What’s Up with the World of Work? ILR Dean Weighs In

Alexander Colvin, PhD ’99, on unions, remote jobs, the minimum wage hike, the “longshoremen future,” and more

By Beth Saulnier

Alexander Colvin, PhD ’99, is in his second term as dean of the ILR School. Cornellians tapped him to help us make sense of the current upheaval in the workplace—from remote jobs to the rise of AI.

1) Are we really in a watershed moment for work?

I think we are. Part of it is due to technology, but an accumulation of factors is putting pressure on our existing system.

We sometimes talk about “punctuated equilibrium,” where things move along and then you get a period of sudden, big change—like the New Deal or the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

There have been indicators that we’re in one of those moments for work.

ILR Dean Alexander Colvin

2) What’s the state of remote work?

Right now it seems to be stable, at 25–30% of total work hours in the U.S. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that go down a bit, particularly as we get into economically more difficult times. But it’s clearly here to stay; it’s not going down to 5%, where it was before COVID.

And while remote work has many advantages, I do worry that people have not thought about the consequences down the road. Like, if you make cutbacks during a downturn, do you lay off all the remote workers first? Because if you’re just in a Zoom meeting and then you’re gone, there’s a disconnect and you become easier to get rid of.

While remote work has many advantages, I do worry that people have not thought about the consequences down the road.

On the management side, there’s the tricky question of how to monitor productivity. It varies a lot depending on the type of work. If you’re writing for Cornellians, for example, we could judge how many stories you produce in a week. But for many roles, it may be more ambiguous.

3) Do you feel there’s a ‘secret sauce’ to the in-person experience?

There’s some indication of that. Interestingly, research by one of our faculty suggests that online teams work more effectively if they sometimes interact in person. That tells me that that a hybrid approach has advantages.

4) How do you explain the recent resurgence of the labor movement?

COVID gave it a boost—though a couple of other things are going on, too.

One is more positive attitudes toward unions; particularly amongst younger workers, the favorability of unions is higher than it’s been since the 1960s. You have, by all the indicators, a relatively progressive, rights-conscious generation of younger workers with high expectations. So that’s pushing things along.

It’s also connected to new organizing efforts by the labor movement. A lot of the action is coming from new types of organizing groups, and some existing, large, national unions that have decided that they need to change their approaches to be effective.

5) How do you account for the dramatic rise in the minimum wage?

That’s one of the most interesting developments in labor and employment in the last couple of decades. It was unexpected; I don’t think anybody thought it would so quickly go to $15 an hour being a common minimum wage—and now it is, over large parts of America, affecting lots of workers.

I don’t think anybody thought it would so quickly go to $15 an hour being a common minimum wage—and now it is, over large parts of America, affecting lots of workers.

Labor standards hadn’t increased for quite a while, as fewer workers have the benefit of union representation, and a lot of people have been struggling on pretty low wages. The pandemic assistance definitely had an impact; it kept people doing OK economically while they had time to explore and maybe realize, “Wait a second, I really hate that job.”

And Americans are more progressive on economic issues than is often thought. There’s widespread support for a higher minimum wage; it connects to American values rewarding work. You’ve seen that not just in places like California and New York, but in Florida. It’s a very dramatic change, and I expect it to continue.

6) In explaining how technology can impact jobs, you’ve previously cited the case of longshoremen—the workers who load and unload cargo at ports. How are they instructive?

In the days of the movie On the Waterfront, there might have been a gang of 20 or 30 workers unloading a ship using ropes and hooks. There was a lot of work available, but they weren’t great jobs in terms of pay or working conditions.

Now, ships are unloaded by one highly paid person operating a very advanced piece of technology that costs tens of millions of dollars. So the “longshoremen future” is where there is less work in traditional settings, but the individual jobs are much better quality—and that productivity creates opportunities for other jobs that didn’t exist before.

(Colvin photo by Jon Reis.)

Published April 17, 2024


  1. John Alic, Class of 1963

    Punctuated equilibrium is a good descriptor of how the US economy, including the labor market evolves. The trick is to disentangle that from path dependence, which is dominant most of the time. It takes a “crisis,” typically to bring that “watershed.” To me, having working on these issues of years, the crisis, unmentioned unless is missed it, is rising recognition of the staggering inequality in wages & wealth in the US. The question, then, is will this lead to big change? I hope so, but little victories have yet to accumulate.

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