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The Future of Work

10466289_sHaving a wee break from blogging tonight. Here’s a piece I did last week for work on, um, the future of work. As it was for the powers that be I had to tone down and be less forthright. Still, writing for different audiences is good discipline …

There has been a lot of concern recently that millions of jobs are due to be automated out of existence over the coming decades. Of course, this is nothing new.

Since the Luddites undertook the very first acts of machine breaking, capitalism has sought to replace living labour – workers, by hand or by brain – by what Karl Marx called dead labour, or machines. And this has been the pattern of economic development since the end of the 18th century.

We can see this in an accelerated form in Britain over the course of the last 40 years, through the disappearance of manufacturing jobs either by exporting them to low wage zones in the developing world or via obsolescence through technology.

The next wave of automation, however, promises to be deeper and more thoroughgoing. The service sector jobs, the white collar office jobs that grew as manufacturing disappeared, are those set to be replaced by self-service kiosks, software, algorithms and, in a few cases, robots.

What is the future for work?

This has been a concern of social theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They have argued occupations that place people and the production of social relationships at their heart are the emerging and increasingly dominant forms of work.

The shift in labour markets these last 40 years typify what they call the ‘social worker’, or what we might understand now as the networked worker. Examples run across the occupational and status scale – human resources/managers, shop assistants, couriers, drivers, marketing, trainers and personal services providers, coffee shops, lawyers. Advances in robotics, software and artificial intelligence all variously threaten them. The common pattern is one where tasks are amenable to automation.

For instance:

* Accountancy software requiring a few inputs presents a major challenge to the accountancy profession.
* UK law firms developing software that can turn out legal documentation and provide advice.
* Automated cash registers and cash machines have long displaced retail and shop floor banking staff.

The proliferation of email has grown workloads for professional occupations and rendered many involving “simple” administration obsolete. But where the building of relationships or decision making about relationships are central, these are the careers likely to thrive during the coming wave of automation.

Fewer newer jobs

The problem, however, is that while new technology and new ways of working beget new jobs, it is unlikely the new will manage a like-for-like replacement of the old. In the UK, the well-paid secure manufacturing jobs of old were largely replaced by more insecure, lower paid work. The nature of the coming automation will likely mean even fewer newer jobs.

If automation proceeds to destroy jobs in clerical work, the transport industry, the service sector, and in some professions it could lead to a number of serious social problems and a growing gap between vacancies and the unemployed. This will demand a response from policy makers and governments. Presently, automation is proceeding at a relatively slow pace because labour markets are loose and supply is plentiful.

If post-Brexit the UK decides to restrict immigration, the market overall becomes tighter. Similarly, the baby boomer generation are retiring and withdrawing from the workplace, and the generational cohorts following them are less numerous. Tighter markets allow for the building of wage pressures, and the “solution” to head this eventually off and preserve profits is to invest in more automation, thereby sharpening unemployment.

However, there are a number of policies governments could adopt to avoid these problems. One would be the introduction of a basic income payable to all citizens, which would give people independence from work as a means of making a living – and give them more freedom to take risks, such as starting a new business. Or alternatively, the benefits of automation could be shared by reducing the working week. If automation means higher productivity, do we need people working 39 hour weeks (or more) alongside millions who can’t find work?

These debates are likely to come to the fore over the coming years.

Is there anything individuals can do to prepare for the labour market of the future?

When it comes to higher education, generalist as opposed to specialist degrees in the human, natural or computer sciences provide for a broad range of skills and competencies. This right now appears to be the best way to future proof people for the challenges coming down the line.


  1. Rob Green says:

    The people who say Marxism and revolution are ridiculous notions are the same ones who peddle the truly ridiculous notion that capitalists are going to pay workers to sit on their arses.

    There is a massive overproduction of labour in the sense that there is too much of it to be usefully employed to create surplus value and further automation is going to make that much worse. What awaits this labour is fascism and war not 16 hours of lazing around followed by eight hours sleep. For automation to work to the benefit of the working class you would have to smash the power of the capitalist class.

  2. C MacMackin says:

    PBC rightly points out that automation has been taking jobs going back as far as the Luddites. Instead of mass unemployment, rising productivity led to rising living standards and consumption. What I don’t understand is why it would be different this time. Perhaps the pace of automation will be such that consumption can’t keep up, but as far as I’m aware this hasn’t been demonstrated. Anyway, certain desk-jobs have been made obsolete in the past; we don’t employ many typists or human computers (those whose job it was to do arithmatic) anymore. The article also seems to ignore the fact that new technology will create new jobs. Human computers may no longer exist, but there are plenty computer programmers and technicians. It may not be a one-to-one replacement for any given field, but it can still absorb a great many of the lost positions.

    1. Rob Green says:

      That you do not understand it is no surprise. You are after all someone who believes that all economic and political problems can be solved simply by turning on the printing presses.

      Capitalism has reached the outer limits of its potential. It has in fact gone beyond them. Capital is now so concentrated it would make a feudal monarch blush with shame. Even standing still so that it can replace the capital in use requires massive fortunes and 1% of global growth even more. Monopoly then is forced on the system but monopoly threatens to snuff out production altogether. Monopoly profits and over production are rife. The current political economic arrangements characterised by Pax American established post-WW2 and modified by the neo-liberals in the 1980s and the collapse of Stalinism in the same decade have now become an absolute fetter on further development and growth and there are no alternative political economic arrangements available that could replace the current once and give capitalism a new lease of life. Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism and US-sponsored globalization was the highest stage of imperialism. Without growth the fact that capitalism is a zero sum game becomes more apparent by the day. Every pound in the rich man’s pockets comes directly from those of the poor. Without growth capitalism cannot reproduce itself. Without a functioning economic system to underpin their rule anarchy is returning to the international system. The epoch of war and revolution long suppressed by the Cold War stitch up of Stalinism and Imperialsm is back on the agenda. It is now a case of socialism or barbarism. Socialism or a New Dark Ages.

    2. David Pavett says:

      @C MacMackin (February 24, 2017 at 11:40 am), I agree with you. I don’t think that meaningful social analysis on such a vast problem can be done in this hand-waving way. There were other points in the article which I found equally unjustified.

      For example it is rather strange that an article which makes so many references to the impact of technology, especially computer technology (“the disappearance of manufacturing jobs … via obsolescence through technology”, “The next wave of automation, however, promises to be deeper and more thoroughgoing”, “white collar office jobs …, are those set to be replaced by self-service kiosks, software, algorithms and, in a few cases, robots”, “Advances in robotics, software and artificial intelligence all variously threaten them [networked workers]”, “Accountancy software requiring a few inputs presents a major challenge to the accountancy profession”, “UK law firms developing software that can turn out legal documentation and provide advice”, “Automated cash registers and cash machines have long displaced retail and shop floor banking staff”, all a part of “The nature of the coming automation”) ends up by concluding that in the future specialist degrees such as those in “natural or computer sciences” will provide less “future proofing” than “generalist degrees” (whatever they are, sociology?). If in the “coming wave of automation” people find that their software and hardware is playing up or is in need of development it seems unlikely that so-called “generalists” will be the people needed to step up to the plate.

      1. John Penney says:

        This article is so superficial that I can only assume that Phil BC thinks that any old rhubarb from him will suffice to meet our, supposed, insatiable demands for an article from him on Left Futures every day, on any topic.

        The reality is, Phil, as with your endless superficial , analysis-free, articles on the Stoke By-election that old golden rule of “Less is More” should actually be your watchword .

        Please write articles only when you have something meaningful to say. In this case, your trite article on the possible dangers of automation in the white collar jobs and lower paid service industry sectors, is worthless.

        1. David Pavett says:

          I agree. I don’t understand why LF gives so much space to such material. It gives the impression that well researched material is hard to come by on the left and does us no good at all. I am in favour of diversity of opinions but for that to be useful it is necessary that the advocates of the various viewpoints make a strong case for what they believe.

          1. Ed C says:

            A bit of a blunt response from JP: I have to defend PBC, we all should be prepared to read the odd generic article, no? And PBC is at least local to Stoke. If you want a successful magazine/blogging community, in my opinion you need to start with content, and move towards making that content more well-researched as impact and resources increase. That’s to say I enjoy most of PBC’s interventions, and think him an irreverent and effective communicator, the kind we need on the left if we’re to successfully encompass or bridge between what I see as the high theory side to the UK left (that risks fustiness at times) and its more “campaigning” side (that seems to risk short-termism and leave big-picture vision absent at times).

            If a “successful magazine/blogging community” is not a goal of this site, then perhaps the goal is to create and pass on policy expertise for Labour’s left. But then it seems you need quite a lot of funding for that, otherwise people may get demoralised and worn down by putting their mental energy in for free (or for less than some standard). I would ask, where are these well-researched articles? Not so much to be mean about the frequency of content found here, which is what it is, but more because there could be a benefit from some kind of web-based anthology to get people started. What books should I be reading first? And if I have little money to spend on magazines, at which other sites should I be spending my time? People may say it’s better to go along to a CLP meeting and find others, but if most are on the same (low) level of knowledge about the question, “Why be left-wing?”, then is that really the best thing to do at present? Then, how many years would it take to get a mature left-wing politics developed, on a personal level? (And ideally one that doesn’t immediately alienate people not yet exposed to left-wing arguments.)

            These are sort of rhetorical questions of course.

            I have found that the US left seemingly does all this sort of thing better than us in the UK, both from academic left-wing teaching making its way onto the web, and just generally. Those US-based sites are where I currently do a lot of my reading. Unless there are venues I don’t know of, I think the UK left could do better. To be honest, from what I know of PBC from his personal blog, I think he might be a good person to put together such an anthology. Not that I am out to nominate. Best to you.

  3. Bazza says:

    Yes if Amazon gets its way with supermarkets (where your purchases are tracked and you get a bill later) this could lead to a million supermarket jobs going in the UK.
    Driverless trains, cars, tubes, ships steered by computers, robotics and some call for a citizen’s income.
    But socialists should be arguing for3/4 day working weeks with good pay to free time poor working humanity.
    We also need education systems which nurture a society of critical thinkers.
    In societies where loneliness is high, there are adult social care needs, health needs etc. perhaps the best roles performed by human beings is to care for others and one academic called for more ’empathy workers’ (professional friends) but with more democratic public ownership perhaps we need a society where we all contribute for as short a week as possible and serve societies needs from our perspective instead of big business and profit putting its needs first.

  4. Andrew Grace says:

    If only my Landlord charged me rent for 3 days of the week I would be much better off.

  5. R.B.Stewart says:

    Cheer up Andrew, as Marx argued workers only need to work for 2 days, the other 3 days they work for the employer for free.
    Oh as my friend says renting is dead money, better to buy.

    1. Andrew Grace says:

      If I had a proper-paying job like Comrade Tristram or Comrade Peter I could afford a mortgage.

      1. R.B.Stewart says:

        You have 4 choices (a) go into higher education (b) join the Blairite Progress in Labour and get parachuted into a Labour seat then make a fat living whilst offering crumbs to working class people. (c) Have principles like us on the left who are genuinely for the working class/working people. (d) the best choice ‘a’ and ‘c’.

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