Future of Work report part of terrible trend

McKinsey insights are anything but insightful

WHAT KIND of analysis does $1.6 million buy from the world’s most prestigious management consulting firm? Judging by McKinsey & Company’s 82-page report about the future of work in Massachusetts — not much. The graphics are slick, the insights are anything but insightful, and the predictions have enough caveats to never be proven wrong. Fact checking must not have been included, since the report includes Mattapan and Roxbury as “Greater Boston Urban Residential” communities alongside Chelsea, Everett, and Revere.

At a price of $19,512 a page, the report might seem expensive but it’s a bargain by McKinsey’s standards. ICE paid the firm more than $20 million for advice on how to save money managing immigrant detention facilities, getting cutting edge management suggestions like giving the detainees worse food and medical care. New York City gave McKinsey $27.5 million to help reduce violence on Riker’s Island. After McKinsey’s assistance, which was plagued by data errors and outright falsification, violence at Riker’s reached record highs and the city now plans to close the prison.

This report was on the lower end of McKinsey’s pricing scale, which apparently means the Commonwealth doesn’t get anything beyond regurgitated conventional wisdom. The eight predictions, helpfully sorted into four themes, will be familiar to anyone who has read the business section of the Boston Globe. Remote work will be more common, business travel will be less frequent, childcare and housing are getting more expensive, inequality is worsening, public transit will be less popular, population growth will slow, and we need to retrain workers for a changing job market.

After more than three months of work by the best and brightest, McKinsey penetrating insights such as, “the Commonwealth is not homogeneous and the challenges and opportunities from the future of work will be experienced differently across the state,” and “in short, the evolution of trends impacting real estate in Boston/Cambridge remains uncertain and thus requires monitoring over time.” While the report identifies challenges facing the Commonwealth’s economy, the only solutions are vague nostrums about retraining workers for better jobs and expanding the housing supply. Specifics must only be included with an eight-digit price tag.

If a layperson reads this report looking for insight, the cost seems absurd. But actually learning about the future of work was never the purpose of MicKinsey’s contract. Prestigious management consultancies, in the private and public sectors, are much more about the imprimatur their advice provides than the quality of the advice itself. Armed with these 82 pages, the Baker administration can justify their policy decisions by invoking the most prestigious name in management consulting. This is part of a terrible trend in politics — framing fundamentally political choices as technocratic common sense.

An honest discussion about the future of work is a moral and philosophical argument far beyond the scope of any consulting contract, slide deck, or academic study. Specifically, it is about how the state will allocate limited resources and use the power of government to shape our political economy. This requires making difficult choices — should the state improve mass transit in hopes of attracting new riders or invest in roads we know are overcrowded; is it worth raising taxes to subsidize child care and affordable housing, even if it makes Massachusetts less competitive at attracting jobs?

Meet the Author
While implementing public policy is a technocratic endeavor, these crucial choices are all revealed preferences about who benefits from government and what values the government will advance.  Even the most insightful consulting report, much less this inscrutable compilation of newspaper articles, will not alter that reality.

Brian Jencunas is a Massachusetts-based political consultant and government relations professional