In November, voters delivered a clear message: the American people are frustrated with an economy that seems to work for everyone but them, and a political system that too often lets them down. The new Administration and Congress should heed this message: revitalize the engine of opportunity in America and restore the promise of work.
Throughout our history, that promise has held our country together — the belief that anyone willing to work hard and play by the rules should have the chance to go as far as their ability and drive will take them. Now, however, the great American bargain is at risk, and so is the middle class it built. For millions of hard-working Americans, our economy is not currently living up to that promise.
While technology and global competition have modernized the American economy in many positive ways, some changes have come at the expense of people who work for a living. Workforce participation is at historic lows, while hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs sit vacant awaiting employees with the necessary skills. Contracting, outsourcing, and automation can improve efficiency and lower the cost of doing business, but also make it harder for Americans to find jobs with the wages, benefits, and skills training to get ahead.
The factors amplifying these trends are numerous and complex. One of us worries that pressure from investors is forcing many public businesses to focus on short-term profits rather than long-run value creation — often leading to workers paying the price. Another of us is concerned that businesses are overregulated, which inhibits job creation and drives businesses to rely more heavily on contract and contingent work, which in turn provides even less security to workers.
We both believe in American capitalism. It has proven to be the greatest force in history for lifting people out of poverty and creating the incredible country Americans and billions elsewhere enjoy today. But the same forces that make our economy more dynamic, efficient, and competitive are making ordinary people worry what the future holds for them. Over the past year, as co-chairs of the Aspen Institute’s bipartisan Future of Work Initiative, the two of us have crisscrossed the country to ask entrepreneurs, workers, thinkers, and civic leaders important economic questions of our time: how to make capitalism work for businesses and the American worker and ensure everyone has a stake in America’s success.
We have just released our analysis of the future of work and a set of solutions from across the spectrum. The challenges we face are new, and neither side has all the answers:
- We must make benefits and protections more portable, so Americans can count on economic security in changing times as they inevitably move from job to job. We propose unemployment insurance reforms to promote labor mobility and creating a Benefits Innovation Fund to challenge cities, states, companies, labor and nonprofits to pilot new portable benefit models. By supporting experimentation, we can inform future policymaking with evidence of what modern workers in new arrangements need, what models work, and what types of benefits can be effectively offered or provided.
- We need to reward work by giving everyone a stake in their company’s success. We propose greater ownership and profit-sharing opportunities to give workers a greater stake in the companies to which they devote their labor.
- We need to reward investment in the workforce so Americans gain the skills to compete and get ahead. We propose tax policies to give companies a greater stake in training, retraining and relocating the workers in which they invest.
The nature of work may be changing, but the value of work has not – not only in providing material well-being, but in confirming human dignity and usefulness. We believe America can build a stronger, more inclusive economy where Americans can earn more and own more, and gain the skills and benefits they need to get ahead; where businesses have a well-trained workforce and public companies have more freedom to take the long view; and where work provides structure in our society and dignity in our lives.
The same entrepreneurial spirit of invention that made American capitalism the engine of economic and social mobility must be brought to envisioning the next stage of capitalism to ensure every American has the chance to get ahead again. We hope the new leaders in Washington and Americans across the country will join us in rising to this challenge.
Warner is a United States Senator from Virginia. Daniels is President of Purdue University.