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What the ‘future of work’ means to these Philadelphians

Work defines how we live and who we are. Here, in their own words, is what the future of work means to a cross section of Philadelphians, from economists to service workers to businessowners.

Some of the participants in The Inquirer's Future of Work survey.
Some of the participants in The Inquirer's Future of Work survey.Read moreHandouts

The Future of Work means different things to different people in Philadelphia. To the founder of an early stage start-up, it means searching for investors. To an unemployed worker with chronic health issues, the future of work means navigating skyrocketing levels of unemployment to find a job with benefits. Economists and public officials track macro trends, some stretching back decades, to discern the obstacles to and opportunities for creating jobs for the city and surrounding region. With various perspectives and priorities, these people are all nonetheless stakeholders in Philadelphia’s future. And they all agree on the centrality of work to identity, as individuals and as a city. Work defines how we live and who we are. Here, in their own words, is what the future of work means to a cross section of Philadelphians.

(The following comments have been edited for clarity.)

Joel Naroff, 71, of Holland, and president of Naroff Economic Advisors

“While technology and health care remain a strong bet for solid future growth, it is likely that the area’s economy will grow more slowly than expected over the next few years. But the growth may switch to the neighborhoods rather than the center city. Instead of office workers, including suppliers and servicers of buildings, local, possibly smaller businesses will be in greater demand to serve the more diverse, less dense locations. That is especially true if the trend toward work at home continues.”

Tiffanie Stanard, 34, of Northern Liberties, and owner of Stimulus, a start-up in Philly

“You have to really over-prove yourself on a regular basis. I’m fund-raising now … and I’m still having a tough time. Even with our current investors, we’re a Microsoft partner, we have all of these things that most companies don’t have … We have a lot of things that you would think people would be throwing money at me, and I’m still jumping through hoops.”

Paul Levy, 73, of Society Hill, and director of the Center City District

“People will return to workplaces when it feels safe, because they miss their colleagues, the conversations, gossip and all the amenities that a city can offer. We’ll sit a little farther apart, follow new protocols and initially, work perhaps a day or so at home each week. Hourly workers, directly serving customers, will face greater challenges as technology may minimize the need for their jobs, while creating new ones.”

Lori Aghazarian, 47, laid-off stage manager from South Philly

“I’m not actually sure what I’m going to do now because I’ve had the same career for 30 years. And just like anyone in any other industry, quote ‘pivoting’ is not as easy as people may think it is. So being unemployed with no idea of what’s coming up next is frightening for me and for many people who rely on work for health insurance.”

Greg Sterndale, 41, of Lower Gwynedd, and CEO & Software Engineer at Promptworks in Philadelphia

“I think ourselves and hopefully companies like us will have a more flexible work model. Maybe not even requiring that they work 40 hours a week. Allowing much more flexibility there for folks who may, if you have childcare commitments or other kinds of things, take care of at home. I think that might be, optimistically, a nice new model for us.”

Desimber McKoy, 26, owner of The Shoe Bar by SimDiva, in West Philadelphia

“I actually opened my business when I was 23. Over the years, I underwent a few issues because I was young and I was figuring it out as I went. I will say that there have been blessings and resources and I just believe that now is the time, that God is like ‘it’s time to do it.’ … I’m rebranding and relaunching and I’m gonna have a grand reopening. I’m just gonna put everything that went downhill behind me, and I’m gonna move forward.”

Della Clark, president of The Enterprise Center

“The days of breakfast, lunch and dinners to connect to new customers and partners will have to be powered by Zoom, WebEx, MS Teams and others. It will be easy for large businesses to pivot to new ways to work but small enterprises could fall further behind. They do not have the capital to invest in the required digital network environments and will struggle in the new future of work. We cannot leave small businesses out of the new economy.”

Lance Cole, 72, of Abington, and owner of Standard Feather Company in Philadelphia

“There’s definitely been a change in society and in business in particular, and it seems that a good bit of commerce is trending toward large, large and larger — Walmart, Amazon, this one, that one — away from the small businesses. And so, in my opinion, you’ve got [to get] some really good people together and put their heads together to try to say, ‘Well, what can we do to give small business an incentive?’ Because after all, we’re told even though there’s such a large concentration in big companies, that I believe small businesses still provide the majority of jobs in the country.”

Jill Weber, 49, of Fitler Square, and owner of Jet Wine Bar in Philadelphia

“Locally-owned and operated businesses are a positive force in our neighborhoods. In the future, I’d love to see neighbors work more closely with their local businesses as community partners. Good and ethical practices towards employees and customers should be championed and rewarded, and conversely poor practices and bad behaviors should be censured and disincentivized. In other words, spend your money wisely to encourage great business and thriving communities.”

Sofia Deleon, 31, of Fairmount, and owner of El Merkury restaurant

“The future for us is making food in the way that people are consuming it now. Now people are eating at home more and cooking at home more, so we are going to be selling pupusas by the dozen and taquitos by the dozen. So changing our concept to fit the way food is being consumed right now.”

Judy Ni, 42, of Fairmount, and owner of Baology restaurant

“We need to examine and do a better job of like, how do we build inclusivity and diversity into our businesses? We can talk about it in like the smushy way, the tugs-at-your-heartstrings kind of way. But it’s just a better business model because you’re going to get better results from it.”

Nathan Aponte, 35, owner and founder of Small Biz Philly, an online resource for people in the Philadelphia region who want to start and grown their own business

“We should not focus on job creation as much as we should focus on entrepreneur creation. We should focus on access to capital for businesses. I think the economy would be better if they were more people self-employed. There are more opportunities if you want to find gigs as opposed to salaried jobs. So instead of me working for salary, I’m working for a commission.”

Anne Gemmell, 50, Future of Work strategist, Former City of Philadelphia Future of Work strategist

“The Future of Work presents a complex set of problems that can be very abstract. The first problem is getting consensus about what is the problem. What are the most urgent problems we need to solve. Then inevitably, once everyone agrees on how to solve them, it’s going to require different systems, like education and training, the private sector, government, each one of those players and silos need to change. And change is very hard. And so, no single mayor, no single governor, no single leader of an anchor institution will be able to do this alone.”

Mark Zandi, 61, Philly resident and chief economist at Moody’s Analytics

“We have some comparative advantages. I always thought that it would be huge for Philly, if it could be more of a bedroom community for New York and DC. That would change the city very rapidly. You would get the high income professional that would support the tax base. If you could do that it would significantly change the dynamics in the city.”

Jeff Hornstein, 53, Executive Director of Economy League

“Can we get loans to businesses run by people of color? That’s not really the solution to the problem. We have lots of Black- and brown-owned businesses that are basically working to pay off debt. They’re basically just paying off loans. They need what majority businesses have; equity partners.”

Tsehaitu Abye, 34, cannabis entrepreneur with Black Dragon Breakfast Club

“As a new business owner, as a Black person, as an Ethiopian-American woman, you have to have this conversation: Is this city racist? Is it about my skin? Covid and this new consciousness around Black Lives Matter showed me that I wasn’t as unapologetically Black as I thought. This country is abusive to me and it shows up in how I’m treated at work, it shows up in education, it shows up in your opportunities.”

Timaree Schmit, 38, Center City, burlesque performer and sex educator, of the Sex With Timaree podcast and the #DoBoth show

“So I don’t have a nine-to-five, have never had a full time job. I know that for some people, that would be absolutely anxiety provoking to not have that level of security. And I understand appreciate that. But what has allowed me to succeed is that when one employer disappears, or that industry changes or something like that, I’m able to bob and weave and change shapes into something that’s sustainable going forward. So I think that’s true.”

Alex Hillman, cofounder of Indy Hall and originator of the 10K Independents Project

“So I believe that the future of work is interdependent. Because over the last 150 years or more, we’ve built work around our increasing dependence on larger and larger organizations. But, or really finally, reckoning with the reality that often these organizations don’t have our individual or collective best interests in mind. They really just care about themselves and their bottom line and their shareholders. So I think healthy economies, healthy cities and healthy business ecosystems of the future, are interdependent. They’re fueled by entities who are individually resilient and networked, depending more on each other, instead of having any single point of failure.”

Patrick Clancy, 56, Havertown, CEO and President of Philadelphia Works, workforce development board

“Sustainable employment in the future means workforce and education developing quality and aligned talent for our businesses so they may grow quickly, employers being specific about needed skills and embracing workers from nontraditional pathways, economic development focused on flexible spaces, and all stakeholders being nimble as we step into an unknown, but exciting future. The goal being equity and opportunity for all.”

William Toms, 29, Queen Village, cofounder of REC Philly, a co-working space for creatives

“Socially, we are going to see a shift in how people see themselves in relation to work. My grandparents had the perspective that the status symbol was a good job, a government job. For my generation that doesn’t feel secure at all. For my generation it is much more important to find meaning in work and it doesn’t matter what the salary looks like.”

Michael O’Bryan, 35, director of learning, The Village of Arts and Humanities, and a consultant with Humanature, founder and principal

“The future of work for me is squarely human. It doesn’t mean that technology is not there. But the question is whether we can partner with technology to find new solutions to old problems … We have to invest in the humanity and the clear human potential of all of our residents. And the challenge is that we have never dealt with the racist, the sexist, the classist and heteronormative lens … that creates hyper-exclusion.”

Correra Wyatt, 36, hairdresser

“I was super blessed to have amazing clients who gave me what you would call a love donation. And now I have very amazing clients that helped me out, like, you know, through the whole thing. But yes, it was it was rough. It was rough.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.