How the future of work will help shape the digital society – Ascent

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A technological revolution is currently taking place which could fundamentally change the way we live and work. Progress being made in the fields of robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) pose both opportunities and challenges to the human race. While robots bring with them many benefits: they are cost effective and able to relieve humans of more manual, repetitive work, as I covered in my previous post, there are fears they could end up taking jobs currently held by their human colleagues.

Industrial robots alone have eliminated up to 670,000 American jobs between 1990 and 2007, according to new research from MIT. While technological advancements should be welcomed, there are serious implications which governments and employers need to prepare for as robots impact the global economy and the labour market as a whole.

A tax for robots, basic income for all

Understandably, many people are wondering what will be the long-term impact of automation on employment and how disruptive it will be. We need to move away from simplistic predictions that robots will take our jobs; the picture is far more nuanced than this. Instead we need to study how labour markets could adjust. Robots, at the moment, don’t pay taxes like humans do, which is a major source of income for a country’s economy. Bill Gates’ proposal to tax robots has been derided by many as putting the brakes on technological developments but the suggestion is starting to take hold in the tech world. The benefit of taxing robots is that the money could be used to retrain those workers that have lost their jobs to automation. Or, the income raised could be put towards funding a universal basic income for everyone, a solution in which every citizen of a given country receives an unconditional amount of money, whether they are in work or not.

The idea of a basic income is not a new one and experiments have been cited since the 1960s to reduce societal income disparities. More recently, universal basic income is beginning to get traction with a handful of pilots launching. Finland, for example, recently announced it is trialling universal basic income for its unemployed citizens and a survey last year found that 68% of people across all EU member states would “definitely or probably” support some form of “citizen’s wage”. While, Switzerland recently voted to reject proposals to introduce UBI there have been trials in a number of other countries including the Netherlands and Canada. The local government in the Dutch city of Utrecht is conducting an experiment that provides a guaranteed monthly income to 250 Dutch citizens currently receiving government benefits. Other countries, like Canada, focus efforts on education and allow unemployed citizens to pursue self-funded training while still receiving unemployment benefits. For current Canadian workers the country is “expanding access to grants and access to interest-free student loans for adults.”

It will be interesting to see the results of these trials and the effect they have on the citizens receiving the income. It could allow us to change the way we choose to spend our time; using it to raise children or care for elderly relatives, or spend time volunteering for causes we care about or starting creative projects. It will also question the value we place on work. After all, who is to judge whether working long shifts in a factory is more valuable than contributing to the community where you live and work?

A new working week

This shift to a different way of thinking about how we manage our time is relevant to another issue posed by the introduction of robots into the workforce. Robots are threatening to upend the traditional “working week”, able to work longer hours than their human colleagues. However, the notion that this is a bad thing is only because we are stuck in the mindset that we have to work Monday to Friday, and 9-5, a concept which in itself is a relic of the industrial revolution, when reformer Robert Owen campaigned for the eight-hour day. The ways in which we work are already changing, enabled by technology which allows us to work remotely and at the hours which suit us better. Forward thinking companies are adapting; allowing employees to work from home or more flexibly as long as the job gets done.

It’s possible, that with the help of robots we will see a shift towards a six-hour working day or even a three or four day working week. A recent trial of a six-hour working day Sweden hit the headlines after it was ended for being too expensive. However, there is evidence that shorter working days make workers more productive and allow for more flexibility in the type of work that they do.

Time to readjust

Harnessing the power of technology makes our lives more convenient – how would we cope nowadays without smartphones, some of the most powerful computers in the world!
We are in a period of labour market readjustment and it remains to be seen how governments globally will respond and adapt. However, businesses can already begin to prepare for the new skills and expertise areas through (re)training programs, by encouraging flexible working and experimenting with shorter workdays and weeks.

Although a three-day workday may be wishful thinking for the next few years, it could be wise to start planning a future with multiple opportunities in mind – from new skill sets to hobbies and community work.


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