Digesting the future of work
Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
The future of work has been one of the most interesting topics of recent years, as researchers and commentators have given tremendous thought to how new technologies will impact how, where and even whether we will work in future. Such is the popularity of the topic, the breadth and quality of input has varied considerably, but a recent paper commissioned by the Alan Turing Institute and compiled by Oxford University, attempts to pull together the main themes.
The report finds that the nature of employment is changing throughout the world, both due to the increasing importance of human capital and the availability of diverse forms of work. There is a general shift towards valuing cognitive skills around the world, with new technologies underpinning this move towards a largely skills-intensive workforce.
What’s more, the rise of various gig economy platforms have reduced the link between work and place, enabling people to operate in a largely global marketplace for their skills.
“One of the most profound ways in which platforms are changing the geography of jobs is by creating what might be thought of as a ‘planetary labour market’ in which workers, for the first time, have to grapple with instant competition for jobs with workers from around the world,” the authors say.
This is likely to result in rising inequality across the world, as technological advances place a premium on high skills and lower skills requiring manual dexterity, such as hair dressers and plumbers. With the middle hollowed out, it is likely to see increased competition for lower skilled work, which could reduce incomes in that sector of the labor market too.
Despite this somewhat pessimistic outlook, the researchers are generally optimistic about the impact of technology on the labor market. They point out that all previous industrial revolutions have seen the job market expand after a relatively short-lived disruption, and whilst they accept that some believe the breadth and pace of change today to be much greater, they also point to the productivity boosting impact technology is likely to have on organizational performance, and the market-expanding impact this is likely to have.
For the negative impacts to be minimized however will require a change in how we support people, both as employers and society. For instance, most social protection available today is offered via full-time employment rather than the contingent labor market that is increasingly popular. Likewise, the taxation system is largely formed around full-time employment, and will require adjustment, both to be fair to individuals but also to fund the changes required to social protection.
Interestingly, despite the risk of disruption being spread across ages, and there existing particular challenges in adapting to changes as we age, the authors instead focus their attention on millennials, who not only entered the workforce around the time of the financial crash, but now have to adapt to a changing labor market.
The authors argue that this digitally native generation have key skills when it comes to adapting to technological change, although doubts exist whether digital natives are really sufficiently skilled in valuable areas such as coding rather than the use of digital devices. The authors highlight how this generation will need to develop a lifelong learning mentality unlike any previous generation.
The researchers highlight the importance of investment in early childhood, tertiary education and adult learning, especially outside of jobs. Whilst western governments have been reasonably effective at targeting the first two, they have been very poor at supporting adult education. As I’ve argued before, this is particularly important for those with lower skills who are disenfranchized from education today.
These people are further threatened by the rise of gig economy platforms that not only present them with global competition for work but often come with very little regulation surrounding workers rights. Previous research has highlighted how whilst gig work can be hugely liberating and rewarding, it can also be hugely stressful, especially when raising a family or at other times in life where stable income is more important than flexibility.
“The future of work will be characterised by increasing inequality both between and within countries,” the authors say. “A key question that multilateral organisations and governments with varying types of regimes and institutions face is whether the existing institutions and processes to govern work are still fit for purpose and how they should evolve to address the challenges in current conditions.”
The vast majority of workplace regulations today revolve around salaried work, and so it’s vital that dialog is undertaken to explore just what kind of governance models are required for the future of work that is not only influenced by contingent jobs but the various new technologies entering the market.
The authors raise the old chestnut of a universal basic income or negative income tax. Whereas a UBI covers all citizens, a negative income tax is more progressive and gives more support to those who need it, and less for those who don’t. Both are pretty untested however, with the few UBI experiments that have been performed happening on a small scale.
They also discuss the potential for taxing new technologies, as was controversially proposed by Bill Gates. Given the productivity boosts obtainable from investments in new technology however, this is surely a strategy that should largely be discounted.
As befitting most literature reviews, if you try and keep on top of this topic, there may be little that’s new or surprising, but it does nonetheless put things together into one document. I would have liked to have seen more space given to the various ways in which individuals, employers and society can help people develop the skills required as this was brushed over, but apart from that, it’s a solid introduction to the topic.
Article source: Digesting The Future Of Work.
Header image source: Free-Photos on Pixabay, Public Domain.