There is a massive assumption that almost all of us have about the future of the workplace.
That assumption is that automation will destroy jobs.
Our fear of machines taking work away from us is not new; ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution groups of people have gathered to voice their concern about this impending doom.
The current wave of concern that AI will eliminate the need for workers stems back to some research done in 2013 by Frey and Osborne who made the bold claim that 47% of American jobs were at risk from AI.
But let's just imagine for a second that this assumption is false.
What if automation and artificial intelligence actually created more jobs for people and that we are just at the beginning of a huge global fight for workers?
Leslie Willcocks of the London School of Economics has argued that the hype-and-fear machine fueling our belief that jobs will be destroyed is way overblown.
[that] automation creates few jobs short or long term; that whole jobs can be automated; that the technology is perfectible; that organizations can seamlessly and quickly deploy AI; that humans are machines that can be replicated; and that it is politically, socially and economically feasible to apply these technologies... Adding in ageing populations, productivity gaps and skills shortages predicted across many G20 countries, the danger might be too little, rather than too much labour.
Recently, Microsoft's head of research into Artificial Intelligence, Kate Crawford, indicated that the reality of AI as a system is far from artificial or intelligent and actually makes use of a planetary system of interconnected human beings to make it work.
Saying, “Hey, Alexa, order me some toilet rolls,” invokes into being this chain of extraction, which goes all around the planet… We’ve got a long way to go before this is green technology. Also, systems might seem automated but when we pull away the curtain we see large amounts of low paid labour, everything from crowd work categorising data to the never-ending toil of shuffling Amazon boxes. AI is neither artificial nor intelligent. It is made from natural resources and it is people who are performing the tasks to make the systems appear autonomous. - via
Now - post-pandemic - there are increasing reports that workers' demands are increasing. The working class is starting to call the shots and when not satisfied are simply choosing to jump ship.
Quitting your job is hot this summer. More Americans quit in April than any other month on record going back to the beginning of the century, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For every 100 workers in hotels, restaurants, bars, and retailers, about five of them quit.* - via
Why the sudden burst of quitting? One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work. Up and down the income ladder, workers have new reasons to tell their boss to shove it. Lower-wage workers who benefited from enhanced unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic may have returned to the job and realized they’re not being paid enough. Now they’re putting their foot down, forcing restaurants and clothing stores to fork over a higher wage to keep people on staff.
Around the world - business is starting to seriously struggle to attract people back to work.
In America job vacancies are at their highest level for almost two decades. Manufacturers in eastern Europe are struggling to attract workers, with Hungarian wages up by 9.2% in March, year on year. Australian miners, Tasmanian fruit farmers and Canadian restaurateurs all report trouble with hiring. This has left workers with something they have long lacked: bargaining power. - via
Even white-collar knowledge workers who have 'dream jobs' at companies like Google are starting to show public outrage towards their jobs.
A restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s work force is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.
Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Mr. Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception. - via
Despite what many may say - the massive loss of job opportunities for humans in the future is by no means a foregone conclusion. There is no doubt that the nature of work will change and people will most probably need to be able to work closer with machines (very much like we already do).
However, it is very dangerous to simply see the future of work to be pre-determined that capital will win and workers will lose.
Workers are back in power and calling the shots.
[Headline image courtesy of The Economist. Thanks to Jen Searle for sending The Atlantic piece.]