The Future of Work and the Trans-Atlantic Alliance – The State of Play and Pathways for U.S. German Cooperation

In their not-so-distant predictions, futurists often foretell a world in which artificial intelligence (AI), big data, machine learning and automation dictate our lives. To some, this technological disruption leads to the elimination of work altogether or, at worst, robot domination. To others, this same change births a newly empowered professional class that derives its prosperity from coding and the servicing of robots. While neither of these visions has yet to come to fruition, momentous disruption has transcended national borders and is advancing across industries, regions and labor markets.

Less often discussed are the intermediate policy challenges and responses that lie on the path to the jobs and labor markets of the future. Indeed, labor market shifts are already making it more difficult for low- and semiskilled workers to find jobs and support families. Without swift action to prepare workers for the labor markets of the future, society may be forced to grapple with ever-spiraling unemployment and inequality, which could ultimately lead to geopolitical destabilization. But how exactly will labor market shifts play out in the short and medium term? How can public policy adapt to generate sound solutions in an era of ever-present technological disruption? Where can policymakers source best practices and tested initiatives?

Continued stability and prosperity hinge on rethinking public policy and redesigning institutions to mitigate this coming disruption. Policymakers face a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to head off the existential challenges posed by the changing nature of work. The coming transition demands not only sheer political will but also awareness-raising among policymakers and the public. Indeed, recent scholarship highlights the crucial role of public policy – and engaged policymakers and citizens – in planning for coming labor market shifts.1At the same time, the consequences of those shifts will not respect borders, necessitating a discussion that extends beyond individual states’ domestic policy arenas.

To set the stage for trans-Atlantic lesson-learning and collaboration regarding the key policy challenges related to the future of work, the Bertelsmann Foundation North America and the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung have partnered to produce this discussion paper, The Future of Work and the Trans-Atlantic Alliance: The State of Play and Pathways for U.S. – German Cooperation. The highly industrialized economies of the United States and Germany are the world’s second and fourth largest producers of manufactured goods, respectively. They benefit from highly productive and well-trained workforces and a history of collaboration on topics ranging from trade to security, but they are also striving to understand the impact of new technologies and labor market shifts on their societies. With up to 47 percent of jobs in the United States and 42 percent of German employment threatened by “computerization,” the two will be at the vanguard of coming labor market disruption.

Recently, trans-Atlantic exchange on topics related to the future of work has broadened to include Germany’s apprenticeship and vocational training models, elements of which are being implemented in the states of Florida, North Carolina and Iowa. 3 In addition, President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel convened a White House roundtable on vocational education on March 17, 2017. From the U.S. side, trans-Atlantic exchange has included in-person and firm-to-firm exchanges on topics ranging from autonomous vehicles to 3-D printing.

While these exchanges are an encouraging first step, far greater cooperation will be needed to generate innovative policy. As the trans-Atlantic relationship evolves over the coming years, new pathways for the exchange of best practices vis-à-vis the future of work will be critical to ensure not only trans-Atlantic leadership, but also domestic peace and prosperity. As in years past, trans-Atlantic collaboration can serve as a crucial hedge against instability.

To frame the scope of future exchange between the United States and Germany, we first compare the dominant philosophies on and policy responses to the changing nature of work in both countries. By cataloguing these approaches, we illuminate underappreciated threats facing both cases. Next, we use two case studies to examine how labor market disruption is playing out in retail and advanced manufacturing, or Industry 4.0. Finally, we outline 10 “pathways forward” for future trans-Atlantic collaboration and exchange.

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About the Authors

Jeffrey Brown is project manager for international relations at the Washington, DC-based Bertelsmann Foundation. His research interests include the future of work in cities, U.S. foreign policy, French politics and the European Neighborhood Policy.

Philippe Lorenz is Project Manager at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) in Berlin, where he focuses on the impact of technological change on the German labor market. His work also focuses on the impact of digital technologies on the German energy revolution (Energiewende).


Jeffrey Brown
Project Manager, International Relations