Asheem Singh: Here’s how the Government can meet the challenge of mass worker automation 

Asheem Singh is Director of Economics at the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures of Commerce. He authored ‘The Moral Marketplace’ and is a former researcher to Boris Johnson.

Throughout history, technological take up has been one of the key determinants of economic progress. Often this comes at a price: a generation of workers whose livelihoods are tied to old models, who find themselves without hope and abandoned.

In the time of the Luddites, protest at a new industrial order led to brutal government reprisals.  Across generations and continents, when societies fail to provide security for workers affected by technological change, terrible things happen

In our time, workers are turning to conservative administrations for hope. Trump voters in middle America coalesce in areas of high labour automation. According to analysis published in the Financial Times, workers in routine and semi-routine jobs voted for the Tories (and for delivering Brexit) in their droves in 2019.

With a stonking great majority comes a stonking great responsibility: to protect workers against the worst excesses of automation by providing opportunities and support. But how to do so when the future is so uncertain, and the progress of technology is so unclear?

Clearly, policymaking-as-usual won’t do. Analysis released at 2019’s close from my team at the RSA’s Future Work Centre revealed the high-growth and the high-decline professions of the ‘teenies.’ 289,000 high street jobs were lost over the last decade, 81 percent of which were held by women. Cashiers, administrators, bank clerks, PAs and hairdressers were among the worst hit. Van drivers, software programmers and care workers enjoyed the most growth.

But analyses like these are only part of the story and tell us a relatively small amount about the future. In the 2020s, Brexit, climate change, the ageing society, tech oligolopolies, the risk of another 2008 style crash and global political turmoil will all play a role in a fluctuating labour market. And the jobs of the future have not even been conceived by the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

This is why we need scenarios.  The four futures of work are a series of original scenarios for the imminent future of technology’s development (to 2035), created by my team at the RSA’s future work centre (Dom Cummings fans note: the technical term for the process we used to do this is called morphological analysis and is detailed in the link).

The scenarios are quite detailed in composition, and rest on different technologies progressing at different paces (for example automation vs internet of things vs surveillance tech) but their development and deployment make for a richer and more insightful policy conversation about the future of work than has been possible to date. Indeed, our analysis suggests that the future will look like version of one or more of the following:

The Big Tech Economy: this is a world in which tech companies proliferate and curb worker rights through sophisticated corporate social responsibility campaigns. Tech development accelerates in every direction. Potential future growth jobs in this area include software developers, digital transformation consultants, tech PRs.

The Precision Economy: a world in which surveillance culture trumps all. The internet of things is the tech of choice. Warehouses and white-collar workers alike are tagged and tailed ad nauseam. Potential future growth jobs in this area include behavioural scientists, data analysts, online reputation managers.

The Exodus Economy: a world in which financial or environmental events prompt recession and technological reversal. Worker co-ops make a comeback; working lives are intertwined with leisure. Potential future growth jobs in this area include: food cooperative workers, upcycled clothing designers, community energy managers.

The Empathy Economy: a world in which all that can be automated is automated, leaving humans to do high-touch, high empathy jobs. Robots now perform surgery, but it’s a human who is paid to tell you how long you have to live… and potential future growth jobs in this area include: digital detox planners, personal PR advisers and social media infometers.

These scenarios are a powerful tool for constructing policy alternatives and democratising the conversation about the challenge of mass automation. The author Laetita Vitaud, has called the 20th century contract between employer, employee and government a ‘bundle’:  “a division of labour in exchange for a bundle of benefits and security“.

Our institutional approaches – employment law, tax and benefits, education and training – are stuck in a world built around traditional one-employer, full-time employment, just as they are built principally around one agency providing security.

In no scenario does this bundle still hold. But what, then, does? Here are a few hors d’ouvres to begin the conversation.

Innovative ways to empower workers and provide economic security through welfare and fiscal policy must be the cornerstone. Think beyond ‘tax credits’ and other such technocratic reforms: what about universal basic income or three or four-day working weeks?

Sure, the latter was a loser for Labour. But the challenges of the casualisation of labour, the fear that family life is incompatible with hyper-professionalism and rising income volatility (the UK is particularly susceptible to this) are constant across all four scenarios and demand fresh ideas.

Union policy will be key. Platforms depend upon connecting demand for labour with an on-tap community of workers. Some countries’ unions are using this leverage better than others. In the Nordics, white-collar unions such as Unionen  in Sweden are actively working with platforms to provide economic security and support for gig workers. Both government and the private sector need to be part of a new deal with organised labour in every scenario except, perhaps, Exodus.

What about incentives for companies to support their workers as they deal with mass displacement and the need to reskill? Portable benefits allow workers to keep their perks wherever they go. Take Uber and Lyft in San Francisco,: two firms who want to allow their drivers to keep their perks and even their ratings when they switch. How can we incentivise more companies to follow these routes and build a genuinely interoperable training and education system?

And so it goes. That’s just the start of the conversation – I am sure ConHome readers will have their own thoughts and I’d be delighted to hear them.

Mass automation is perhaps the major issue that brings together democratic shifts with genuine social justice challenges. I contend – as do many others – that the scale of upheaval will be greater than any expert yet has predicted: ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’ you might say. Get this right and the Government will not only make good on its promise to its new bank of voters; it will also take steps to resolve perhaps the most pressing challenge of our time. By working together we might well inaugurate a better future of work for all

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Author: Asheem Singh


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