This post is a long extract from my essay on The Future of Work written for Future Agenda. The full piece is on Medium.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
So it is worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50–60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10–15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
Labour market woes
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. He suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage.
A couple of years ago The Futures Company collaborated with the Institute of Development Studies on an ambitious futures project which was designed to understand the possible futures of a post-crash global economy, and then to identify impacts for development. One of the conditions of the tender was – unusually – that we subsequently write up the work for academic publication, and the paper we wrote for the journal Foresight has recently been commended as one of the best papers in the journal during 2011. In turn, this means that it’s available for open download until 10th October from the website of the publishers, Emerald.
The client for the project was a British government department, and the sponsor within the department was sure that he didn’t want the scenarios to be developed using the mainstream 2×2 double uncertainty method. I was fairly sure about this as well; for one thing, I didn’t believe – given that the scope of the scenarios was the entire global economy – that the 2×2 would produce sufficient nuance, and secondly, I knew from experience that while it is possible to translate 2×2 scenarios into soft models, just about, the translation can be messy.
For our part of the work (on which I worked with my colleague Joe Ballantyne), therefore, we used a ‘light’ version of morphological analysis – largely for reasons of time – substituting a form of pattern analysis for computer-based analysis. In turn this meant that Andy Sumner of the IDS, the paper’s third author, was able to draw out the main elements that linked the national economies to the global economy and categorise them.
I’m proud of the paper, which I think describes well the way that a fairly complex futures process, done quite quickly, was able to drive insight and improve our anticipation of the future. In the few days before the window closes: enjoy.