our purposes as the future of workers, as a group—no one should have to do this work alone!

We think that two practices are missing from philanthropy’s approach to the future of workers. The first is a set of principles to guide our analysis as we drink from the proverbial firehose of information. We echo our colleague, Beth Gutelius', proposal of a set of principles for engagement:

  1. Change is certain, but its path is not. Many observers of the coming changes are quick to repeat dystopian predictions of mass unemployment and robot takeovers. Let us be clear that humans create technology, just as humans create policy and humans decide what is socially and economically acceptable in our society. There are myriad ways we can and should consider shaping the process of technological change as it plays out, and funders can play an important role in encouraging a thousand flowers to bloom in this arena.
  2. The effects of technological change will be uneven across race, gender, immigration status, and geography. These disparate impacts should occupy a central place in our analysis of proposed interventions.
  3. We can think about the future of work as another form of a just transition. In the climate change realm, this term means building a system to replace our current resource extraction and consumption culture with healthy, sustainable, vibrant, non-extractive economic and social opportunities. In the world of work, we can borrow a just transition framework, which will involve more forms of technology and change jobs and industries. The results of this shift—both positive and negative—will not be spread evenly. Funders are well positioned to support groups that are organizing and advocating for innovative policy solutions come from this framework.
  4. The role of the public sector will be crucial in setting and enforcing workplace standards and delivering social protections. Especially after the recent SCOTUS decision in Janus v. AFSCME, there is no other institution better positioned to provide common frameworks and accountability measures for the employment relationship. Innovation and expansion of a range of crucial benefits will be important, including making programs more flexible and robust enough to meet the realities of the modern economy.
  5. Those workers most affected by an issue should be involved in shaping any proposal or campaign to address it, and the process should help build workers’ voice and agency to act. There are many ideas floating around that might improve the lives of workers, but workers themselves know best what they need, and those on the front lines, especially immigrants, trans and queer workers, women, and workers of color, should help to shape both policy and workplace conditions so that they are tailored for their reality.

In addition to a set of principles, we believe we must continue to grapple with these issues through regular meetings, conversations, and shared learning, or risk allowing others to continue to frame both the problem statement and the solution sets on the table. As a network with over 100 members and a long history of helping funders engage in collective learning and analysis, FJE is well positioned to play this role, and indeed is already stepping in to address this gap.

Last summer, FJE convened its members for an initial dive into the future of work to discern areas of overlapping interest. This year, FJE hosted a series of virtual conversations about prominent topics in the future of work swirl, like technology and automation, universal basic income, and laws that limit protections for platform company workers. We presented a workshop on the evolving worker justice movement during the NFG biennial conference in St. Louis, MO. And, we partnered with Sarita Gupta of Jobs with Justice and Michelle Miller of Coworker.org to hear their biggest ideas about the future of workers, the changing nature of employment, and where they see the worker justice movement heading. All of these activities helped to move us, collectively, toward a more nuanced understanding of the change underway.

We’ll undertake this collective work with a commitment to curiosity, adopting the framework of the five principles for engagement as a north star of sorts to help us assess information, proposals, and arguments about the future of work. We invite you to join us on this exploration!


Emma Oppenheim is program officer for economic advancement with the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs. She manages a grant-making portfolio that seeks to build an economy governed by policies that promote equitable growth and just distribution of resources, as well as a portfolio focused on strategies that harness technology to build the power, reach, and sustainability of organizing and advocacy.

José García is a program officer on the Future of Work team at the Ford Foundation. The Future of Work team seeks to bridge the gaps between consumers’ hopes and needs, workers’ experiences, changing business models, evolving technology, and political strategies, with an eye to shaping a collective agenda. By bringing together unlikely partners, José and the team aims to seed strong coalitions that can devise powerful solutions to the challenges wrought by the changing nature of work today.