The need for workers to have a collective voice, first industrially and then politically has shaped the Labour movement in this country for well over a century now. But in the century ahead, changes in the way the economy will operate means that work will not exist in the same way as in the past, and there will quite possibly be a lot less of it about than now.
There are huge variations in the anticipated numbers of jobs that will be lost to automation and artificial intelligence, with predictions ranging from zero to around 50%. Whilst nobody can know what the final figure will be the argument that new technologies have always in the past created as many jobs as they have destroyed ignores the unprecedented pace of change we are facing and tends to suggest job losses will be at the higher end of the predictions. But even if enough new jobs are created there is nothing to suggest that they will be spread geographically conveniently or will be accessible to most people without significant upskilling. So even in the best case scenario we may find that present inequalities are exacerbated, and that more people than ever have very little opportunity to work their way up. In an era of automation, returns on capital are likely to be ever greater than the share going to workers. In the worst case scenario, unemployment levels will reach record levels, even as many of those actually in work end up working longer for less.
I do not want to see a future where great technological advances accelerate inequality, where the fruits of these advances are enjoyed by a select few while the majority are left in abject poverty. But this a vision of the future we risk stumbling into by mistake, unless we start thinking seriously about how to respond to challenges of the future of work. The current model of our society is built on an unwritten contract between Government and the people. It is one that is weakening all the time, but it basically says; contribute to society through work and there will be law and order, education, the public services you need to have a functioning society, and opportunities for individual prosperity. Take away the contribution people make through work and not only is there a big gap on funding basic societal infrastructure that risks undermining social order, but there is also a big challenge to persuade those still in work that they should bother continuing to contract with Government at all.
The challenge presented by the changing nature of work won’t be solved by policy tweaks here and there. It requires a fundamental reconsideration of how we value work and how other contributions to society are valued. “Good” work is valuable for reasons other than merely providing an income; for self-development and self-realisation, for learning new skills, as a source of personal fulfilment, and as opportunity to develop relationships with others. Too many jobs are not like this though; work can be dull, repetitive, and detrimental to your health. The rise of the gig economy has created jobs with all of these elements, but has also seen a huge transfer of risk to the individual, with a reduced role for the state or the employer in providing a safety net, as well as reducing the potential reward at the end of the day. The unwritten contract that underpins our society is not only at risk in a future without work, but is threatened by the transfer of risk to the individual.
These proposals are really important in restoring some of the balance but over the longer term more will need to be done to address to the changing nature of work. We can be sure that if we carry on with the same assumptions about how the economy operates the challenges will continue to grow, the resources available to deal with them will shrink, and the numbers of people with any faith in the system will dwindle. The biggest companies already have more wealth and power than most states, and globalisation has limited the power for individual governments to regulate these organisations. We need to find new ways of holding corporate power to account if we are going to avoid rampant inequality. Greater worker participation in company decisions and a more equitable distribution of profits may help. A restoration of trade union rights and an emphasis on greater sectoral collective bargaining But neither will happen without state intervention, and for that to happen we need politicians to be bold about arguing to increase the state’s role.
At the moment the rapid changes in the world of work are seen as an inevitable consequence of technological advances coupled with a (relatively) deregulated Labour market. Unless there is more strategic and interventionist approach from Government there will be a massive chasm between what any Government would seek to do and what it can achieve in practice. For a Labour Government that would seriously impede our ability to create a fairer and more equal society. Many people already feel that they are powerless and, increasingly, that this applies to the state as well. Stumbling into a future of less work, without a strategy to deal with the consequences of it, will only enhance that concern, with potentially devastating consequences.
There should be serious consideration given now to how society organises itself and deals with the consequences of automation. As has been recognised by Labour, this is a role for Government; if it is ignored it will be done to us and will probably not be a future that anybody wanted, or indeed, voted for.