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The Future is Now – A SHIFT Blog interview with Marina Gorbis of Institute for the Future

I recently had the opportunity to interview Marina Gorbis, a star in the future of a great deal!  Marina is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 50-year old non-profit research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley. I had the honor to meet Marina through Parminder Jassal, the founder of the Work+Learn Futures Lab.  Marina has brought a futures perspective to hundreds of organizations in business, education, government, philanthropy, and civic society. Marina’s current research focuses on transformations in the world of work and new forms of value creation. launched the Workable Futures Initiative at IFTF with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of new work patterns and to prototype a generation of Positive Platforms for work. She has introduced the concept of Universal Basic Assets (UBA) as a framework for thinking about different types of assets and the role they play in economic security. The UBA framework also highlights a variety of approaches and tools we can use to achieve wider asset distribution and greater equity. Marina has been at IFTF for 21 years.   And, I thought no better way to end 2019 and launch into the Future than to interview Marina.

JB – Marina, it is so great to interview you for our blog.  I am so amazed by your work, your thinking and what is happening at IFTF.  Tell me a little about your journey?

Marina –

Well, before IFTF, I was at SRI (formerly known as Stanford Research Institute) for 15 years.  I did a lot of regional economic development work.   It was a great path to what I do now.

Jamai – Interesting, so how much do you think Economic Development has changed with the changing times?

Marina – I think right now we are in the space of rethinking a lot of concepts actually — in economic development, education, learning, and work.   We are rethinking the role of multilateral organizations, rethinking economic development approaches at the local and national levels. I think this is a good thing and something that is much needed.

JB– you mentioned when we were talking one day that the entire employment market is no longer working. Employers and workers are in two lanes, passing each other by. Has there been research and have there been signals that the employment market will have to do a total overhaul?  What are the signals showing?

Marina–in so many conversations about future of work, we are primarily hearing about the “lack of skills” and how we need to educate and train people for new kinds of jobs. However, there is very little actual data that indicates there is any kind of shortage of skills.  And, if there were a shortage of skills, then why are the wages not going up? If you believe in market economics (and most of us do) something is not right, or at least the skills shortage is not a sufficient explanation. In fact, some recent research shows that the levels of skill demands by employers are correlated with levels of unemployment.  When levels of unemployment are high, employers (based on job advertisements) increase levels of skills required; when unemployment is low, such demands go down. So, employers adjust their skills requirements depending on market conditions. If there is a high level of supply of highly educated workers, why not advertise for a barista with a bachelors or a master’s degree?  Does the barista job actually require such a degree?  No, but if the supply is there, why not try to make it a pre-requisite?  We have primarily been looking at the supply side in a lot of future of work conversations—we need better trained workers.  But we have been ignoring the demand side—are there enough good, quality jobs for qualified workers?

JB– so you have been looking at the future of work.  Do you think we are at a tipping point in that the future will look very differently – such as most people moving to contracts vs employees?  Do you see this in your research?

Marina – I am not sure it is a tipping point, but a continuous trend of decline in good jobs – jobs with good wages, good benefits, and stability/predictability.  We are seeing a continued decline in such jobs.  Platforms like Uber and others are just a continuation of this larger trend. I think we may see fewer good jobs unless we do something. I am convinced that there will be a lot of work for us to do but the key challenge is how to ensure that people are able to live secure and dignified lives based on the types of work arrangements and the quality of jobs we are creating.

JB– you launched the work and learn futures institute in 2016 – what made you want to do that?  What was the importance of this at the IFTF?

Marina –We worked with a lot of employers who were interested in new work platforms and what future of work looks like.  At the same time, we were working with educational institutions who were interested in changes in how people learn, acquire skills, and apply these to work.  We thought that it was important to connect the two conversations—how work and learning are changing at the same time, so these conversations are not happening in siloes.

JB – so the first week of April you launched a new piece of work around “equitable futures”.  Can you tell me a little about this?

Marina – there is an origin story about this.  We have been looking at work and learn, jobs, labor, and the growing reality of work no longer providing good equitable outcomes for many in our society. We saw that work is no longer the means of distributing economic prosperity the way it once was. We see the rise in asset- poor jobs, jobs that do not come with health and retirement benefits, holidays, vacations, training, and most importantly stock ownership, i.e. financial stakes in companies or platforms for which people work. This is what is driving tremendous levels of income and wealth inequality in our society, and ultimately, when you have high levels of inequality, democratic societies stop functioning well.   We now have levels of inequality we haven’t seen in 100 years, and this undermines the basis of our democracy, our whole system.  So, we started the Equitable Futures lab to focus on solutions and pathways to creating a more equitable future, given what we know about directions of technology, demographics, larger political economies, and other trends.  As a part of this effort, the first week of April 1, we launched an Equitable Futures Week where we asked people from around the world to share their visions of what an equitable future looks like for them.  We had thousands of people around the world join in this conversation.  Many got together in their communities, schools, homes to share their ideas and we got some great responses–creating neighborhood trusts, community banks, local coops, and more.

JB – congratulations on all you have done. Is there anything you want to add?  Thinking about your own journey? Did you think 40 years ago you would be launching this work?

Marina – OH my – it is such an unlikely story.  I was born in the Soviet Union and came here as refugee.  There was a wave of Jewish Immigration from Russia in the 70s, and I was fortunate to be a part of this wave.  I went to UC Berkeley, received interest- free loans and scholarships, and got both my undergraduate and graduate degrees there. I was so fortunate, it was a time when public education was nearly free, and it wasn’t so difficult to get into top schools. Education has been my door opener.  With the help of a lot of people, public education (UC Berkeley), and some luck, I managed to arrive where I am today.    I have learned a lot in the process and continue to learn every day.

JB –  at the heart of it, is education still the door opener?

Marina – It certainly was for me but I am not sure it has the same importance for young people today.  I don’t mean real deep education—ability to think, analyze, know history, larger context.  I think this is invaluable, not just for jobs but for life.  It helps people make better decisions, better health choices, create social connections, and so much more. But I do think degrees are less important and will probably become even more so in the future, as pathways to jobs, incomes, and wealth.  This is worrisome and something we should be paying attention to.  After all that has been the American dream—study hard, work hard, and you will succeed.  This promise is less and less a reality for many young people.

Thank you, Marina!  Here’s to 2020!