Robots are not the real threat to work

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The more I read about the future of work, the more apparent it becomes that much of the discussion relies on extrapolated models of job losses and technological determinism to justify a course of action rather than critically examining broader trends.

Chris Johnston cartoonThere is no doubt that technological change will shape the future of work, but the extent and nature of that change is still debatable. The oft cited claim that 47 per cent of Americans will lose their jobs due to automation has been challenged by an OECD study concluding the actual figure is more likely nine per cent.

A similar claim by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia citing a figure of 40 per cent was found to be closer to nine per cent after being examined by Professor Jeff Borland and Dr Michael Coelli. The attention given to these initial claims means it is of little surprise that most Australians think the net effect of automation will be less jobs, with a substantial minority thinking it could happen as soon as five years, though the fear may be skewed with a recent Australian study finding young men fear automation far more than women.

While the threat from automation is often overstated, there are big technological shifts occurring which are undermining job security and hollowing out permanent, skilled work. But the experience is that work is created as well as displaced by new technology. Change in social relationships, not technology, explains what is happening in labour markets today.

Rather than a future without paid work, the future is more likely to be a growing polarised labour market with a continuing decline in middle-skilled jobs and growth in high-skilled, high-paying occupations (managers, professionals and technicians), some of which might be considered 'bullshit jobs', and low-skilled, low-paying occupations (elementary, service, and sales workers). The most recent OECD Employment Outlook shows that there has been a 9.5 per cent decline in middle-skill as a share of total employment with most growth in high-skilled employment.

Many of these high-paying roles have taken advantage of global markets and technology to have a huge capacity for growth and for trade. Those in lower paid occupations that have not been off-shored are reliant on face-to-face human interaction but also find it difficult to significantly increase their productivity.

This narrative of inevitability suits corporations that will benefit from the current situation. The implication is that actions cannot stop it, so there should be no attempt to regulate.

 

"Assuming robots will take all our jobs is an easy way of avoiding the harder but far more important conversation about the gendered nature of work and power in our society, and what we value."

 

Trajectories are, however, never inevitable. The moves by state governments towards licencing labour hire firms and the Change the Rules campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions show there is no inevitability about the future of work. It may change, but it does not occur in a policy vacuum.

We need policies and laws that ensure people are prepared and supported for both the opportunities and threats of a changing world of work. Australians are supportive of having laws that suit the changing nature of work. A 2017 Digital Rights in Australia report found that over 60 per cent believe that these new forms of gig work need new government regulations.

Part of the conversation about the future of work must also be about the quality of work and how technology can be used to improve the nature of work, such as through better redistributing work, reducing working hours and enabling more decision-making by frontline workers.

And despite the appeal of 'post-work', work still has a future in our society. Even if many paid jobs disappeared, work would still exist. Our society depends on the unpaid caring work that is predominantly done by women.

Assuming robots will take all our jobs is an easy way of avoiding the harder but far more important conversation about the gendered nature of work and power in our society, and what we value.

 

 

Osmond ChiuOsmond Chiu is Secretary of the NSW Fabians. He tweets @redrabbleroz

Topic tags: Osmond Chiu, work, automation

 

 

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Existing comments

Given the huge, intractable amount of underemployment we already have, I think we might try changing all the awards each year so that for the next 8 years we reduce the working week by one hour each year. Four day working weeks should help to spread the work around, as well as preserve the sanity of those working!
Russell | 01 June 2018


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