The Future of Work – The Global Challenge

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 Future of the Company – The Global Challenge

Big business has become disconnected from the broader society within which it operates. A narrow focus on short-term returns has prevented businesses from investing in innovation to foster long-term sustainable growth.

The common understanding of the purpose of publicly listed companies, particularly in Anglo-American markets, is that they exist to maximize shareholder value. Publicly listed companies are under tremendous pressure from activist shareholders, takeover threats, and general market dynamics to generate short-term value by spinning off parts of the company, buying back shares, and laying off staff. External pressure is compounded by executive compensation schemes that are heavily weighted towards stock options. In theory, incentive compensation systems should reduce agency costs so that managers will act in the interests of shareholders. In practice, they create perverse incentives to extract value from the company at the expense of customers, employees, organizational health, the community in which the business operates, and ultimately society as a whole.

A number of unintended consequences result, including:

  • The failure of companies to adequately consider and respond to societal challenges, such as environmental damage and climate change, due to the perceived cost;
  • Erosion of trust between society and the corporate sector, including the role of corporations in shaping public policy, which in turn leads to a loss of trust in democratic processes; and
  • Firm mismanagement through stock manipulation, insider trading and tax evasion, with a number of associated firm-level and macroeconomic risks including treating employees as disposable; undermining investment, research and development; hollowing out whole organisations; turning executives into caricatures of self-interest and greed powered by narrowly focused remuneration schemes; focusing talent in the corporate world on systematically extracting value rather than creating it; stock price manipulation; and fueling market failure and economic crash.

Inequality has greatly increased in the last twenty years, in part due to the failure to translate corporate profits into increased salaries across the firm. Even as worker productivity has continued to rise, real worker wages have essentially flat-lined. At the same time, executive compensation has markedly increased due to the afore-mentioned stock option schemes. Rising inequality within companies has in turn contributed to macro-level inequality that threatens to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of a privileged few.

The biggest questions we face go to the very core of business: what is the purpose of the corporation, and specifically of the large listed company with dispersed shareholders? Will the current model of large publicly listed companies survive the next decade, and if not, what will it be replaced by?

Another question is about the alternatives to public companies, such as B-corporations, co-operatives, companies controlled by foundations, privately held companies, partnerships and family-owned businesses. Many of these alternatives have shown themselves to be capable substitutes for corporate bodies, but will they pick up momentum and drive the way forward? Will they eventually eclipse publicly listed companies? Research by the CFA Institute shows that global equity listings have declined by 17% between 1998 and the end of 2012, from 56,119 to 46,674. US stock exchanges were hardest hit, losing nearly 50% of their listings from their high of 9,253 in 1997. Europe has also seen a significant decline of 23% of its listed companies, while Asian exchanges have seen the least change with less than 5% lost. Given the sharp decline in number and longevity of public companies, it is unsurprising that many ask if a model of public limited company will survive the next decade.

Perhaps the most pressing issue today for financial regulators is the question of how to address short-termism in the markets and its significant influence on the strategies of public companies. It is widely acknowledged that an excessive focus on quarterly returns fed into the 2008 crisis but opinions vary widely on the causes of and solutions to short-termism. What is the role of financial markets and investors in promoting responsible capitalism? Can we turn institutional investors into patient capital, willing to invest in innovative research that will yield returns in the long-term? And conversely, is it possible to limit short-term trading, or at least to reduce its impact on the governance of companies?

Stewardship has become a central focus of regulators seeking to push markets to a long-term orientation. What do good stewardship and responsible investment look like in practice? Is it reasonable to expect institutional investors and corporate managers to serve as good stewards and act sustainability?

The Future of Work – Options and Possibilities

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 Future of the Company – Options and Possibilities

There is little that is guaranteed but change is certain. In the words of Lawrence Bloom, the co-founder of B.e Energy (a triple bottom line energy company), we are no longer in an age of change but in a change of age. The world faces three converging crises – economic, environmental and social – that require urgent and visionary action. Behind these crises are the failure of a worldview based on the single-minded pursuit of growth and the failure to work collaboratively to ensure that benefits are shared widely.

In the next decade, we will certainly see the effects of our failure to proactively address challenges such as inequality, the regulation of financial markets and youth unemployment. The effects of our failure to make capitalism inclusive will become apparent: we have a generation of young people with uncertain prospects and we face rising inequality with a rising share going to the wealthy even as our wages stagnate. The corporation will be increasingly associated with these problems due to its status as the place where much of the distribution of the benefits of capitalism take place.

We have already started to see the effects of climate change and business has started to sit up and take notice. How will we react and will we be able to turn the ship around? The answer to this question largely depends on the readiness of the corporate sector to support progressive political solutions. It is becoming patently clear that exhausting the planet’s resources is not an option – a growing number of politicians and business leaders recognize we cannot burn our fossil fuel reserves without destroying the world as we know it.

Not all is grim; in the next decade we will witness the continued rise of a new generation of leaders pushing for responsible business, broader recognition of the need for gender and racial diversity in boardrooms and C-suites, and the shift of power from the global north to south and from west to east. Companies from emerging economies will certainly take on a key role in the global economy. They will bring with them different models of governance which might be more able to respond to changing conditions, although they will also introduce new challenges. Finally, the line between public and private will continue to blur. There will be mounting pressure from civil society and the general public for sustainability in business and for corporations to take responsibility for the impacts generated by their value chains and off-shore operations. The reordering of transnational legal and political frameworks will offer us the opportunity to revision the respective roles of the State, the corporation and civil society. Concerted effort is needed to nudge the process in the direction of democracy and broad-based participation.

On our current path, another crash of the financial markets is highly likely. We have not addressed the root causes of the 2008 crisis and momentum for a significant overhaul of the markets has slowed to a crawl. Will the erosion of trust in business caused by the cyclical boom-and-bust nature of markets have an impact on policy-making? It’s hard to say.

The relative power of stakeholders within companies is similarly uncertain: will employees regain their voice? Will responsible investors play a more important role in influencing companies?

There are several events that could occur at the world stage that would have a profound impact on the global economy: another global energy crisis, the eclipse of Western economies by emerging economies, and the dissolution of the European Union.

The overarching uncertainties are whether we will see a rebalancing of power between different stakeholders, whether big business and key interested parties will lead or resist a rebalancing of influence, and how big a crisis is needed to jar us from our current trajectory. The risk is that entrenched interests that benefit from the current state of play will thwart reforms that threaten to limit their influence.

The Future of the Company – Proposed Way Forward

The backlash against big corporations has already fostered interest in alternative business models that will continue to gain momentum over the next decade. There is not one perfect alternative to publicly listed companies but rather a plurality of legal structures that each have certain benefits and drawbacks, including privately held companies, partnerships, benefit corporations, cooperatives, and worker-owned enterprises.

Major changes are on the way for company boards. Although problematic, the concept of stewardship has become the go-to response for regulators seeking to address short-termism in the markets, along with increasing shareholder rights. In theory, strengthening ‘shareholder democracy’ by giving shareholders additional powers such as a say-on-pay seems like a good way to encourage institutional investors like pensions and sovereign funds to steer companies in the right direction. In practice, however, it is unclear whether we can expect investors to take on this responsibility. A slight variation on this would be to assign different powers to different classes of shares.

It may be that other stakeholders besides shareholders will take on an increasingly important role. Board level employee representation is well established in much of continental Europe and has started to receive some attention at the EU level. Board diversity is also a key topic now and will almost certainly be into the future. We may see reserved seats for women, visible minorities, and other traditionally under-represented groups.

The classic maxim says that what is measured is what matters. The traditional focus of firms on measuring and reporting on almost exclusively financial indicators is changing to look at a broader set of indicators. In the EU, the recently adopted Non-Financial Reporting Directive requires certain large European companies to disclose information about environmental matters, social and employee-related matters, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery matters. Integrated Reporting (<IR>) was devised less than a decade ago but has been picked up by an increasing number of companies who welcome the ability to tell a story about the whole picture of the company, which is often overlooked in quarterly reports. Closely related is the question of how to share information about companies to potential investors and the public. There are several ideas out there for developing benchmarks and labeling standards to identify sustainable companies and financial products, similar to what has been done for Fair Trade products.

There are two main ways to influence behaviour: sticks and carrots. Ideally, we will push companies to be pro-social through a combination of both regulatory policy and economic incentives. For example, there has been a lot of discussion in the context of climate change about introducing taxation of externalities, e.g. carbon taxes, as well as a carbon market. The EU has also considered proposals to impose a transaction tax on financial markets to reduce volatility and generate revenue, which has been used in other jurisdictions with inconclusive results. We may see requirements imposed to devote a certain percentage of revenue to CSR, as is being implemented in parts of Asia.

The Benefit Corporation and similar models might be supported by governments, either by tax incentives or by preferential treatment in public procurement. Farsighted States may reform their company law to introduce mandatory elements of corporate purpose, such as, for example, the concept of making decisions with an aim to remaining within our planetary boundaries, and adjusting directors’ duties and responsibilities accordingly. These changes have the potential to have high impact because they could shift economic activity to a new model – and for that reason, they are unlikely to be implemented. Other debated regulatory reforms include caps on executive pay and/or pegging executive pay to non-financial returns; changing the rules on the legal liability of multinational enterprises to allow parent companies to be held legally liable for the actions of their foreign subsidiaries; and restrictions on firms’ right to buy back their shares. Each of these reforms is potentially important but it is only when they are taken together that they have a chance to lead to system-wide changes to business conduct.

In terms of incentives, almost any of the regulatory reforms discussed in the previous paragraph could be framed instead as an incentive with a bit of ingenuity. Additional ideas include introducing incentives for boards to change their composition or to balance the short-term financial interests of the company with long-term and/or non-financial interests. Thoughtful policymaking is needed; indeed, perhaps the best we can do is to try to ‘nudge’ behaviour in the right direction and closely monitor the results, ever ready to react to changes.

The Future of Work – Proposed Way Forward

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.

Figure 1

fig1

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.

The Future of Work – Impacts and Implications

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.

Figure 2

fig2

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.

The Future of the Company – Impacts and Implications

Tailored solutions will be needed to respond to the unique characteristics of each region. For example, the continental European, Chinese, Japanese and Anglo-American economics and business models are each very different. Germany is characterized by a small number (less than 700) publicly listed companies with worker representation on company boards, whereas mandatory board-level employee representation would be a controversial proposition in the UK or the US. The EU will be forced to confront and reconcile these types of discrepancies in the corporate governance models of its Member States as it asserts an increasingly active role in company law, which has traditionally been under the purview of national governments.

Outside of the EU, we need to bring Asia, the Middle East and Africa into the discussion of sustainability, workers’ rights and human rights more generally. This will require thoughtful balancing of the local context with international standards. In the context of human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights outline the responsibilities of States to enforce the principles of international human rights law and of companies to respect those principles. But more work is needed to translate the framework into context- and industry-specific guidelines. It is in the implementation of general principles and the reconciliation of potentially contradictory rights that compromises will be most needed.

If this process is successful, we may see a gradual reduction in inequality leading to less social unrest and less partisan politics. We may also see an increasingly prominent role for business in developing both soft and hard law in a transparent way, acting individually and in concert through more progressive collaborative initiatives than the current trade and industry associations that dominate policy circles in Brussels, Washington and London.

We need a new vision for the role of business in society. Part of the reason why the focus on maximizing shareholder value and short-term profits has captured business for so long is due to the failure to create consensus around an alternative conception of the purpose of the corporation. A model of corporate governance narrowly focused on maximizing shareholder value in the short-term is unbalanced and self-destructive. The paradigm that will rise to replace the current one will need to have a more holistic understanding of profit as one indicator of the long-term health of the organization, amongst others. The profit-making motive will sit comfortably alongside a consideration of a broader responsibility to the interests of society.

This new paradigm must be translated into the existing framework of incentives and regulations for corporate governance and accountability. It needs to be reflected in market mechanisms, in particular in the way that financial markets interact and influence companies. The role of shareholders in corporate governance will have to be rethought in order to protect their role in ensuring management accountability, whilst freeing companies from the imperative to maximise the stock price as at all costs.

In order to achieve transparency and accountability, companies will need to provide an accurate accounting of their environmental and social impacts, through required disclosure and through increased pressure for meaningful information from consumers. Boards of directors will also need to revise their decision-making process to consider the effect of the company on the environment and society. Companies should be expected, encouraged and even required to develop long-term plans charting their way towards environmental and economic sustainability. It will be necessary to devise holistic measures for measuring corporate success in the long-term, reflecting their ability to create value in a responsible manner. These metrics should be reflected in incentives for corporate executives as well as for institutional investors. We need to consider whether the current level of public investment in research and development is sufficient and properly allocated to achieve transformative change. Public-private partnerships, while not without flaws, are one path to support and stimulate green growth.

At some point, we will be forced to acknowledge that the current approach to governing companies is broken. Perhaps after the next financial crisis, but hopefully sooner. Certainly as we are forced to respond to climate change, which cannot be addressed by governments alone without the support and investment of business.