From Widgets to Digits: Employment Regulation for the Changing Workplace

Posted: 6 Sep 2004

See all articles by Katherine V.W. Stone

Katherine V.W. Stone

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


This book provides an innovative framework to understand and address problems generated by the changing nature of the workplace. For most of the twentieth century, employers fostered long-term employment relationships through the use of implicit promises of job security and well defined paths for career progression. Today, employers no longer value longevity nor do they seek to encourage long-term attachment. Instead they seek flexibility. The labor and employment laws of the twentieth century are based upon an out-moded model of stable labor-employer relationship. Today employees expect to change jobs several times during their work lives as they move across the boundaries of departments and firms.

The new boundaryless workplace has many implications for labor and employment regulation. Existing labor and employment laws were built on the assumption of long-term, stable relationships between employees and firms. The National Labor Relations Act, with its emphasis on bargaining units and job-centered contractual rights, was designed to protect employees in long-term employment relationships within well-delineated, bounded workplaces. Similarly, many aspects of the private social welfare system in the United States, including programs for old age assistance, unemployment insurance and health insurance, are employer-centered and assume a long-term employment relationship with a single employing unit. The emerging boundaryless workplace undermines the effectiveness of these programs and raises many serious concerns of equity, justice, and social welfare.

From Widgets to Digits analyzes the impact of the new flexible workplace on the issues of employment discrimination, ownership of human capital, worker representation, employee benefits and income distribution. It proposes legal and institutional reforms to ensure the conditions of success in today's boundaryless workplace. Professor Stone contends that a constructive program for workplace justice must provide continuity in wages, on-going training opportunities, transferable skills, unambiguous ownership of individual human capital, and portable health and retirement benefits. She also advocates the creation of a reliable social safety net to ease transitions and cushion the fall for those who are left behind by the boundaryless workplace. From Widgets to Digits begins with a historical treatment of the changing workplace. It recounts the early twentieth century transition from artisanal era to industrial era job structures, and the current transition from industrial to digital era job structures. It then details the tension between the new boundaryless workplace and the labor and employment law framework that was tailored to the earlier era. The book then focuses on several specific areas that require new policy directions - post-employment restraints, employment discrimination, employee representation, health insurance and pension benefits, and income distribution. In each area, it proposes new legal frameworks to redress the inequities and vulnerabilities of the new workplace.

Suggested Citation

Stone, Katherine Van Wezel, From Widgets to Digits: Employment Regulation for the Changing Workplace. Available at SSRN:

Katherine Van Wezel Stone (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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