In his speech at Labour’s conference in Brighton last week, Jeremy Corbyn made an astute observation: “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008.” The financial crisis not only sent shockwaves rippling through the global economy: it sounded a warning bell that all was not well with a weakly regulated economic model powered by consumer debt bubbles and rapid house price growth. Yet the political response has been utterly inadequate. Despite promises to the contrary, we have returned to the same old growth model of debt-fuelled spending and the stark intergenerational divide has got worse, not better.
Almost a decade on, there are signs of a growing public appetite for change, from the rejection of the status quo in the Brexit referendum to the surge in support for Labour that denied Theresa May a majority in June’s general election. Both parties have acknowledged there are fundamental problems in Britain’s economic model and have committed to reform it. But Britain now stands on the cusp of an ideological choice: compare and contrast Corbyn’s challenge with May’s robust defence of free markets last week.
There is a range of social and economic challenges that will test that commitment to reform: how to cope with an ageing population; how to move to growth based more on investment than debt; how to come to a more equitable settlement between the generations. One particularly important question is how we adapt to the challenges technology and automation pose for the future of work.
Much of the contemporary debate is underpinned by a misplaced assumption that the erosion of human work is nigh. This scenario has captured the human imagination for centuries, from the utopians who dream of a world filled with leisure to the dystopians who agonise about the rise of a “useless class”.
But the steady march of human progress has not yet eliminated the need for us to work. Instead, technological developments over the last two centuries have improved economic productivity and served to make us all richer. As some jobs have disappeared, others have replaced them; there are fewer manufacturing jobs in Britain today than there were 50 years ago, but there are many more service sector jobs. In 50 years’ time, there will undoubtedly be many more jobs created that use the human skills that will remain difficult to automate, such as empathy, care and creativity.
This is why labour market economists such as Alan Manning argue that the human race is unlikely to be on the cusp of a new technological revolution that will reduce human economic activity. Indeed, today’s labour market is showing none of the signs we would expect if automation was starting to erode the net amount of work. Productivity has fallen to pre-crisis levels, while overall employment is at record levels. If anything, British businesses are not investing in productivity-boosting technology fast enough.
Future-gazing into a world with less work risks distracting us from the profound and unequal effects technology will continue to have on the way society is structured. At one end of the job market, it has created a new cadre of rewarding, high-skilled jobs in developing and maintaining this new technology. But technology has eroded the highly automatable semi-skilled jobs in the middle of the labour market, replacing them with low-skill jobs lacking autonomy. Skilled and bespoke workmanship has increasingly disappeared, replaced by Fordist assembly lines. Today, algorithms dictate to delivery couriers and warehousing workers exactly what route they should take round the city or the warehouse, eating away at the autonomy of their job. Technology also increases the potential for employers to constantly monitor workers’ productivity levels, encouraging a conception of workers as commodities to be swapped in and out, rather than people to be trained and developed.
Rather than debating the end of work, we should be focusing on the real challenges technology is creating today. First, the role of technology in deskilling low-paid work raises serious questions about the “any job is better than no job” mantra that has driven welfare-to-work policy over the last two decades, particularly in light of new research that suggests having a poor quality job is worse for someone’s health than being unemployed. While it’s right to expect people to work if they can, they, in turn, should be entitled not to have to work in conditions that cause them long-term harm.
Second, there needs to be significant energy directed at reskilling those whose jobs will be replaced by robots. Here, there are critical lessons from the past. The deindustrialisation of the 1980s saw thousands of people lose their manufacturing jobs, effectively shunting them on to a human scrapheap, never to work again, with devastating consequences for themselves, their families and their communities.
For all the grandiose talk of reforming capitalism from both parties, the contemporary political debate is falling short. Neither party is thinking enough about how we might improve the quality of work in the low-paid labour market. Indeed, the Conservative government’s flagship welfare-to-work programme places very little emphasis on skills development. Its cuts to social care funding are further worsening working conditions in a growth industry of the future. Far from making plans to retrain the losers of the technology revolution, Conservative ministers have almost destroyed the ecosystem for adult learning; further education budgets have been slashed and the numbers of part-time and mature university students have fallen dramatically.
In contrast, Labour has placed a welcome emphasis on adult skills, although there is as yet little detail on the tough questions of exactly how a Labour government would improve vocational learning and re-establish a lifelong learning system. But there is a risk the party falls into the seductive trap of imagining the end of work. Shadow ministers have reportedly been flirting with ideas such as a universal basic income, in which all citizens get paid a basic income by the state, and a tax on robots. Both are flawed responses to automation. Even if robots were to erode human work, a universal basic income would be no solution: why would their owners continue to pay the rest of us an income when we lack the economic power that comes from having a job? Ceding the ground of an economic model based on the dignity of work and humans producing stuff consumed by other humans risks paving the way to extreme inequality. A tax on automation would simply discourage investment in the technological progress that improves living standards.
Like those of the past, the next wave of technological breakthrough is unlikely to eliminate the need for work. Rather than putting a brake on the steady march of human progress, our political leaders must focus on ensuring there are as few losers as possible in the coming decades. Otherwise, growing inequality and social injustice will be its sorry byproducts.
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