Work in the future

Work in the FutureIt’s taken me a couple of weeks to post about this book, which was published in mid-March, so that the finished copies arrived on my doorstep (literally on the doorstep, of course, as the postman had to put them down and back away) just after the lockdown had begun.

It’s a book I’ve been working on intermittently for quite a while, and was based on a conference I ran alongside Robert Skidelsky in 2018, about the way work is likely to change in response to automation. It’s a massive topic, and one that there have been no end of books/reports/articles about in the last few years, but this one is slightly different in that it starts by looking at the history of work and the broader sociology of work, not just how tech is changing it.

And now Work in the Future has come out, in a world that’s dramatically different to the one where it went to print. That might be a problem for a lot of books appearing just now, but in fact I think it makes this one even more relevant. The trends talked about by our contributors are going to be altered by this crisis but are more likely to accelerate than disappear.

The book starts with a few chapters about the history of work, because the concept of ‘work’ isn’t as straightforward as it might sound. ‘Work’ often gets equated directly with ‘economic activity’ – i.e. money changing hands – but we all know, and the Covid-19 crisis has emphasised, that work is about more than that. In Work in the Future, Richard Sennett and Richard Donkin discuss the way work has changed from the distant past. Andrea Komlosy (author of Work: The Last 1000 Years) shows how work has changed from being mostly a household-based activity to being outside in factories and offices – something that speaks directly to the Covid-19 crisis, as it’s specifically that location of work in shared spaces like offices and factories that is now causing us problems. Then Pierre-Michel Menger, David Spencer, and I, each talk about how attitudes to work have changed: what do we think of as work? Is work a pleasure or a curse?

Covid-19 is changing our attitudes to work again, quite rapidly, as we re-evaluate whose work is most important in our society – and reassess whether those who do it are paid well enough. A few months ago, ‘key worker’ was civil service jargon for ‘doctors, nurses, teachers’ and you mainly saw it in references to London housing; new-build housing developments were meant to include a few homes offered at slightly lower than market rates to ‘key workers’ so that teachers and nurses could live a bit closer to where they worked. As of March 23rd, everyone knows what a key worker is, and the definition has been broadened to include all kinds of people who were ineligible before, like supermarket delivery drivers, adult carers, postal service workers. None of these people were doing a different job six months ago; it’s only that now the government has been forced to recognise how important they are.

A large chunk of the problems posed by automation arise not because technology ‘makes people redundant’ but because the benefits from automation don’t accrue evenly; because much of the time a few companies and the people who own them benefit from the additional profits created by automation. In Work in the Future, Nick Srnicek (author of Platform Capitalism and Inventing the Future) discusses the particular problems platform technology companies in particular pose to the chances for liveable, sustainable work.

Generally the most commonly proposed solution to massive unemployment caused by automation is to redistribute the profits, perhaps by taxing the ‘winners’ heavily and providing a Universal Basic Income (or in some formulations, Universal Basic Services) to everyone else. In Work in the Future, Rachel Kay (researcher at the High Pay Centre) and Irmgard Nubler of the ILO each discuss some of the policy options for dealing with an unequal economy, while David Graeber (author of Bullshit Jobs and Debt) rails against the whole idea of ‘policy-making’ around work and argues that most jobs don’t fulfill any useful purpose anyway.

It’s perhaps the potential responses to mass unemployment caused by automation that are most relevant now, as we face mass unemployment due to a crisis we didn’t foresee. Universal Basic Income has already been established in Spain in response to the need to keep people at home, while the UK government has opted for the more limited furloughing scheme.

The problem with furloughing is – will companies collapse when it’s eventually withdrawn? Companies that can afford the capital investment required for automation might do so because in the long term that might be cheaper, if workers require more space and more complicated, socially-distanced processes than they used to. A paper I saw shared on LinkedIn by another of WitF’s contributors, Carl Benedikt Frey, suggests that 42% of jobs that are lost during this crisis may never return – which is as bad as some of the most drastic assessments of an automation crisis.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic: it’s possible, in a moment like this, to re-envisage the world in a way that would vastly improve it. It’s true that given the governments that are currently in power (in the UK and the US in particular) I’m a bit sceptical that they’ll take the most visionary or progressive imaginative leaps. It’s still important though, for us to reimagine how technology can help us make more people better off, to make work more meaningful, and if possible to make less of it.