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.”