2017 is not yet a week old and already there have been more “machines replace humans” than you can count. Two just today – jobs disappearing and AI rampant. The future of work is clearly going to be one of this year’s Big Things.
What will this world, with its driverless cars and delivery drones look like? What will it be like? No jobs means no employment means no workers means no wages – means no spending. Hence the emergence of ideas likes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its evolution off the page and into peoples’ pockets]. How ironic that arguably a most progressive programme of state aid – free money – has been borne out of the projected ossification of capitalism! (But Keynes himself would probably smile and say “told you so”. State intervention has often been part of capitalistic survival, but just not quite like this.)
It is unsurprising that redistribution so that more people work less has also become attractive. The so-called Swedish Six Hour Day (though not so attractive that the Swedish TUC or the Ministry of Labour backed the concept) which has now run into some controversy. The idea is reduced hours improves productivity and therefore avoids lower wages. This makes sense to me, and you could argue that employment paradigms in, for example, Denmark, place value on workers not being knackered at the end of their shift, burnt-out at a relatively young age, alienated from their employer – and often from their families because of a long-hours culture.
UK unions such as the CWU have picked this up and, especially in a world where work is in short supply, what’s not to love?
Well quite a bit as it happens. More people in the UK say they are under-employed or have multiple jobs than ever before. These are the in-work poor, where depressed or persistently low levels of disposable income have create relentless destructive pressure.
So what explains the gaps between those willing to embrace – at least on a trial basis – a 6 hour day, or the Danish working arrangements described by Helen Russell,- and the UK situation, where similar ideas seem totally untenable.
The issue surely is about control. A deregulated labour market suggests that control – or should we say “management” – of employment is impossible. On an individual basis, with union density depressed, employment protection legislation greatly diluted or inaccessible because of prohibitive pricing, workers are unable to exert meaningful influence over their circumstances. At a macro level, there is no sympathetic compelling or dominant national narrative about work and its relationship with the rest of life and society. This is not the case in all countries –such as Denmark, Sweden and France.
The issues are not new. In the early 1800s, the Luddites broke up the looms in defence of their jobs. The battle for this future was anticipated nearly 50 years ago in books such as “The Collapse of Work” and “The Leisure Shock” by forward–thinkers such as Jenkins and Sherman. Why the intensity of the debate now?
I think it is because of two factors: First the potential of current automation is almost limitless, and even raises existential issues about the survival of our species! That’s bound to lead to some discussion!
Second, if we look at what jobs will be prevalent in the near-future; we see a steep increase in health and social care. These are frequently the jobs that are not currently highly regarded in society. This makes us, collectively, very nervy because there is no coherent, comprehensive plan in place for high quality universal care of our ageing population.
Even though you might think it is in their own best interests, the government seems exceptionally unlikely to intervene in the labour market to the extent necessary to ensure that the future of work is one which is effective for everyone. That’s a chilling thought, but the debate will not go away (as today’s stories demonstrate). Political power is also shifting somewhat, especially in the context of devolution. So perhaps there is some scope for hoping that ideas like short working days, UBI, and setting higher standards below which workers cannot fall, will have the opportunity to prove themselves before it is too late.