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    August 10, 2023

    Redefining Work in the AI Era: Insights from Gusto's Principal Economist, Liz Wilke

    As the Principal Economist at Gusto, Liz Wilke is a fascinating businesswoman and leader who has always been intrigued by the concept of work - how we find it, what employers need, and technology's role in shaping the job market. Having previously worked at LinkedIn, where she focused on tech policy and future of work issues, Wilke is currently responsible for analyzing workforce data to understand the indicators of better job quality, including pay rates and access to benefits at Gusto. 


    Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto

    “How we find work, what employers need…It's heavily influenced by technology, and I've just always been so fascinated by that whole dynamic and how we design work to have dignity and excitement and to bring out the best in people and to really make work work for people.” - Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto

    With a keen interest in remote work, contractors, freelancers, and international job markets, Wilke is constantly exploring the most pressing questions surrounding how we work today. I recently sat down to chat with Liz about the future of work trends as part of my research to produce season one of The Lever with Drew Fortin. This show highlights how the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and web3 will shift the paradigm of humans at work for the better. I wrote this article based on my notes and transcripts from the interview, which you can watch below.



    The employee-employer relationship was never great.

    The dynamic between employers and employees has always been complex, as relationships are shaped by our expectations and what we believe we deserve. While sentiments of the employment relationship have waned throughout history, Wilke encourages workers to understand what they want and how to find it in today's job market while encouraging employers to understand their employees' wants and needs.

    As per Wilke's viewpoint, relationships are influenced by personal expectations and the fulfillment of those expectations. The nature of a relationship, be it positive or negative, is determined by the gap between what is expected and what is actually experienced, regardless of whether it is a professional or personal relationship. Although achieving perfection is impossible, Wilke emphasizes the importance of creating opportunities for individuals to find meaning and satisfaction in their work. Wilke suggests providing safeguards, options, and opportunities to facilitate a better match if an existing relationship is unsatisfactory.

    “No relationship is perfect. I think that the task for us isn't to think about how to make the perfect relationship. The task for us is to figure out how to create as many opportunities as possible for humans to find dignity, excitement in their work. Or, to leave their work and try something else in the pursuit of a relationship where they can give what the employer is expecting and they can receive what they expect or want from an employer.” - Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto


    Remote and hybrid work - the most exciting things to happen in the workspace since unionization.

    A growing number of workers are freelancing to secure their employment prospects or develop skills for future opportunities. According to Wilke, the increase in remote and hybrid work has led to double the number of contractors per employee. This trend reflects a broader shift towards a more adaptable workforce. Workers appreciate the flexibility and independence that comes with remote work. 

    "Remote and hybrid work is the most exciting thing to happen in the workspace since unionization. It's changing everything about how we've thought about looking for talent, how we think about what's important about building culture; how we create personal connection and engagement and excitement at work."  - Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto

    While they present new challenges for businesses and workers alike, remote and hybrid work arrangements offer growth, innovation, and collaboration opportunities.


    AI is freeing humans up to make work more meaningful.

    This shift in work arrangement couldn’t be more perfectly timed for the entrance of artificial intelligence (AI). Advancements in technology are providing humans with more opportunities to create meaning in their lives. Although machines currently lack emotions and the ability to distinguish the importance of certain things, humans have an innate tendency to seek significance in their experiences and communicate that significance to others. And as machines become more intelligent, there may be a shift in the skills needed to succeed in the workforce.

    In addition to technological abilities, emotional resilience, critical thinking, and adaptability will become increasingly important. Wilke recognizes that these skills are difficult to master and may require a lifetime of practice. As automation takes over mundane tasks, the challenge will be to help humans focus on building connections and engaging in meaningful work. This will require a shift in our thinking about education and training over the coming years.

    “There's no reason to expect that even a generally intelligent machine cares about things. We haven't programmed them yet to have emotions or to think that things are important on their own merits, but humans do think that things are important on their own merits, and we do want to make meaning out of our lives, and we want to translate that meaning into something for other people.” - Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto

    In considering AI and technological advancements, Wilke sees both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives. Assuming workers are capable of one job, taking that job away doesn't leave them worse off. She acknowledges that some workers can pursue their dream job or find better work. We should focus on maintaining a balance between these opposing views.

    Wilke predicts that the emergence of chat GPT-level AI will bring about significant changes. While productivity didn't increase with the introduction of computer tools, recent AI releases offer the potential for rapid upward growth. Chat GPT will require humans to improve their questioning skills and think more critically. “I think Chat GPT indicates how we as humans have to change - we have to really lean on our ability to ask better questions,” Wilke said. The technology only provides relevant and accurate information when given a good prompt. Therefore, humans must learn to ask better questions and create meaning from the answers provided by technology. Wilke emphasized the importance of connecting this information to other systems to develop a comprehensive understanding of the data provided by AI.


    The knowledge economy is evolving. 

    When discussing the evolution of the knowledge economy, Wilke noted that the automation of physical work defined the industrial revolution until the middle of the last century, after which the US transformed into a knowledge-based economy, automating much of the physical work. “The US used to be primarily a production economy - we were automating the physical doing. We are now a knowledge economy, and we are in the process of automating some of the knowledge doing… But we're going to go farther than that,” Wilke said.

    As the US moves towards an increasingly more knowledge-based economy, there is a growing concern about the level of knowledge and skills required of humans. With AI now able to perform basic knowledge work, humans must climb the knowledge ladder to keep up. This shift towards more advanced knowledge work could push US ingenuity forward, as the automation of basic tasks frees up time for more creative and innovative thinking. “We are going to be an idea and meaning economy, which is sort of a higher level set of knowledge work than we've previously seen,” Wilke said.

    “The question is, what sort of level of knowledge or thinking or skills are we going to do? And we're definitely seeing the transition or the redefinition of white-collar work as not prestigeous in the way it was 50 years ago. But nevertheless, it's knowledge work, and I think AI has caught up to do that sort of base-level knowledge-work or to automate that or to speed it up, which means that humans have to step up the knowledge ladder.” - Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto

    Wilke breaks the world's knowledge into two segments - explicit knowledge, which can be written down and given to another person, and tacit knowledge, which is the art of knowledge and experience that cannot be written down. Tacit knowledge is crucial to the quality of the output, and there is a lot of it in the world that is currently only held by humans.

    In the future, Wilke believes that businesses will prioritize human skills and competencies that machines cannot effectively perform. The ability to comprehend and analyze data and ask insightful questions will become increasingly valuable. Wilke predicts that sound prompt generation will become standardized and may even be tested in interviews. As automation continues to increase, the role of data scientists will evolve and fundamentally change what it means to work with data.

    Wilke believes that the rise of digital platforms and the remote work trend has enabled companies to access talent on demand, allowing them to direct and manage contractors to fulfill specific tasks. This has opened doors for smaller businesses to access the talent they would never have on staff to do more work, especially during talent shortages where companies need to manage their costs carefully.

    The lines are blurred between what it means to be an employee and a contractor. In the United States, there used to be a clear distinction between employees and contractors. Employees enjoyed social benefits tied to their employment status, such as healthcare and 401K retirement plan contributions, while contractors did not. However, as the employment relationship becomes less committed and more personal, the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurred. Wilke suggests that regulations and policies governing these distinctions require updating to reflect the changing landscape. 

    Wilke cautions against assuming that contracted employment provides greater stability than traditional employment. Even contracted workers may be terminated with little notice and need the legal protections afforded to employees. However, Wilke notes that contracted workers often have a portfolio of employers, which can provide a sense of security in an uncertain job market. As the nature of work continues to evolve, Wilke anticipates that this new form of protection will become increasingly important to workers.


    How the value of a human worker is changing in the age of AI.

    We closed our time together, discussing how to factor the value of a human worker. According to Wilke, a person's worth in the workplace is closely tied to their productivity with the available technology. As technology progresses, individuals must also advance and become more valuable to remain competitive. Moreover, a person's value at work is linked to their ability to motivate and inspire others. “If I am productive and can make ten other people more productive by creating a sense of meaning and connection in their work, then I add even more value as a human being,” Wilke said.

    “If you want somebody to ask great questions, to think up new questions, to motivate others, to bring their sort of emotional selves to work, to do all those things that humans currently do far, far better than Chat-GPT, you need to figure out how to make work engaging, purposeful, motivating, and dignified for people that you are asking to bring that human part of themselves to work.” -Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto

    However, Wilke feels that the more interesting question is, “What is the value of work to humans?” She believes that although work is a necessity for most people, it doesn’t mean that humans should serve the work. Instead, the work should serve humans in the best way possible. From a business perspective, it's important to consider the value that humans bring to work and how their skills complement technology. Additionally, it's crucial to create engaging, purposeful, and dignified work environments that motivate and inspire employees to bring their emotional selves to work. According to Wilke, these two questions are inseparable from each other.

    As we wrapped up our enlightening conversation, Wilke posed a thought-provoking question that every working individual should contemplate - "How do we make work work for us?" The reality is, while work remains an indispensable part of our lives, it shouldn't dictate our existence. Instead, we should be harnessing it as a tool for personal growth and fulfillment. This profound insight from Liz Wilke serves as a powerful reminder to reevaluate our approach towards work, propelling us towards a future where work doesn't just serve the economy. Still, it serves each one of us as individuals.

    Hear more from Liz Wilke, Principal Economist at Gusto: 

    Drew Fortin

    Drew is a people-first, values-driven leader with nearly 20 years of growth strategy and team-building experience across retail, marketing technology, local media, and HR tech. He spent 7 years at The Predictive Index, where he was Chief Growth Officer responsible for the company's strategy to build the world's first...

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