Labor Laws – What's the view from the future?

Meisinger Image 2Today’s guest post is by Sue Meisinger, Workforce Institute board member and former CEO of SHRM.  Inspired by a recent trip to South Africa, Sue reflects on how our labor laws and attitudes might appear to our descendants.

I recently spent some time traveling in South Africa, and while there I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, saw Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto, and traveled to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.  I saw the cell where Mandela was imprisoned for so many years.

While I’m old enough to remember the fall of apartheid in South Africa, visiting these historic venues was sobering and a reminder of how terrible the system was. It wasn’t just one law, but a series of many laws, implemented and enforced by the government over many years.

Listening to our guide, I was struck by how something we see now as so patently wrong could have been institutionalized, enforced, and thrived for so many years.  At one time, to some people, these laws – and the laws allowing segregation in the U.S. — seemed perfectly appropriately.

It’s made me wonder.  What laws or practices are we living with today that will appall future generation, of workers?

Off the top of my head I can easily name a few.  Future generations will be appalled that it was once legal, at least under federal law, to refuse to hire someone because they were gay or transgender.  They’ll shake their heads that there was no federal law mandating that employees be provided paid sick leave.  And they’ll wonder how companies were able to stay in business when they enforced inflexible work schedules for jobs that could be done by workers anywhere and at any time.

It’s always easy to see things clearly in the rear view mirror.  Why not spend some time preparing for the future now?




One thought on “Labor Laws – What's the view from the future?

  1. Sue,

    My research on the on-demand economy is leading me to some unsettling ideas. One of these ideas is that the thing that will seem crazy to people in the future is employment law. In fact, the whole idea of employment will feel as uncomfortable as the relationship between a peasant and a feudal lord.

    The future belongs to a whole variety of contractual relationships between a client (who needs work to be done) and a free agent (who can do the work). Talent platforms, like Uber and Upwork, will be key enablers of this new economy. But there won’t be employees and hence no need for employment law.

    I probably wouldn’t have written this even a week ago; but the last time I got up to speak about this topic I realized that there was just no place for the concept of “employee”. The world is moving beyond employment and it will catch a lot of people flat-footed.

    On the other hand our kids will shake their heads in wonder about the bizarre laws we had governing this weird thing called “employment”…probably something to do with typewriters and landline telephones….

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