Sara Moulton of the Human Capital Leadership Institute in Singapore has just authored a good article in HQ Asia. Looking at some of the issues driving change in and around work over the next decade or so, it highlights some examples raised in a Future Agenda event in Singapore in November. Many thanks to Sara for sharing the piece.
The travel and tourism industry is often described as the largest industry in the world. It accounts for 9% of world GDP, $1.3tn in exports and 6% of world trade across multiple sectors, including transport (aviation, rail, road and sea), accommodation, activities, food and drink. It is estimated that it creates about 120 million direct and 125 million indirect jobs and is closely linked to other sectors in domestic and international markets, such as the manufacturing industry, agriculture and the service sector. In turn, these create broad multiplier effects for local and national economies.
In 2012, for the first time in history, the number of tourists crossing international borders in a single year reached over one billion. While just over 50% of these arrivals were from Europe, much of the demand is being fuelled by rising household incomes in emerging economies – not only the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but increasingly across the rest of south-east Asia and Latin America. In addition another five to six billion people travel in their own country every year. Technological innovations are fuelling this growth, and include developments in low cost air travel and the widespread use of increasingly sophisticated applications that aid online researching and booking travel.
Mass tourism was one of the great game-changers of the 20th century. Thomson Holidays ‘Sustainable Holiday Futures’ report explains: “Cheap flights meant travel was no longer the preserve of a wealthy elite, enabling millions of people to travel beyond their border and dramatically widening the horizons, tastes and expectations of an entire generation in the developed world.” Today I see the mobilisation of the middle classes in the Indian Subcontinent, Asia and South America as the game-changer for the early part of the 21st Century.
In general people like traveling and which is probably why the industry has remained resilient, adapting in the face of a range of challenges such as armed conflict (particularly the Gulf Wars) and disease (Sars, H1N1, Foot and Mouth, and more recently Ebola), earthquakes and other natural disasters. Looking ahead the future looks positive; for example international tourist arrivals worldwide are expected to increase by c. 3.3% a year to reach 1.8 billion by 2030 with the majority of market share tipping toward the emerging economies over this period.
Despite the positive trajectory the Thomson Future Holidays report warns that the challenges for the industry are formidable: “The dream of affordable travel for all is being obscured by climate change, future long-term projections of rising fuel prices and a growing awareness among consumers that sustainability and responsible travel are set to have an impact on how we understand, embrace and manage our holiday plans.” Given this, I see that there are broadly two main challenges ahead for the development of a robust travel and tourism industry: how to continue to grow further to deliver jobs, exports, economic growth and development, and in doing so, how to manage this sustainably.
Considering growth, perhaps the first issue to be addressed should be the balance between convenience and security with border controls coming under increasing strain as they deal with huge volumes of people travelling internationally at a time when fears around global security are high.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council believes that “the bureaucratic hurdles that often accompany visa procurement such as long wait times, absence of local consular offices and excessive documentation requirements discourage travel, constraining visitor spending and the jobs and growth it generates”, and that “The largest delays are caused by antiquated visa processes and can be easily reduced through utilization of commonplace modern technology”. Improved visa facilitation in G20 countries, it says, could create between 940,000 – 5.1 million jobs and generate US$149 -206 billion in international tourist receipts by 2015. It says that shifting away from in-person interviews and consulate-based application system to online applications, video interviews and application processing software can reduce staffing costs and produce immediate returns en route to widespread adoption of e-Visas and a coordinated global travel facilitation system. It’s paper ‘Smart Travel: Unlocking Economic Growth and Development through Travel Facilitation’ proposes “a smart travel model and blueprint that could revolutionize the travel and tourism sector, much the way smartphones have transformed the telecommunications and media industries”.
Clearly the challenge is to make travel safer but at the same time more efficient. Innovations in travel facilitation is essential for growth so look out for different forms of frictionless travel – streamlining visa processes with the introduction of e-visas for example: “As the world becomes hyper-connected, circular and citizen-centric, the right legislative framework, innovative financing and partnership models are crucial to facilitate travel. This includes smart visas, smart infrastructure (i.e. smart airports) and skills.”
The notion of technology driven travel is not confined to border controls. Smart cards similar to those used for localized, multi-modal urban transport (such as the Oyster card in London and Tisséo smart card in Toulouse) will increasingly be used not just for local transport solutions and for booking accommodation, activities, food and drink, but also at the level of predicting personal choices in hotel rooms, such as smart showers that predict the temperature we prefer, and smart meters that optimise our use of energy, temperature control, and so on.
Beyond this, smart technology has revolutionized how we choose to travel. We are no longer dependent on the wisdom of our high street travel agent and prefer instead to make decisions based on the experience of online crowds from the likes of Trip Advisor. Browsers and indeed our browsing habits are becoming increasingly sophisticated allowing us to choose our journeys by cross-referencing and sharing ideas as well as influencing the buying choices of others. Looking ahead expect searches to be even more refined, with users having greater control over whose opinion they seek. Combine this with the increasing use of smart devices and it is clear that ensuring they stay ahead of technological innovation will be key to survival for many (from SMEs to the large corporates) across all sectors of the industry.
Regulation will continue to have a huge influence over the aviation and transport industry. The key regulatory challenges are likely to be Air Passenger Duty increases, compliance with the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and volatile fuel prices. The effects of the deregulation of the European railways in 2010 that allowed open access (i.e. all railway operators can now compete on international routes, and private companies can now pick up passengers outside their home country and operate cross-border trains) have yet to be realised. It is hoped that it will lead to competitive pricing for tickets, more seats on more trains and increased variety of rail products and services. Perhaps the most significant improvement (and one that looks set to grow in the future) is the multi-modal approach to air and rail. Many large German airports, for instance, such as Frankfurt, Cologne and Dusseldorf, now have modern rail stations that allow air passengers to continue seamlessly by rail to many destinations. The Chinese have also already significantly invested in mass transit by rail. As fuel costs make conventional air travel more expensive, in some regions, rail travel may replace domestic and even intercontinental flights.
Given that the travel and tourism industry is a huge employer, the development of and tighter controls on employment rights are likely to be a significant factor in the future. It is worth noting in this regard that there are few NGOs lobbying the industry on human rights; the UK-based charity Tourism Concern is a small but vociferous organisation that campaigns for a variety of human rights issues, such as the right to water for local communities, displacement and land rights of indigenous people, and porter protection, while Survival International campaigns for the rights of tribal people worldwide. As the travel and tourism industry boom continues, it is likely there will be many more issues to contend with in this regard, particularly regarding the expansion of urban landscape into traditional land areas in Africa and the expansion of oil production and timber felling in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and South America.
Tourism is an under utilized tool for socio-economic development. In general it has had a positive impact on local community empowerment, especially for women. There are other intangible assets, such as encouraging greater global connectivity and cultural understanding. Awareness of this is increasing and community based tourism is on the rise with a growing number of holiday makers eschewing the crowded beaches and all inclusive packages to enjoy a more authentic experience living in the culture rather than observing it from the outside. The demand for localized, personal experience will grow over the next decade. As a result the travel and tourism industry is becoming increasingly aware of its social responsibility so look out for increasingly sustainable travel options. Over the next decade travellers will base their buying decisions not only around comfortable beds, leisure facilities or the proximity to cultural attractions, they will also be able to choose to stay in places where they know the staff are being treated well and the local economy is not being exploited.
Some in the industry are already changing their ways of working. Thomson Holidays (part of the TUI Group) reports that companies will increasingly be held to account over their commitment to issues of a more sustainable tourism industry. Jane Ashton, head of sustainable development at TUI Travel, said: “Our research shows that our customers want us to take care of sustainability issues for them. So our challenge is to influence destinations and hotels to supply an infrastructure that allows our customers to be more sustainable.”
Thomson Holidays also predict that during the next twenty years, UK travellers will agree to pay for their water on holiday; take ‘Tradecations’ – cooperating with radical plans by hotels and resorts to slash their carbon footprint in return for carbon reward points that can be traded for visits to local sites of interest, spa treatments or dinner and drinks; discover holiday super-hubs and aerovilles as a new integrated global rail and sail network replaces domestic and regional air travel. With regard to carbon quotas, it warns there is a “potential double-whammy for the travel industry with governments worldwide predicted to impose personal carbon quotas”. The British government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 “would give UK citizens an annual carbon quota of just 3.1 tonnes per person”, so the report concludes: “Such low quotas will encourage families to carbon-comparison shop.”
When practiced responsibly, tourism can also be a tool for biodiversity conservation – many national parks and other protected areas would no longer be able to survive financially without large number of visitors, and there are an increasing number of examples where ecotourism has helped save individual species, such as the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and Orang Utan in Borneo. A census announced this week in India reports that tigers numbers are up 30% over the last four years, which is in part due to tourism’s influence on the understanding of the economic value of tigers; that they are worth more alive than dead.
Increased awareness of environmental issues (and the rise of the ‘green consumer’) has inevitably led to a growth in the interest in environmental travel. As far back as 2010, around 50% of Americans that traveled abroad were engaged in nature, culture or heritage tourism and research commissioned by Trip Advisor suggested that 71% of its members intended to make eco-friendly travel choices in the future. So, over the next ten years look out for continuous growth in travel focused on learning about, experiencing or positively affecting ecological conservation, economic development and local community improvements, cultural respect or human rights.
However, if poorly managed, tourism can be a double-edged sword, having a negative impact on local populations and their natural environment (including degradation of local environmental quality, water consumption and waste management) as well contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Unchecked and unregulated, the continued growth of the industry will also have implications for areas of significant cultural and natural importance. Of the 1007 properties listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, 46 are identified as ‘in danger’, such as the Everglades in Florida, the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, the Rainforests of the Atsinanana in Madagascar and the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UNESCO includes “unchecked tourist development” on its list of challenges that it says pose threats to World Heritage Sites; the others are: armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, and uncontrolled urbanization. Regulators and law enforcement officers must address this.
Beyond everything climate change will undoubtedly affect the travel and tourism industry, both in terms of the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and the effect on the tourist industry of destinations adapting to climate change, especially those regions that already are exposed to extreme weather, such as at the equator and the poles, as well as vulnerable island states, such as the Maldives and many Pacific Islands, and low-lying coastal areas of industrialised nations that are vulnerable to sea water rises. Tourism bears some responsibility for this currently accounting for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions – approximately 4% from transportation (40% of those from air travel and 32% from car travel) and almost 1% from the accommodation sector. As demand for air travel is forecast to double by 2050, and carbon emissions from flights departing the UK alone are forecast to increase from 33.3 MtCO2 in 2011 to 47 MtCO2 by 2050 expect innovations in transport infrastructure to begin to mitigate the damage being done.
One of the other options for tackling aviation’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – a market-based “cap and trade” mechanism whereby emissions are capped at a set overall limit but are tradeable. Another solution is to address the source of the emissions produced by aviation through use of future aircraft technology, better operational flying techniques and the development of sustainable fuels. ‘Sustainable Aviation’, an alliance of the UK’s airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers, has produced a ‘CO2 Roadmap’, which it says could reduce the UK’s aviation emissions by up to 24% by 2050. It says the UK could have between 5 and 12 operational plants producing sustainable fuels by 2030, which could generate a Gross Value Added of up to £265 million in 2030 and support up to 3,400 direct jobs, and a further 1,000 jobs.
 World Economic Forum
Smart visas, indeed, smart ticketing in general for mass transit provides a tangible way forward in addressing some of the barriers to the seamless growth of cross border visitor numbers.
Given unpredictable fuel costs in a climate-challenged world, the future for the aviation industry must surely lie with greater efficiencies in the short term and with alternative fuels used in the future, even if a global emissions trading mechanism is put in place. The railways are likely to be the mid- to long-term solution for mass domestic transit, particularly linking to intercontinental airport hubs for leisure, work and shopping, especially in those countries with modern railway networks, such as China, Japan and the Middle East, but also across the high-speed networks of Europe.
Regarding World Heritage Sites already at risk from the sheer numbers of visitors, it has been suggested that charging a tourist levy for entry is one solution to limit the numbers, though critics have said this is elitist.
It is uncertain how far climate change will impact destinations over the next 20 years, but it is highly likely that we will start to see the effects of a warming world in this time frame, especially in those destinations that already experience extreme weather, such as at the equator and the poles (as well as the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Australia), where particularly water scarcity will impact on the tourism industry.
Companies will increasingly be accountable for their environmental and social impact, and demonstrate how close they come to providing a ‘net positive impact’ in the destination.
The global challenge of work is two-fold. First, will automation, in its various forms, destroy jobs? And second, even if not, will workers be paid enough to sustain the global economic system? This is why the former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has said the problem of “good jobs” is the central problem of the richer economies.
The combination of economic stagnation, global competition and digital technology has created something of a social and public panic about work. We are losing “the race against the machine,” or reaching “the end of labor”. But there are two diverging stories about the future of work, one dystopian, one utopian, as Flipchart Rick has observed. On the one hand: it “will revolutionise the workplace … and enable us to have more fulfilled working lives.” And on the other: a future “of factories without people, of vanishing jobs, of a hollowed out labour market and … vast profits with few employees.”
Our present model of work is, broadly, a creature of the industrial revolution, dominated by the division of labour, the supervision of labour, and payment of workers for their time or their tasks. This includes so-called “new economy” models such as Uber, whose casualisation of its workforce would be recognised by any 19th or 20th century dock-worker. Some of the big shifts shaping work reinforce this model. Others are starting to reshape it, potentially marking the start of a transition beyond it.
To understand how this is likely to change over the next decade and beyond, we need to understand the global landscape of work. These are a shift towards services, the globalisation of supply chains, the growth of ubiquitous technology, an increased squeeze on resources, and a shift in social values towards well-being. These pull in different directions.
Globalisation and digitisation take you towards rawer forms of capitalism, whereas resources and values take you towards more inclusive versions. The way you deliver services depends on which model of these two that you prefer. The version of the story about the future of work you subscribe to tends to depend on your assumptions about how these drivers will play out.
The shift to services: The deep shift in the global economy is in the long-term rise of services to “become the dominant economic activity” (UNIDO, 2009). The economists Timmer and Akkus (2008) describe this as a “powerful historical pathway of structural transformation,” which every country follows.
One of the reasons for the long boom in living standards in the 20th century was because of the long boom in manufacturing, the dominant economic trend for much of the century. Productivity growth and economic growth tends to fall as services become dominant, and the influence of trades unions, which are effective in maintaining the value of wages, tends to decline.
The globalisation of the supply chain: Manufacturing is also tradable, meaning that it is open to export competition. The growth of the Asian economies, in particular China, has been extensively driven by manufacturing. Taking a long view, Asia’s share of world production almost doubled between 1970 to 2008, from 15.5% to 28.5%, at the expense of Europe and North America. (Unido, 2009). This growth was driven largely by the development of containerisation, not digital technology, because it transformed shipping costs.
But globalisation is reaching its limits. Wages in export sectors in both China and India are now relatively high (a pattern seen in other emerging economies in the past) and companies are moving their production closer to their markets, both anticipating rising transport costs and wanting to be able to respond more flexibly to demand.
The other effect of globalisation, of course, is an increase in migration: more than 500 million people globally now live in a country they weren’t born in. Economists generally agree that immigration is good for economies. Migrants tend to be younger, more enterprising, and economically active, and their effect on wages, economic growth and tax contributions is almost completely positive. However, in weak labour markets migration also tends to push down unskilled wages by increasing competition for such jobs; such competition is gamed by unscrupulous employers.
The growth of ubiquitous technology: There is a widespread fear that the rise of robots – or more exactly, a combination of computing power, algorithms and robotics – will destroy the labour market, even, possibly, the very idea of labour value. A widely publicised study by Oxford University academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne argued that for the United States jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the conventional occupational classifications (Frey and Osborne, 2013). In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee suggest a reason: that computing power is capable of exponential growth in performance over time, and that we’re just at the start of that progression. If robotics did for blue-collar work, then artificial intelligence will do for white collar work.
This argument, however, tends to miss the fact that technological innovation, historically, has created new jobs, typically after a period of turbulent transition. In his analysis of the labour market, David Autor (2014) finds that between 1999 and 2007 “routine task-intensive” jobs were indeed largely removed by computerisation, while knowledge jobs (“abstract task-intensive”) tended to survive or increase where human knowledge was complemented by computers. “Manual task-intensive” jobs, at the less-skilled end of the market, were much less affected by computerisation, and demand for them seemed to be rising. Yet their wages fell. His explanation: labour supply for these jobs increased because of the collapse in demand for “routine task-intensive” jobs.
The squeeze on resources: Population and consumption pressures mean that we are breaching many of the natural planetary boundaries. For capitalism this is a new game: traditionally it has been able to use resources without worrying much about the consequences. And after a century of cheap energy, the long-run trend is up, despite the current downward blip in the oil price. In our recent Futures Company report The 21st Century Business, Jules Peck and I argue that this resource shift is changing the way that companies behave; we are moving to post-sustainability (socially, economically, and environmentally). An important element is a shift from consumers to citizens, among both customers and employees, where the overall impact of a business matters. An example: it’s argued that one of the reasons why McDonald’s sales are slumping among Millennials is that eating there is depressing, because of “the feeling that the people behind the counter, flipping burgers and taking orders, have dead-end jobs where they’re treated poorly.”
The shift to wellbeing: One of the long trends is a trend towards wellbeing, physical and psychological, individual and social. This complements one of the strong workplace trends: that significant competitive performance is typically produced only by empowered and engaged employees, who are intrinsically motivated to work for the business. This is true of lower-wage environments as well as higher-wage businesses.
Striking research by Zeynep Ton (2014) has found that companies such as Costco in the United States and Mercadona in Spain out-perform their sectors – by some margin – through a combination of better wages, significant investment in training, and appropriate technological investment to support staff. With such a “good jobs” strategy, increases in wages translate directly into far larger sales increases. High value work benefits individuals, businesses, as well as society as a whole.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
Indeed, the idea that investment in more productive technologies leads to unemployment is dismissed by economists as “the lump of labour fallacy.” In the past, investment in the new technologies has created new capacity and new wealth, which was re-invested to create more, higher value jobs. If this time is different, we need to understand why this is so.
There are candidates. Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s claim that digital technologies are different because they create exponential growth is one. Another is that companies can no longer draw on plentiful resources or cheap energy to drive new investment platforms. A third is that previous waves were driven by manufacturing, which generated new value through productivity gains and created the social conditions for trades unions.
However, it is also the case that this fear typically recurs after a crisis. It is not coincidence that Keynes wrote his famous essay on the challenge of technological unemployment just after the 1929 crash.
So it is also worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50-60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10-15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. And he suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage. Perhaps the dividing line is best-expressed in Alex Payne’s widely circulated open letter to the tech venture capitalist Marc Andreesen: “You seem to think everyone’s worried about robots. But what everyone’s worried about is you, Marc. Not just you, but people like you. Robots aren’t at the levers of financial and political influence today, but folks like you sure are.”
The way forward depends on how you prefer to read this bifurcation between the technologists and the sceptics. We don’t know which group is right: there are no future facts. But there are some observations that can help shape our perspectives on this.
The first is that these widely divergent views are a feature of this point in the technology cycle. The most the most excitable projections of the future of the car were seen at just this point on the oil and auto curve in the 1950s. The technology S-curve in Figure 1, based on the work of Carlota Perez, helps us to understand why. At this point, when the S-curve is at or approaching its second inflection point, people have been experiencing rapid technological change for the best part of two generations. The notion that “the only constant is change” has become a breathless platitude in the public discourse. So, the technologists’ perspective (point ’t’ in Figure 1) is a projection of this steep ramp. The sceptics note instead sign of falling returns and declining customer utility – and see a flattening of the line (point ’s). The gap is large, and one’s perspective on it is a matter of worldview, not evidence.
Source: Carlota Perez/ additional analysis by The Futures Company
Second, almost all business innovation and new business value is driven by the application of knowledge, and the way it is embedded in individuals, teams, and systems. The Futures Company has explored this in recent research with the Association of Finnish Work on the idea of ‘high value work.’ The important point here is that this is true of a whole range of knowledge, including knowledge of service and customers, and knowledge of culture and place, as well as technological knowledge. The most successful businesses use technology to complement and enhance this knowledge, not to replace it.
Third, the trend towards is a deep and powerful one. If Millennials express a desire for meaningful work, this is also true more broadly. We are on the cusp of a transition to a world where, as Hardin Tibbs (2011) has argued, half of the populations of Europe and the United States subscribe to post-modern values (drawing on Inglehart) of autonomy and diversity. The workplace will not escape this trend. One way in which this is expressed is in a transition from consumer or employee to citizen. Increasingly, anyone with any degree of choice in the labour market is choosing employees who recognise them as a whole person, not just as a unit of labour. The evidence suggests that the engagement that the employer gets in return (even, say, in retail) is a powerful driver of performance and profitability.
Fourth, the bargain that businesses struck in the 1980s and 1990s, as they enforced flexibility and “downsized” headcount, may turn out to be a Faustian pact. Shedding jobs and exerting tight control of labour markets increased short-run profits. But at the same time that same control squeezed out their sources of growth. And as both the OECD (Cingano, 2014) and the IMF (Ostry et al, 2014) have noted recently, wage inequality has been a further drag on economic growth. To regain growth, they are likely to have to increase wages and give back some control and power to their workforces.
My own best guess is that we are not headed for long-run technological unemployment. I have changed my mind about this over the past year as I have spent more time with the evidence.
The explanation that seems best to fit present state of work and labour markets is that it has been through a “perfect storm” of a globalised workforce, the deskilling of routine work (which was highly vulnerable to automation) and the shift of these workers into manual or service work, and aggressive deregulation of labour markets driven by a neoliberal political agenda.
The discourse around technological unemployment is not persuasive to me. The “abstract” jobs (using David Autor’s analysis above) will be complemented by technology, and so, in a different way, will be the manual jobs. Meanwhile, the projected gains from Artificial Intelligence and analytics are going to be harder to achieve than currently anticipated. As an example, big data gets less useful as the data sets get larger, and the driverless car, the poster child for the tech future, is a far tougher proposition than Google lets on. Meanwhile, these tech scenarios never seem to include the new jobs that will emerge as we understand better the potential of the technologies, other, sometimes, than as a panic about the possible speed of change.
But, and it is a big but, we’re only part of the way through the dislocation to work and to labour markets caused by this perfect storm. Things will not get better quickly.
Looking at the shorter-term impacts, then, it’s possible to see a range of approaches to this turbulence in the world of work. Government have options, largely about whether to intervene in labour markets to influence work outcomes, or not. But employers are also moving to new strategies not out of goodwill but through self-interest.
These options, highly simplified, are shown in the matrix (Figure 2), which contrasts laisser-faire approaches with interventionist approaches.
Source: Andrew Curry/The Futures Company
The race to the bottom: This laisser-faire option operates on the principle that labour market flexibility is the secret to increased employment in a globalised labour market. In practice, nearly all countries have increased flexibility and permitted more casualised work over the past decade – even somewhere with a strong tradition of labour protection such as Germany. The evidence increasingly suggests, however, that the pursuit of low value jobs leads to a vicious cycle of low productivity, low investment, low growth, and low tax and social contribution from business.
This policy approach also involves government subsidy to employers, as low-paid workers are supported by state payments. In the United States, a study showed that the fast food sector was effectively subsidised to the tune of $6 billion because its low paid workers were dependent on food stamps and subsidised housing. Increasingly this looks like a political choice that is no longer supported by economic evidence.
Enlightened self interest: It appears that employers who pay better and create better working environments do better financially. Walmart is a relevant case. Over the last decade, its share price has been broadly stagnant, while Costco has outperformed it “by a considerable margin”, in terms of sales, earnings or stock market returns. One reason: according to HBR, far lower staff turnover means knowledge is kept in the company – and drives customer engagement. Such employers also invest in technology to enhance the performance of their staff, using each to complement the other. The Spanish retailer Mercadona similarly invests heavily both in training and stock management systems.
Wages and labour performance are also becoming part of businesses’ reputational capital. See, for example, the increasing success of the UK Living Wage campaign in signing up large companies as “living wage employers”. The public sector can encourage this, for example by giving tax breaks or other forms of support to companies who deliver such commitments, and sharing evidence of business benefits.
Keeping the market honest: Turning to more interventionist approaches, the state can take the view that it wants to drive unscrupulous low-wage employers out of the market as a way of driving up standards and investment (because low-wage, employers are unlikely to commit to training, and have little incentive to invest in capital equipment, which reduces productivity.) This leads to approaches such as enforcing (and increasing) minimum wages, both through regulation and legal frameworks, and also through public procurement rules.
Such a policy complements the “enlightened self-interest” approach by removing free-riders from the market. Although conventional wisdom has argued in the past that minimum wage legislation costs jobs, this seems to be a weaker effect than claimed.
Re-imagining work: Much of our intervention in the labour market is driven by a view that it creates social goods, both from an economic perspective and also from a social perspective (over a long period studies have shown that worklessness produces adverse psychological and physical effects). But it is possible that such findings are linked to a set of “modernist” social values that are rapidly giving way to “post-materialist” values. Certainly, people with some income and a degree of social capital who do not have to work find worthwhile things to do, including volunteering. This is part of the argument for the Basic Income: that as we move to the “post-industrial” world envisioned by Daniel Bell, in which skills are more embodied in personal knowledge, that encouraging traditional work is no longer the only, or the best, way to get the social benefits from productive engagement.
The rise of the basic income: Until very recently, the idea of a basic income, a minimum sum paid to all people regardless of their work status, was right of the fringe of political discourse. But it has been moving rapidly towards the mainstream. The idea has deep roots: George Bernard Shaw promoted it as “a vagabond’s wage” a century ago.
The analysis in this provocation helps to explain why. It is a policy idea that helps to improve outcomes whether the technologists or the sceptics turn out to be right. And in the meantime it helps to shore up economies, and individuals, that are struggling in the slow readjustment of labour markets.
If the “robots” hypothesis is right, we’ll need a basic income to make the economy work (markets need people who can afford to buy products). If the market power argument is right, then basic income keeps employers honest, by ensuring they have to pay good enough wages, in good enough conditions, to attract and keep their workers. One interesting side effect is that it would mean that our fundamental notions of the value of paid work could be about to shift, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. A recurring feature of the ICT era has been that questions of power and politics have frequently been diagnosed as issues of technology. The future of work is just the same.