December 18, 2018
The world is changing. A fast-paced and technologically led world market abhors inertia and while automation, virtualization and the increasingly widespread use of AI are all exciting prospects for businesses of all shapes and sizes, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. While technological evolution can certainly drive efficiency, we must work to ensure that it does not come at a human cost. There are numerous industries which have made significant layoffs as a result of increased automation or simple economic necessity.
In an ever-changing technological landscape, in which we regularly pontificate on what is possible and what is inevitable, businesses and their workforces alike must concern themselves not with the ‘future of work’ but with the futures of workers.
Conversations about the ‘future of work’ may make for some pithy editorial think-pieces or twee websites that will tell users exactly how redundant their skills will be in 50 years’ time but they do little to address the fundamental industrial and socioeconomic cost of an increasingly redundant workforce or corporate structures that habitually sideline skilled front-line workers. Indeed, it could be argued that these conversations have exacerbated the problem, creating a sense of looming catastrophe that is more concerned with the future-proofing of corporate structures than with creating sustainable futures for skilled workers.
The telecoms industry is one of the most egregious examples of the need for a serious conversation about the future of work. The recent revelations in the telecommunications industry raise some important conversation points not just for captains of industry but for workers, unions, politicians and policy makers the world over.
Despite the ubiquity of telecommunications in our business and personal lives the world over, the industry continues to make tens of thousands of job cuts as telcos set their sights increasingly on automation. As competing companies scramble for an edge over their competitors, there is worryingly little discourse about the casualties of the manufactured race for efficiency. A race that is, let’s face it, designed to inflate corporate profits at the expense of those at the bottom of the pyramid.
What’s to be done when skilled employees are forcibly rejected from the workplace? What happens to the skill sets that they have spent years or even decades building and refining? Could the gig economy provide these skilled individuals with challenging work in the field they have dedicated their careers to?
Field Engineer, for example, is a portal designed to prevent the valuable skills of these workers from going to waste by providing businesses with direct access to skilled freelance engineers. It’s a vital service for businesses which can provide them with effective and quickly administered engineering solutions wither on-site or remotely. The upside for businesses is self-evident. They get all the benefits of a skilled engineer with none of the financial obligation to train and motivate them.
On the other hand, skilled engineers benefit from work in their local community that puts their valuable skills to good use. It’s an effective antidote to an emerging jobs crisis, but that does not mean that we can afford to overlook the importance of a more nuanced and less alarmist approach to the future of both work and workers.
Many proponents of Universal Basic Income such as tech magnate Elon Musk and political scientist Charles Murray have suggested that it could be used to counter the threat of growing automation and reduced worker demand.
UBI raises some interesting questions on the value of employment, what we as a society owe each other and what counts as a contribution. In theory, UBI could certainly help to reduce crime by effectively eliminating poverty and destitution while also encouraging workers to take more professional risks including attempted entrepreneurship.
However, UBI cannot counteract a fundamental truth… Workers need more than remuneration. They need challenge and an opportunity to use their skills regularly to prevent them from atrophying. UBI can cover a worker’s basic monetary needs but it cannot offer them job satisfaction nor the challenge to hone their skills and lean new adjacent skills.
Governments, businesses and unions need to stop to consider whether the rush to embrace technological advancement is worth the human cost. Is it essential to the betterment of society? Or is it a way for the upper echelons of commerce to insulate their profit margins while kicking the ladder of opportunity out from underneath them?
Only by placing greater consideration on the needs of workers and how their marginal propensity to consume benefits the greater economy can we work towards an egalitarian society that’s rich in opportunity.