work&labour news&research

from the cirhr library

The Robots Are Coming


"Historically, robotics in industry meant automation, a field that asks how machines perform more effectively than humans. These days, new innovation highlights a very different design space: what people and robots can do better together. Instead of idolizing machines or disparaging their shortcomings, these human-machine partnerships acknowledge and build upon human capability. From autonomous cars reducing traffic accidents, to grandparents visiting their grandchildren by means of telepresence robots, these technologies will soon be part of our everyday lives and environments. What they have in common is the intent to support or empower the human partners with robotic capability and ultimately complement human objectives."

"Human cultural response to robots has policy implications. Policy affects what we will and will not let robots do. It affects where we insist on human primacy and what sort of decisions we will delegate to machines."

"My purpose in this paper is not to provide detailed  policy recommendations but to describe a series of important choices we face in designing robots that people will actually want to use and engage with. Design considerations today can foreshadow policy choices in the future. Much of the current research into human-robotic teams seeks to explore plausible practical applications given improved technological knowhow and better social understandings. For now, these are pre-policy technical design challenges for collaborative robots that will, or could, have public policy implications down the road. But handling them well at the design phase may reduce policy pressures over time."

Brookings, July 2014: “How Humans Respond to Robots: Building Public Policy through Good Design,” by Heather Knight [click here for the PDF version, 20 pages]

The End of Retirement

"Jessica Bruder, author of [Harper’s Magazine’s] August cover story, “The End of Retirement,” was on MSNBC’s The Cycle [on July 16, 2014] to discuss the challenges facing Americans who thought they’d be enjoying life after retiring, and instead found themselves part of a vast migrant workforce.”

Harper’s Magazine, July 16, 2014: “‘The End of Retirement’ on MSNBC”

The Web of Wealth: Resiliency and Opportunity or Driver of Inequality?


This brief is part of the Institute on Asset and Social Policy’s Leveraging Mobility Series. Join the Institute for a webinar on Thursday, July 31 at 1pm eastern to learn about the brief’s key findings.

"Families often help each other out financially. In the short-term, financial help limits those in the network from economic collapse or a serious decline in their standard of living. Over the long-term, extended family financial support can provide a  steppingstone to better opportunities, such as going to college, starting a business, or purchasing a home. Financial transfers can also be much larger, fundamentally changing a family’s lot in life. These large financial transfers often arrive in the form of inheritance upon the death of a relative. This network of extended family financial assistance is a ‘web of wealth’ that, in the U.S., profoundly shapes individual family members’ social and economic trajectories beyond their own achievements in work and education."

"A web of wealth depends on the financial resilience and affluence of its members. Some wealth webs are packed with prosperous individuals.  Others have fewer wealthy members whose resources get spread thin within the network. Many family webs have no wealth, especially low-income, African American, and other family of color networks. Across generations, historic policies have contributed to this inequitable wealth distribution. A legacy of slavery and racism has produced limited access and opportunities especially for African Americans to build wealth, while the federal government has invested in the wealth building of the wealthiest Americans. The consequences are stark. Families without a web of wealth to draw on have less household resilience in facing financial disruptions. By contrast families situated in strong wealth webs are able to remain resilient in the face of financial disruptions and can leverage opportunities for upward mobility."

"Inequality in the distribution of wealth webs helps reproduce and exacerbate inequities. For example, a child born into a wealthy family is 6.3 times more likely to end up a wealthy adult than a child born into a poor family. Racial inequities are also perpetuated. One study found that twelve percent of the racial wealth gap could be explained by differences in receipt of family financial transfers."

"This brief explores these themes in greater depth. It describes the relative infrequency of extended family financial assistance, the inequities in its distribution, and the consequences for household wealth holding. It looks at how families use resources from the web of wealth, why families do not have access to a web of wealth, and what they do in its absence to maintain well-being and leverage opportunity. Finally, the brief proposes policy solutions to ensure that families without a web of wealth are able to access the same opportunities as those situated in well-resourced family networks."

Institute on Assets and Social Policy (Brandeis University), July 2014: “The Web of Wealth: Resiliency and Opportunity or Driver of Inequality?,” by Hannah Thomas, Tatjana Meschede, Alexis Mann, Janet Boguslaw, and Thomas Shapiro (16 pages PDF)

Paid Leave Encourages Female Employees to Stay

A mysterious fact that economists are wrestling with is that the percentage of women in the United States who are working or want to work has been declining, after a decades-long climb.”

"The drop is small (and less dramatic than the decline of men in the labor force) but is contributing to a dip in overall labor force participation, which policy makers see as an impediment to economic recovery."

"A series of changes helped women enter the work force in the last three decades of the 20th century, including the Civil Rights Act, the earned-income tax credit, the birth control pill and technology in the home. But then participation began to drop — even as women in some cases became more qualified workers than men (women earn 59 percent of higher education degrees, for instance)."

"Stalled policy goes a long way toward explaining why women stop working, and new approaches could help women complete the decades-long transition into the labor force. One of the most powerful tools would be to mandate policies like paid leave, according to a report published this month by the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

In the last decade, the report points out, other developed countries adopted a variety of policies to help working parents, like paid family leave, subsidized child care and support for part-time work. The United States, meanwhile, did very little, which is why it no longer leads European countries in female labor force participation.”

“’It’s sort of a no-brainer to think about it: If you don’t have child care, you’re going to have fewer women in the labor force,’ said Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers who is on leave as an economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan.

The New York Times, July 28, 2014: “Paid Leave Encourages Female Employees to Stay,” by

Moms Leave the Workforce Because They’re Rational Actors, Not Maternal Softies,” by Jessica Grose

White House Council of Economic Advisers, July 2014: “The Labor Force Participation Rate Since 2007: Causes and Policy Implications”
 (53 pages, PDF)

Teen’s Death Puts Alberta Youth Labour Laws Under Scrutiny

"Christopher Lawrence was working at a gravel-crushing site near Drumheller, Alta., this month when he became entangled in a conveyor belt and was killed. He is one of dozens of workers who will be fatally injured on an Alberta job site this year, but dying two days shy of his 16th birthday, he will likely be the youngest."

"Christopher’s death on July 19 is prompting questions about Alberta labour laws that allow children as young as 15 to work on any job site – including not just retail stores or fast-food restaurants, but heavy construction sites, mines and oil and gas operations."

"While Alberta businesses grapple with what they say is a worker shortageand scramble for any and all available hands, labour advocates fear the province’s strong economy, heavy industrial base and permissive labour laws will push inexperienced teenagers into more physical, risky types of work without strong government oversight."

"Alberta’s laws for young people stand apart from other provinces. Adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14 are allowed to work in offices and restaurant kitchens, provided they follow certain rules that restrict their hours, and keep them from serving liquor or using slicers and deep fryers. Other provinces such as Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan don’t allow teens to do some of the most labour-intensive work – such as construction or mining – until they are at least 16. But Alberta’s rules allow teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 to do almost any job, provided it is supervised and falls within a prescribed set of hours."

How the Recession Reshaped the Economy in 255 Charts

Mary Poppins Quits with Kristen Bell from Funny Or Die

"Mary Poppins (Kristen Bell) is working for minimum wage, and really needs a raise."


Interns, Vulnerable Workers, Target of Ontario Private Member’s Bill

"Students and new immigrants need to be protected from internship programs that pay them nothing for their labour under the guise of training, NDP MPP Peggy Sattler says."

"Sattler has reintroduced a private member’s bill — the Greater Protection for Interns and Vulnerable Workers Act — to give interns greater protection and strengthen oversight of the internship system."

"Sattler is recommending the Employment Standards Act be amended to include persons receiving training, co-op students and secondary students completing a work study program, and that an employer be required to explain to all interns their rights under the act."

"She is also recommending that, besides allowing anonymous or third party complaints, a bill of rights be prominently displayed in a workplace."

"Labour lawyer Andrew Langille said it is estimate some 100,000 people in Ontario, mostly women, are working in ‘illegal’ unpaid internships every year."

“‘Although the Employment Standards Act sets out specific conditions that must be met for trainees to be unpaid, many employers are unaware of the strict rules on the use of unpaid interns,’ Langille said. ‘This is a big problem and it is a growing problem that we have seen in the wake of the financial crisis. Employers are turning to unpaid labour more and more as a means to reduce labour costs,’ Langille said.”

The Toronto Star, July 23, 2014: “Interns, vulnerable workers, target of Ontario private member’s bill,” by Richard J. Brennan

Legislative Assembly of Ontario - Bill 170, Employment Standards Amendment Act (Greater Protection for Interns and Vulnerable Workers), 2014

New Studies Show Strong Correlation Between Declining Union Density and Rising Income Inequality

"Two recent studies from the United States and the United Kingdom have added to the growing body of empirical evidence that shows a strong correlation between declining union density and rising income inequality."

"A new research paper prepared by acclaimed U.K. authors and social epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, shows how the weakening of the labour movement during the last quarter of the 20th century has had a significant impact on the ability of working people to influence their standard of living and quality of life."

"The research paper, entitled The importance of the labour movement in tackling inequality, was prepared for the U.K.-based Centre for Labour and Social Studies and was drawn from a more extensive report by the authors entitled, The World We Need, written for the International Labour Organization (ILO).”

"This paper argues that ‘we must now recreate a movement with the political and social influence that enabled the former labour movement to achieve the major reductions in inequality during the middle decades of the 20th century. A fairer and more sustainable future is possible.’"

"Meanwhile, a study [entitled Union Strength, Neoliberalism, and Inequality: Contingent Political Analyses of U.S. Income Differences Since 1950] by Dr. David Jacobs, Professor of Sociology, and Lindsey Myers, a doctoral student in sociology, both from Ohio State University, has concluded that a major cause of growing income inequality in the United States has been ‘the politically induced decline in the strength of unions.’”

"Their research shows that the role that union decline has played in growing income inequality may actually be larger than many of the favourite explanations offered by economists, such as the education gap in the United States. ‘Among their contributions to income equality, unions reduce pay differences within companies and use their influence to lobby on behalf of the working and middle classes,’ the researchers say."

National Union of Public and General Employees, July 15, 2014: “New studies show strong correlation between declining union density and rising income inequality”

Centre for Labour and Social Studies, July 2014: “The importance of the labour movement in tackling inequality,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (16 pages, PDF)

ILO’s International Journal of Labour Research, Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2014: “The world we need,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett [this article begins on page 19] ](160 pages, PDF)

American Sociological Review, June 9, 2014: “Union Strength, Neoliberalism, and Inequality: Contingent Political Analyses of U.S. Income Differences since 1950,” by David Jacobs and Lindsey Myers

Beyond Stagnation

Dissent’s Summer 2014 issue features a “special section [which] seeks to provide a fuller, progressive answer to the question of how we should respond to stagnation. One common theme of the essays that follow is that ‘recovery’ from the economic crisis is not enough. We need to do more than just recreate the conditions that led to the crash. These articles are pieces, far from complete, of an alternative economic strategy. Each of the authors looks with care at some of our most urgent problems and proposes ideas that would shift the balance of power back toward workers and address the problems of stagnation that bedevil the American economy.”

"Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein point out that workers’ bargaining power depends crucially on the unemployment rate. When unemployment is high, workers are easily replaced and must take whatever wages, benefits, and working conditions are offered. When full employment exists, workers have power to demand, and receive, more. Baker and Bernstein describe a menu of ideas to move us toward full employment.”

"The best fiscal and monetary policy can be undone by a financial system that appears to have been designed for booms and busts. Jennifer Taub takes a dim view of most of the reform efforts taken since 2008. She proposes to break up banks that are ‘too big to fail’ and recommends an alternative agenda in which the financial sector works for the rest of the economy, rather than the other way around.”

"Alan Aja, Daniel Bustillo, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton vigorously dispute the idea that economic problems confronting blacks reflect ‘self-sabotaging attitudes and behaviors.’ They call for ‘targeted universalism’ — universal programs like ‘baby bonds’ (government accounts created at birth that would help young adults fund education, a down payment, or a small business) and a federal job guarantee — that seek to address problems suffered disproportionately by minorities.”

"Congress stands as a major obstacle to progressive policy. Amy Hanauer argues that there are significant but frequently overlooked progressive economic policies — relating to employment standards, waste removal and recycling, conservation, housing, and education — being implemented by states and cities. These efforts, while important in their own right, can also serve as a ‘blueprint for federal action.’”

"Heather Boushey’s ambitious essay advocates building a political coalition around work-family policies such as paid family and medical leave, universal child care and elder care, and an overhaul of labor law to guarantee both flexible work hours and predictable work schedules. Boushey draws on the experience of the New Deal and the Great Society, which delivered relief to workers and the poor while creating a political coalition that protected these gains. In her view, these institutions need updating to meet the needs of families where women are almost as likely to be in paid work as men.”

Dissent, Summer 2014: “Beyond Stagnation,” by By Mark Levinson and John Schmitt

Dissent Summer 2014 issue

Watch John Oliver Explain How Broken America’s Prison System Is

"On [the July 21, 2014] edition of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver continued his strong run of main stories—see, for instance, his recent segments on net neutrality and income inequality—with 17 minutes on America’s exceptionally high incarceration rate, the horrendous conditions inside many American prisons, the problems with privatization, the tastelessness of jokes about prison rape, and the disproportionate criminal penalties meted out to people of color for low-level drug offenses.”

"The riff was inspired by prison reform hearings held last week by the House Judiciary Committee, and it includes a clip from perhaps the most heartbreaking Sesame Street skit I’ve ever seen.”

Slate, July 21, 2014: “Watch John Oliver Explain How Broken America’s Prison System Is,” by David Haglund

Is Social Mobility a Myth?

[C]an anyone get ahead? With the gap between rich and poor widening to Gilded Age levels, if not beyond, lately the question has attracted even more attention than usual.”

"Vast inequality may be acceptable to most citizens if anyone, or at least anyone’s grandchild, has a fair shot at the top. But if wealth and poverty simply perpetuate themselves within families, ever wider inequality becomes ever harder to justify. In America, the debate about inequality is, inevitably, also a debate about mobility."

"Mobility is hard to measure, however, turning not just on who earns what today but on how what people earn — and what they have — relates to their parents’ income and wealth, and their grandparents’ and prior generations’ too. Economists, to their credit, are increasingly stepping up to this difficult empirical challenge. Some are tackling the politically touchy question of whether mobility is greater in America than in western-European countries."

"Others are investigating whether mobility in America has declined in recent years."

"Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California at Davis, has looked at these questions through a different lens. Clark, too, finds that mobility here is no greater than in Europe, and that U.S. mobility hasn’t declined. But he comes to a more fundamental, far more powerful conclusion. Clark argues that mobility is always the same — in all societies, and in every era. Mobility, he claims, is ‘a universal constant’; over time we thrive or not according to a ‘social law of motion,’a ‘social physics of intergenerational mobility.’ And to make matters worse, the universal speed at which families and groups change their social position is slow — a lot slower than everyone thinks on the basis of previous research.”

"The implications are profound. If mobility is constant, then the ability of social institutions to affect it must be negligible."

"The fact that Clark is measuring something broader … helps explain why he estimates mobility to be so much slower. What’s actually being measured, by Clark and everyone else, is not mobility, but its opposite: the degree of persistence (in income, say) from parent to child."

"But how does Clark get at the persistence of his all-encompassing concept of status? His method relies on the tendency, in most societies, for a son to bear his father’s surname (hence his book’s title: The Son Also Rises). Specifically, Clark measures the persistence of status by looking at what has happened over time to groups of people bearing names that, at some point in the past — generations or even centuries ago — indicated socioeconomic status either well above or well below that of the general population.”

"[T]he advantage of looking at surnames is twofold. First, it enormously increases the spans of time Clark can study—up to 900 years in some of his English examples. Second, it allows him to examine countries, like India, where the kinds of directly linked parent-and-child data other researchers use aren’t available and may not be for decades, if ever."

"No doubt economists and others will debate the relative merits of Clark’s method, along with what he’s trying to measure. But the important question is whether mobility is as slow as he says — and whether it really is a ‘universal constant.’ Those claims are well worth taking seriously, in part because his more comprehensive notion of socioeconomic status — a concept economists typically don’t try to grapple with — does seem like what really matters."

The Atlantic, June 25, 2014: “What’s in a Name? Everything.,” by Benjamin M. Friedman

Princeton University Press: “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility,” by Gregory Clark

The Economist, February 1, 2014: “Have and have not”