World of Work
Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?Henry Ford II, CEO of Ford Motor Company
“Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”Walter Reuther, Leader of the United Automobile Workers (UAW)
Most people are dependent on work for income. Historically, economic growth meant job security, but ‘jobless growth’ has decoupled these dynamics. This has led to growing income insecurity that is affecting many, primarily those starting to enter the job market. Investments in technology have enabled some digital businesses to expand without additional staffing, so-called ‘scale without mass’, which has made them extraordinarily profitable.
The risks of technological unemployment due to AI and automation are rising. The extent of jobs likely to be fully or significantly automated in the near future, and predictions that machines will soon outperform human beings at half of all tasks performed, cause significant alarm. There is general agreement that technological progress will make many occupations obsolete. While technology has replaced many workers, it has also enabled those still working to be more productive. It will also create new jobs—for those with the right skills.
The job market has become increasingly polarised since the early 1990s. It now consists of relatively high-skill, high-wage jobs and low-skill, low-wage jobs. The middle, more routine type of jobs have been hollowed out. Employers now demand highly skilled workers in technological fields able to work to a high level of abstraction. Increased demand enabled these skilled digital workers to command high incomes. At the other end of the spectrum, many qualified mid-skilled workers have been forced to resort to low-skill, low-wage jobs due to growing competition for the remaining routine mid-skill jobs. Here, supply has outstripped demand, so wages have stagnated. Low-skill jobs do not require much education, but they need workers who are adaptable with good interpersonal skills.
Technology traditionally de-skills by substituting machinery and standardised processes for individualised solutions undertaken by skilled workers. However, the threat of technological obsolescence is now expanding to put pressure on high-skill jobs in the service economy. Desirable 21st century skills are therefore more likely to be cognitive, such as complex problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurial and people skills.
Alongside the fact that most people need paid work to survive and thrive, there are also non-market, non-financial aspects of work that need to be considered. Work has traditionally provided a social sphere with shared spaces where people interact with each other and their public institutions, thereby creating the social structures of society. In a post-Covid situation, working from home has led to an accelerated detachment of the social aspects of work. On a personal level work is for many people, a defining characteristic of their identity and worth. In a post-work future, human purpose will have to be radically redefined.