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What Role Will Foundations Play in Securing Livelihoods Twenty Years From Now?

Nobody knows what the future holds. We both distinctly remember the moment, twenty years ago, in a German bank and a university engineering lab in Kentucky, when we first clicked on a Netscape browser and accessed the World Wide Web. We each had the sense that this new tool was important, without fully understanding why.

The Rockefeller Foundation works to shape the future to improve the wellbeing of humanity, but one inherent challenge in reaching that goal is our inability to see the future: Twenty years ago, for example, it was hard to conceive that so many people would one day earn their livings by designing websites—and for clients on the opposite side of the world, no less. So the concept that one day people could use the Internet to rent spare rooms or provide rides to strangers would have been similarly alien.

“The great changes of the last 20 years prod us to imagine how people will make a living 20 years from now.”

The great changes of the last 20 years prod us to imagine how people will make a living 20 years from now. We cannot predict the future, but we can think about possible futures, and how we might prepare for them.

Today, people around the globe use a wide range of assets in order to earn a livelihood, including:

  • Human capital, as captured in our skills, talents and expertise
  • Natural capital, the goods and services provided by our ecosystems
  • Financial capital, the physical and financial assets we use to make a living
  • Social capital, our connections to families, friends, and neighbors that allow us to take full advantage of the other types of capital

As we think about how these different types of capital might look—and be used—in 20 years, several important questions come to mind. For instance:

  • Will only the affluent acquire the skills and talents needed to prosper, or could true disruption in education make world-class education available to almost everyone, everywhere?
  • Will the livelihoods of those who live off the land continue to be made more tenuous by environmental degradation and climate change, or will more stringent regulations, changed corporate and consumer behavior, and smart technologies enable us to thrive within our planetary boundaries?
  • Will the changing nature of employment—where peer-to-peer platforms allow everyone to be a freelancer—give workers more options to make the most of their talents and capital, or make us more insecure and isolated?
  • Will virtual connections built through online platforms such as LinkedIn have reduced the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”, making our communities and economies stronger and more resilient, or will they allow fragmentation along socioeconomic and other fault lines?

These questions point toward a range of possible futures, many of which were explored at a recent meeting at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, and in subsequent reports by the OECD and the Economist Intelligence Unit. These complement an active program of inquiry into the future of work supported by the Foundation. These possible futures illustrate the need to act in order to ensure that, in 20 years, we are living in a world where the goals of more inclusive economies and more resilient communities have been realized.

These questions also help us to understand the challenges facing foundations going forward. In the past, philanthropy existed to fill the holes, meeting needs that the governments and the private sector could not. Foundation have worked alongside grassroots organizations to draw attention to pressing, often previously ignored, issues. More recently, they have provided the seed capital that allowed governments, business, and nonprofits to test new ideas and take risks.

Our task is still to help new paradigms take hold, but the actors involved are changing. Increasingly, we are seeing that the role of individuals and technology is evolving and growing in importance. If most individuals no longer have a single, steady employer, what does that mean for social safety nets and education systems? If national governments as we know them now are overwhelmed and cities are an increasingly important nexus of decision-making, what does that mean for establishing common supports? How might “the crowd” provide social and labor protection in a globalized labor market?

These scenarios are almost certainly extremes, but they point toward new paradigms and the risks that would need to be taken to allow everyone to flourish in the global economy. The future is unpredictable, but by looking ahead, The Rockefeller Foundation can help ensure a future that is more inclusive and resilient.

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