The Future of Work

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Pre-existing conditions: they may not be just for sick people anymore.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 27 percent of adult Americans under 65 have a pre-existing condition that could have precluded them from getting health insurance before the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) took effect, Maryam Zaringhalam writes in an article on Slate. But the ACA barred insurers from hiking up people’s rates or denying them coverage for pre-existing conditions; it also prevented insurers from disqualifying people on the basis of genetic tests or family history, notes Ms. Zaringhalam, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University. But that was then, this is now. Should the American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare) become law, millions of people could lose their insurance or be priced out of the market — and not just sick people, Ms. Zaringhalam warns.

Taking away Obamacare “reopens a gray area between genetic predisposition and a pre-existing condition,” and that should alarm all of us, she says. The GOP already introduced a bill earlier this year that could let employers do an end run around the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and subject workers to genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs, as I noted back in March. Many Republicans also take as a given that people with chronic health conditions beyond their control (even relatively minor ones) should pay higher premiums or be kicked to the curb, Ms. Zaringhalam adds. How long before they insist that people with “genetic risk factors” that have yet to manifest (read: all of us) should cough up more or be turned away too?, she asks.

5 forces driving administrative bloat.

The California State University system is under fire for its ballooning bureaucracy. According to a state auditor’s report, it hired managers at more than twice the rate of other employees over a nine-year period without justifying the need for so many people, Audrey Williams June writes in an article in The Chronicle.

While this may be the latest, greatest example of administrative bloat in higher education, the trend is hardly new. University staffs have been spreading like ivy for decades; the question, Ms. June says, is why. Here’s a peek at some of the factors that are driving the explosion in staff growth, and tuition along with it.

Better college, better scholars, right? Not so much.

Professorial prestige is pretty arbitrary, Jacques Berlinerblau argues in a Chronicle Review column (for subscribers).

The future of work.

If your office uses Slack, a popular chat app designed to maximize employees’ time and help them more easily communicate with coworkers, it might be only a matter of time before the boss uses it to spy on workers and measure their efficiency (assuming he or she isn’t already doing so), according to a Quartz article by Lila MacLellan. The clue, apparently, is in the name, which unbeknownst to me before now, turns out to be either a manager’s dream or a worker’s Orwellian nightmare wrapped in a laid-back acronym, depending on your perspective. SLACK stands for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge, and employers can access its private channels and messages for a price, says Ms. MacLellan. Who knew? 

While the app’s well-intentioned genius is that it enables people to work together from wherever, that’s potentially its dark side, too, Ms. MacLellan warns. It’s another so-called efficiency tool that has the potential to destroy workers’ privacy and personal lives, and normalize working all the time from anywhere, while the boss, should he or she so wish, tracks workers’ every move, she suggests.

In fact, Slack has already confessed that it has “an eye on measuring and monitoring productivity, not just facilitating it,” Ms. MacLellan notes. The company’s CEO told a crowd at South by Southwest that Slack has a “manager bot” in the works that will use artificial intelligence to monitor progress on projects and nudge employees about assignments that are due, she adds.

If that doesn’t depress you, this New Republic article by Miya Tokumitsu might do the trick. She reviews several scholarly books on work that show that employers already have far more power over workers' lives than we think. In Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It), Elizabeth Anderson, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, argues that employers are a lot like the state — and an authoritarian one at that, Ms. Tokumitsu notes. The central question of Ms. Anderson’s book is, Why, in a country so obsessed with freedom and laissez-faire capitalism, are employers allowed to dictate everything from what workers wear and when they eat to when they can go to the bathroom and what they’re allowed to say in public and on social media? Good question.

As if that weren’t disturbing enough, consider this: Ms. Anderson’s book focuses on ostensibly good jobs. For the millions of contingent laborers, things are much worse, Ms. Tokumitsu notes. She points to sociologist Erin Hatton’s book, The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America, which explores the rise of the temp industry and how it transformed the American workplace into one in which a growing number of workers have to string together freelance assignments or short-term contracts just to get by. What some wouldn’t give for a dress code and a full-time job. Instead, they’re obliged to kowtow to not one employer, but “all potential future employers” in an ongoing effort “to secure their next gig,” Ms. Tokumitsu writes. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why the Rutgers University historian James Livingston thinks it’s time to stop glorifying work and come up with a new paradigm, Ms. Tokumitsu writes. As a growing number of people work more for less and lose jobs to automation, the idea of work seems increasingly obsolete, Mr. Livingston asserts in No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea. He wonders, If it’s no longer a feasible source of income, then what’s the point?

Meanwhile ...

When robots take our jobs, who’s going to pay our taxes?

Jane Kim, a San Francisco lawmaker who wants to get out in front of the issue, thinks robots should be taxed, Matt Simon writes in an article in Wired. While it’s an idea worth exploring, the problem is no one can seem to agree on what constitutes a robot, he says.

Is going out for lunch a bygone tradition?

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, it soon could be, as more Americans are eating at their desks.

Yet research shows that dining “al desko” (to borrow a phrase from Huffington Post's Kate Bratskeir) is not only detrimental to people's health, but bad for business.

Speaking of productivity …

Before you agree to take on additional work, ask yourself three questions, an article in the Harvard Business Review says.

Staying the course.

According to a study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, women are more likely to stick with engineering-degree programs when they’re matched with a female mentor, an article on PhysOrg reports.

Speaking of mentors …

A Vitae columnist wonders why it's so hard to find a midcareer mentor her own age.

What will it take to change the presidency?

While a majority of two-year college students are minorities, most community-college leaders are still white guys. The Aspen Institute hopes to change that with a program designed to develop a diverse pool of would-be leaders, an article in The Chroniclereports. (for subscribers)

Elsewhere online ...

Take that, troll!

Tired of being a victim of online harassment, a female Wikipedia editor is taking matters into her own hands. For every offensive email or death threat she gets, she makes a Wikipedia profile about a notable woman scientist, according to an article on Backchannel, a digital publication about the tech world.

Trump plans to roll back the birth-control mandate.

According to an article on Vox, the Trump administration has drafted a regulation that would allow any employer, colleges and universities included, to refuse to cover contraception on moral or religious grounds.

Questions, Comments?

Have a suggestion for the newsletter or a tip or story idea to share? Send it to me at gabriela.montell@chronicle. com or @GabrielaMontell.

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