The future of work. The belief that long-term automation creates as many jobs as it destroys is currently wavering. For some years now, we have witnessed a phenomenon that gives cause for concern when it comes to employment. New technologies are now replacing features that until recently were not considered automatable.
The future of work has never been so difficult to predict. It may seem like an unsubstantiated allegation: after all, on other occasions in the past, we have gone through high-impact changes that have substantially altered the forms and the ways we work. It happened with the transition from agriculture to modern industry, and again during every industrial revolution. However, every time the emergence of new jobs – in sectors other than those where technological innovation has developed, because the “income effect” overtook that of substitution – has ended up compensating, in the medium to long term, for the loss of traditional activities – such as blacksmith or horse groomer – caused by the introduction of new technologies. More often than not, the quality of the working conditions actually improved; until now, in fact, the new jobs that have replaced the ones destroyed have been generally better and more well-paid than those replaced by innovation.
However, the belief that long-term automation creates as many jobs as it destroys is currently wavering. For some years now, we have witnessed a phenomenon that gives cause for concern when it comes to employment. The new technologies are no longer created for the purpose of replacing hard physical labour, thus sparing individuals from the heaviest, most exhausting work. Extraordinary advances in the field of artificial intelligence have allowed to replace tasks that until recently were not considered automatable. Additionally, the core competences required to produce and manage these technologies only involve a small number of jobs, resulting in a negative balance t
hat makes it unclear as to what the pursuable alternatives is.
These sound like futuristic concepts, but in reality, the effects of this transformation are already happening. The slow exit from the recession is taking place in the name of growth without employment. This is happening at the expense of lower-skilled industrial workers, who are being replaced by robots in the factories, but it also affects th
e middle-class individuals who are employed in the service sector. It is no longer just the cashier who has been replaced by the ATM, the financial analyst also runs the risk of becoming obsolete and being replaced by a robo-advisor and new financial technologies.
The intelligent algorithms put machines in direct competition with humans for a wider and ever more sophisticated set of functions. The certainty that driving a vehicle – and this is just one of the many examples – is safe from globalisation, because it will always require a human to drive it, has been shaken by a future that is now quite near, a future where the driver’s trade could be wiped out by self-driving cars. An issue that is little more serious than the battle to save taxi drivers from the Uber attack…
The issue, therefore, stems from a deep discontinuity, because technology has bullied its way into an area that was thought to be exclusively reserved for the cognitive capacity of humans. The automation we are experiencing does not follow the incremental logic we were accustomed to, which granted us the necessary time to adapt by developing new competencies. Computers are trying to emulate our skills and, in many cases, have even surpassed them, at a shocking rate.
Institutional and organisational entities, as well as the cultural paradigms, are struggling to take measures to deal with this new reality. One organisation from which one can get a clearer picture regarding this issue is the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations agency that, in its placid Geneva headquarters, lives in the somewhat anachronistic balance with its three components: government representatives, trade unions and employers’ associations. A tripartite division that is less and less able to represent the new dynamics of the labour market, where the fragmentation and precariousness of the “gig economy” seem to be the dominant trend.
Enquiring about the future of work is, therefore, a very opportune initiative, especially in view of the centennial celebrations of the ILO, which will be held in 2019. This observation has lead to a first step regarding this issue, with a conference devoted to the topic in which Euricse participated as a one of the few organisations invited to speak about social economy. The underestimation of this constantly growing employment sector is already a clue in itself.
Faced with the issue of how to handle the transition towards the work of the future, the alliances of the ILO audience were quite predictable. Although everyone agreed on celebrating the virtues of the labour market in the past tense, as it had gradually evolved from an imposed constraint to a modern era instrument of individual emancipation, the analysis that focused on the future took very conflicting directions. Faced with the challenge of automation, many voices called for public forms of regulation, such as the taxation of robots and enforcing public standards aimed at ensuring the quality of work. By applying rather traditional thought patterns, the advocates of these solutions seem to really believe in the reassuring possibility of reverting from unknown back to known and putting a brake on the process of replacing humans with machines. Unfortunately though, history has shown us the futility of this approach, which has never succeeded in harnessing technological development in the meshes of the regulatory actions.
On the other hand, the ones who were the least convinced of the fact that technological transformation processes can be arrested, argued in favour of mitigating the impact of workforce restructuring by means of income redistribution. With varying degrees of voluntarism: from the proposal of a non-conditioned basic income, although not very discussed in terms of economic sustainability, all the way to the seemingly less visionary idea, which is actually more intriguing from a conceptual point of view, of introducing profit sharing schemes, starting from new forms of technology innovation tool ownership, in order to redistribute the automation dividend among those who are threatened by automation. Also in this case however, as well as for those advocating for a regulatory intervention to restrain automation, there are many obstacles, because redistribution mechanisms of this nature cannot function on a purely national scale, but need to be introduced globally and follow a similar timetable. In Geneva, little was said about what forms these new models of technological innovation tool ownership could take.
Nevertheless, what emerges from both approaches is the impression that the debate is still in its infancy and must yet undergo a long process in order to create the conceptual, regulatory, educational, and institutional infrastructure to contextualise the new forms of labour. When challenging the future, the temptation to bring back existing categories is still very strong, and it is felt most of all in the way in which phenomena such as social economy are almost overlooked.
Nonetheless – in a perspective such as the one investigated by Euricse – a deeper analysis of the mechanisms of automation would help to emphasise how not all human skills can be replaced in the short-medium term by artificial intelligence systems. For example, even though pattern recognition is done deal, the same does not apply to capabilities regarding problem solving and the creative and emotional dimensions, which are crucial traits in all types of labour based on the important role of human interaction. This translates into opportunities for development in the field of personal and social services in the broader and evolutionary sense. A sector in which today’s challenge is to increase the value of high-touch activities, managing their transformation into jobs with a higher level of competence and with a greater stability and protection.
The subject of “care economy” was only marginally mentioned at the Geneva meeting, without further investigation about its future relevance, also in terms of economy and employment as public and private demand for services increases, or about the implications of the new organisational and entrepreneurial approaches, which could substantially contribute to outline the prospects of the future labour market. Many of the issues raised during the ILO conference could be tackled with a social economy based logic.
Let us reflect on the potential of the cooperative model, especially in the form of labour cooperatives, in the context of high relational and fiduciary activities such as care services. Or think of the potential of the cooperative model, as consumer co-operatives, as a possible decline of the collective forms of property required for the realisation of the profit sharing scheme with which to redistribute the digital dividend. It is a concrete opportunity, if only the issues were tackled from the original forms of organisation’s point of view, in order to maintain the ownership of individual data in the eyes of citizens, so as to avoid its free exploitation by part of the large corporations in the digital sector, rather than pursuing them in the area in which they prevail, with the dream of replacing them with cooperative platforms.
Reflect also on the issue of labour quality control – the decent work that is so dear to the ILO – along the international supply chains, in which what currently prevails is a mechanism of substantial unaccountability by part of the big enterprises towards the small suppliers. When the supply chain moves the production to countries where labour protection is fragile, and the big buyer refuses to take on the responsibility for the whole production chain (without, however, giving up full control over the production processes), the enforcement of decent work standards can be promoted at a decentralised level, by compensating for the shortcomings of the public authorities through the action of cooperative middle-class organisations, which helps local players exercise negotiating power when dealing with lead companies.
These are just two examples of how the debate on the future of work could benefit from an approach that takes into account the opportunities offered by social economy. The path is just beginning: the hope is that this voice will be heard.