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Book Review: The Many Futures of Work

Book review of Creticos et al.'s The Many Futures of Work: Rethinking Expectations and Broadening Molds (2021)

Published onNov 30, 2022
Book Review: The Many Futures of Work

The Many Futures of Work: Rethinking Expectations and Broadening Molds, edited by Peter A. Creticos, Larry Bennett, Laura Owen, Costas Spirou and Maxine Morphis-Riesbeck (2021). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 

The Many Futures of Work explores work from a law, economics, and policy perspective. Published at a time of labor shortages and economic insecurity in the United States, the book interrogates what it means for jobs to provide fair wages and benefits for their workers and stability for the families and communities from which the workers hail. Drawn from “The Many Futures of Work” conference organized by the Institute of Work and the Economy in Chicago in 2017, the chapters in this volume bring together multiple stakeholders – from governments, civic organizations, trade unions, academia, business groups, and communities – to think through the factors driving the futures of work, barriers to worker equity, and the policies and practices that can orient employers towards providing stable and sustainable jobs. The Many Futures of Work, which comprises five parts and eighteen chapters, is a response to heightening inequality that the economically dispossessed experience in the contemporary United States. 

The first part describes work-related structural inequalities by examining the axes of gender, race, disability, and migration status. This part demonstrates how material inequities force classes of workers into different career trajectories that frequently thwart their socio-economic mobility. The chapter on gender by Ruth Milkman highlights growing inequality among women based on their education levels and career paths, as well as to macro-scale factors such as work accessibility and family policies. Rob Paral exposes how immigrant workers in the United States are typically offered jobs that are beneath their skill levels, thrusting them into the category of “low-skilled” workers. Patrick L. Mason complicates the link between job competition and racial discrimination in the U.S. labor market by situating how people utilize their racial identities strategically to be selected for jobs and any subsequent promotions. 

The second part explores increasing inequality caused by differences in earnings among workers, their levels of training, and the dynamics of corporate financialization. In a chapter on wage inequality, Eileen Applebaum asks why workers with the same skill levels are paid such different amounts, tying this unfortunate reality to factors such as outsourcing and supply chains. William Lazonick argues how the “investment triad” (p. 120) of households, governments, and businesses can help workers secure more of the gains from their labor productivity, over a present situation in which firms monopolize control of this and other financial resources.

The third part of the volume explores the emergence of online platforms and gig work and how these devalue the notion of skill in workers. James Bau Graves refreshingly takes on the original meaning of the “gig” economy as in a music performance – tying together notions of skill, training, and business management that professional musicians duly utilize. Chris Warhurst, Chris Matthieu, and Sally Wright interrogate the technological determinism that mediates our relationship with digital platforms such as Uber, exploring the possibility of plural futures ranging from accommodation to advocacy and adaptation. Martin Kenney and John Zysman discuss the worrying propensity of “entrepreneurial finance” (which includes venture capital, angel investing, and crowdsourcing) to tide over businesses’ operational losses via maintaining high share prices, which – the authors argue – pays scant attention to the actual skills and well-being of the firms’ workers.

Labor activism forms the core of the fourth part of the book. This section amounts to a strong empirical response to the conceptual problems spelled out earlier in the book. The chapters in this section may be of interest to anthropologists of work as they feature workers’ voices envisioning responses to problems in contemporary workplaces. Saru Jayaraman and Devan Shea demonstrate how existing payment practices for services such as tipping in the restaurant industry could be a legacy of slavery, while the pair also asserts the pressing need for fair wages. Stephen Herzenberg raises the prospect for large-scale unionization efforts such as the “Fight for $15 and a Union” and identifies pre-union “worker centers” as a possible response to the fragmented workplaces of the future. Michelle Miller and Eric Harris Bernstein explore three policy responses to strengthen the rights of workers: namely, their refusal of mandatory arbitration, class-action waivers, and non-compete clauses.

The fifth part of the book discusses various ideas that govern the futures of work in the context of the United States. Phyllis Morren expands the definition of a productive worker by merging young and older workers into an experience continuum. Thomas Croft and Annie Malhotra propose “commonwealth companies” as a means to enact workplace democracy via worker ownership. In a similar vein, Christopher Mackin argues for a broad-based agenda of employee ownership as a means to secure worker rights. Lastly, William A. Darity, Jr. and Darrick Hamilton explore the merits of a right to work through a federal job-guarantee scheme in the United States.

Many Futures of Work focuses on the experiences of workers occupying stressful, demeaning, and menial jobs in the contemporary United States. The volume identifies how an exclusive emphasis on shareholder rights have eroded the wages and income security for workers and pushed them into temporary and precarious forms of work. The book argues that worker rights can be secured only through collective bargaining to ensure fair and equal wages, family-leave policies, worker ownership, and an expansion of the definition of workers to include young and older adults outside the typical working-age population. 

Although the context of the book is the United States, readers hailing from the fields of academia, policy making, and activism in countries around the world will appreciate this book’s overview of the fragmentation of workplaces, erosion of worker rights, and precarity found in new forms of work – issues that are widely prevalent globally. Scholars of law, policy, management, industrial relations, economics, and sociology will find this book engaging in its depiction of specific classes of workers and the manner in which they experience inequality and discrimination in the workplace. Even as its approach is not strictly intended for anthropologists, the book’s treatment of how economics and the law define and regulate work will undoubtedly be of interest to ethnographers. 


Author Biography:

Deepa Kylasam Iyer is a Ph.D. student in the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. Her research examines how technology impacts labor in the context of platform-based work.

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