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Let the Machine Do It

By Aaron Sterniczky

When manual activities are taken over by machines, history points to advances in productivity and benefits for the individual. The political challenge therefore consists not in delaying changes that are about to happen, but in sharing the benefits.

A simple observation made by a Catholic village priest in Austria reveals much about how our relationship to work has changed. One of a priest’s duties is, of course, to console those who have lost someone close to them. In the past, relatives’ recollections of the lives of loved ones were always similar: life was nothing but work. Today, however, the priest has noticed a marked change. People talk about hobbies their family member loved or the associations and organisations in which they took part. Life is characterised by more variety and greater possibility. Statistics explain the shift this priest has picked up on: as workloads decrease, people finally have chance to pursue other interests.

In 1870, workers in a Belgian factory worked 72.2 hours per week on average. By the year 2000, the figure was 37 hours. Hours worked per week is not the only measure to have fallen. The proportion of people involved in the labour market has also steadily decreased. For example, only one in two Austrian residents are part of the workforce. The other half is either too young, retired, not fit for work, or in training. A strong welfare state, mandatory longer training periods for demanding jobs, and an ageing Western society are all crucial factors underlying this trend. 

Unpaid work is also far less demanding than it used to be. In the early 20th century, it took 68 hours a week to keep a two-person household, between cleaning, washing clothes, and preparing food. Since then, there has been a remarkable reduction of the necessary effort that the same tasks consume. These activities now take up only 15 hours and 24 minutes a week, thanks to the invention of the washing machine, fridge, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, and other appliances. 

Less work, more assets

Interlinked development of technology and the market economy steered us away from the tight constraints of feudalism and has greatly increased our collective standard of living. In the year 1300, the average annual income in Italy, adjusted for purchasing power, was around 1300 US dollars and remained more or less unchanged until the mid-19th century. But with the arrival of the steam engine and the onset of modernity, the production of wealth required less and less manual labour. Tasks passed from people to machines, achieving hitherto unknown increases in productivity. 

The trajectory of ever-greater productivity due to technological advances can be expected not only to continue but to accelerate. This trend is explained by the spread and diversification of digitalisation to fields that have so far appeared resistant to technology. Not only are the limits of what is technologically feasible being pushed back, but the marginal costs of applying these technologies are also quickly shrinking.

The expansion of labour-saving technology into new sectors will radically restructure the labour market too. Fours studies from the worlds of academia, business, and international institutions have framed the debate so far. A study conducted by the Oxford Martin School forecasts that almost half of all existing US jobs risk being automated in the near future, showing rather strong confidence about the technological breakthroughs soon to be counted with. Slightly more conservatively, the McKinsey Global Institute calculates that 800 million jobs worldwide will be replaced by modern, low-cost robots by as soon as 2030. 

The trajectory of ever-greater productivity due to technological advances can be expected not only to continue but to accelerate.

An alternative analysis with similar conclusions by the World Economic Forum predicts that almost two thirds of all children currently in primary education will grow up to pursue careers that do not yet exist. These new jobs are assumed to come from the existing technologies and strategies being combined in new ways and put to new uses, creating new professions with them. The budding sectors of artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and biotechnology could be fields that drive this between jobs growth. Assessments by the OECD seem more cautious. The organisation claims that probably one in ten jobs will be completely automated, a modest estimation compared to other findings. But the devil lies in the detail, and intense change is anticipated by the OECD as well. The task profile for up to half of all jobs are expected to change radically as technology takes on an increasingly important role. If one in two jobs demand entirely different skillsets then the remit of educational institutions, public bodies, and private companies will also have to change profoundly. Even our most prudent forecasts appear to have radical implications. 

General scenarios about the future of work, including the four studies referenced above, share three broad conclusions. First, a large number of jobs that currently exist will disappear. Unlike previous technological revolutions, this time the nature and extent of technological disruption will mean that there will not be enough new professions to compensate for those jobs made obsolete. Once, fathers who laboured as lamplighters had sons who were trained as electricians and the daughters of coachmen could learn to drive taxis. But what is supposed to happen when cars and lorries do not need drivers? According to predictions (with some caveats), automation in the transport sector could make this the case by 2025. 

Second, within the wider context of a huge drop in the number of jobs, new, exclusive skills will be increasingly in demand. The number of adverts for jobs that do not need specific training fell by 55 per cent between 2007 and 2015 in the US. In the same period, adverts for data analysts increased by 372 per cent, while data visualisation adverts increased by a remarkable 2574 per cent. In this context, the well-established approach of simply cutting working hours to open up more jobs is unlikely to work in isolation. The gap between skills required for existing jobs versus newly created jobs may simply be too wide.

Finally, the jobs that do survive will nevertheless change substantially. Many occupations that are still largely manual will shift towards human-machine interaction. Very different skills will be needed, and, at the same time, an increase in individual labour output can be expected.

The interplay between these three broad tendencies can be seen through a current example from the service industry. Japanese insurance company Fukoku recently took the landmark step of dismissing all 35 employees who had been responsible for checking whether invoices submitted by policy holders should be paid out. Instead, their tasks are now carried out by software using artificial intelligence. The investment will pay for itself almost immediately. The annual salaries for these employees costs 1.1 million dollars. Creating the programme Fukoku now uses incurred a one-off cost of 1.7 million dollars with 170 000 dollars in yearly operating costs. 

Experiences for the future

Faced with the prospect of such technological disruption, the political questions go far beyond employment. Inclusive labour markets also ensure and underwrites social participation. Furthermore, the future of work challenges political systems and democratic cohesion at fundamental levels. The party landscape across Europe reflects the history of past labour disputes. Never merely a debate about redistribution of income, the labour conflict was an argument about the concept and status of citizens as citizens, and the expansion of liberal rights to include political participation and social security were ultimately linked to employment. 

As the supply of steady employment weakens, these civil and social rights risk being dismantled. Pension payments, healthcare, nursing, education, financial support where needed – in European states, these are generally linked, in terms of both access and their funding, to having a regular income from work. This coupling must be lifted somehow. Only once these fundamental rights have been guaranteed universally and unconditionally can democratic standards prevail when our societies are no longer oriented towards work.

The industrial revolution directly concentrated gains in wealth in the hands of a few people until redistribution mechanisms were established. Yet it was not philanthropy; the proposal to fund the cost of universal healthcare collectively was reasonably justified. Systematic risks, then the ardours of modernisation and industry, and the risk of insecurity today, are better borne together. The same solidarity should be appealed to today. As almost everyone will be affected by the existential significance of changes to work, there is a broad, social interest in introducing reliable safety nets to safeguard against allegedly individual risks. 

Ways Forward

If our democratic societies do not succeed in adapting our social security and employment frameworks then existing trends of social disintegration may be further exacerbated. The combination of a highly competitive labour market and a restricted welfare state would increase social inequality. Restrictive labour market policies could become more popular in turn, an approach often linked to nativist proposals. Protectionists usually identify migration movements as the main reasons behind unemployment and insecurity. As a society we must desperately break away from this line of thinking to realise the emancipatory potential offered, but not guaranteed, by technological innovation. If we fail to do so then technology could become the enemy of progress, a vehicle dismantling democratic achievements and enhancing authoritarian trends. 

If our democratic societies do not succeed in adapting our social security and employment frameworks then existing trends of social disintegration may be further exacerbated.

Another conceivable variation on this theme would be that the current employment statuses adamantly continue to exist. That automation accelerates due to new technologies, but at the same time the political courage to devise new forms or laws is lacking. Periods of unemployment would still be comprehensively recorded and administered by state bureaucracy, bridged with pointless trainings and still considered as a personal failing. In this scenario, the administrative documentation of the erosion of traditional working models would support their very persistence. Society would fairly calmly accept a situation in which a growing group of people are excluded from social rights, and structural issues would continue to be understood as bureaucratic tasks rather than as political challenges. 

A counter-proposal would be launching activist labour market policies. The jobs guarantee is the boldest proposal in this vein. The traditional objective of full employment would once again be the supreme economic measure of societal success and the society of work would survive the pending crisis regardless. When jobs are to be lost, adequate replacements are to be found. Advocates see potential in the nursing, education, and social sectors. All that is needed, this perspective claims, is a reallocation of tasks. However, we must remember that many people may not want to randomly fill one of the jobs left over when their own profession ceases to exist. A liberal society might be able to manage the right to laziness, but it cannot accept forced labour.

Green Answers

The question of what to do about the future of work and the impact of technology cannot be avoided by any political force. In the beginning, Green parties had a double-edged relationship with advanced technology, mainly due to their emphasis of environmental protection as a political principle. Technology was regarded as a potential cause for ecological devastation, and Greens should therefore be immune to the naive narrative that technology represents nothing but progress. Today, however, there is an urgent need for resource-conserving, smart, emission-neutral production processes. Innovations such as these could highlight ways out of the damaging carbon economy and limit the knock-on effects of climate change and environmental degradation. These opportunities should be welcomed for the simple reason that they all may path the way to a greener future. Clearly affirming a conviction that smarter technology can contribute to a sustainable economy would give ongoing research and development a set goal to work towards. Technology’s inherent potential will not be realised automatically; rather, it is a political duty to make it happen. Yet, at the same time, without adjusting to technology’s societal consequences, Greens cannot expect to reap the environmental benefits.

First and foremost, access to basic rights must be untangled from existing restrictions. Fundamental rights need to be universalised, and the link between social entitlements and employment especially must be dissolved. Expansive social demands are also justified, since the new markets that are just emerging will generate greater reserves of wealth. Indispensable too are new concepts regarding how to commonly fund social services.

Civic advancement along with self-determination should be the real guideline for progress, especially when it comes to the future of work.

No doubt, it will require brave steps to humanise the knowledge-based society that is the inevitable successor of the worn-out industrial age. As a progressive society we should not hold back from considering radical ideas, overhauling the idea of employment and income to create a new unit. The proposal for a universal basic income is probably gaining popularity for this reason more than others. Acting not as a replacement for existing civil rights but as an addition to them, basic income symbolises a worthwhile attempt to allow as many people as possible to benefit from the profit generated by machines. 

Second, the public education system should also be adapted in accordance with lifelong learning guidelines to make sure the economy is as inclusive as possible. Education policy allows people to seize new opportunities. Since any training designed solely for a specific job becomes a futile undertaking as the requirements are changing ever faster, schools and other institutions should finally prioritise ideas of emancipation and enlightenment. Education can now aim to create empowered citizens rather than teaching market-ready skills.

Finally, if the present is just an era bridging future and past, the time is now for a wider debate about the value and purpose of work. Once again cutting the number of working hours is the next link in a chain that already began back in the industrial revolution. The ever-increasing importance of machines to the creation of value will make societies more affluent, but fair redistribution remains a political challenge. 

An historic window of opportunity is opening up to discuss conceptual ideas of how our pressured working society can transition to new organisational models. After all, modernity could be the path towards progress, if technological, political, and scientific achievements offer greater life chances to citizens. Within our European democracies, politics and technology should work towards that goal. Civic advancement along with self-determination should be the real guideline for progress, especially when it comes to the future of work. That is where the real work lies.

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