Making the future work: people and technology need each other

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Steve Bainbridge, Cedefop

Making the future work: people and technology need each other

In March 2016, AlphaGo - a computer - defeated Lee Sedol, the world’s best player, at Go, an ancient Chinese game that has infinitely more variations than chess. Some estimate that around 47% of jobs in the United States and Europe could be at high risk of being automated out of existence over the next 10 or 20 years. The machines, it appears, are on the rise.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic about jobs. Despite advances in new technology, employment in the European Union is forecast to reach record levels after 2020 and less than 15% of the European workforce currently has temporary contract. These differing trends make it important to understand three different ways in which technology is affecting employment - job substitution, job creation and job transformation.

In job substitution, technology shows no respect for skill levels. Airline pilots are much more highly-skilled than taxi drivers. But we have pilotless aeroplanes - drones - not driverless taxis because any job that is routine is more vulnerable to substitution. Piloting an aeroplane is harder than driving but also, thankfully, more predictable; aeroplanes tend not to hit you from behind.

Technology creates jobs by lowering barriers to entry, reducing risk and inventing new tasks. Small firms and individuals are already publishing books via the internet. Less risk means more entrepreneurs. New jobs that did not exist 10 years ago include search engine optimisation specialist, blogger and chief listening officer.

But technologies’ most important impact is job transformation. With technology doing the routine stuff, jobs of the future will comprise varied non-routine tasks requiring people to think, communicate and organise. Workers, in all types of jobs at all levels, will need to be adaptable and learn new things. Technology is also transforming work organisation by enabling work to be broken down into modules that can be separated contractually and coordinated through online platforms and networks that are not based in a specific workplace or around fixed working times.

History teaches that there will be plenty of work to do. The key question is how to manage technology to ensure work is accessible and rewarding both personally and financially. Three issues have important implications.

First is the role of the public sector. In the coming decades most people will work in services that improve people’s quality of life, such as health, tourism and education. However, being labour intensive, as wages rise, services become more expensive; teachers cannot provide half a lesson or doctors half a diagnosis. Many labour intensive services affecting the quality of life are delivered by the state. As they become more costly, if the state does not deliver them to people who could not otherwise afford them, then who will pay and provide the jobs? The public purse matters.

Second is labour market regulation. It is undesirable to regulate to stop the digital revolution, but platform working raises serious issues. What is a platform worker’s status? How do labour laws apply to them? How do people update their skills and qualifications? Labour market regulations need adapting in smart ways to the needs of a platform economy.

Third is the tendency to use technology for short-term job substitution instead of the long-term advantages of complementarity. When introducing automatic cash machines in the 1970s, banks used the technology to cut staff. Now cash machines are everywhere, but banks also employ lots of nice people to persuade you to give your money to their bank, not another one.

Technology itself does not make businesses competitive; it is the people that use it. Technology can perform tasks and collect data, but people need to decide what those tasks will be and what the data mean. Technology cannot innovate, but people can. Price and quality will always be important, but often the competitive edge lies in the quality of service only people can deliver.

Complementarity between people and technology, not substitution of people by technology must be the mind-set. In the mid-1950s, American trade union president Walter Reuther on being shown around a newly automised Ford car factory was asked by a company official, “How are you going to collect union dues from these machines?” Reuther replied: “How are you going to get these machines to buy Fords?” How we manage technology, more than technology itself, will determine work in the future.

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