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Four shortfalls of future of work predictions

The quality of debate around the future of work leaves much to be desired, according to the UK’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

Future of work debate

Will automation be a relentless job killer, or could it result in a four-day working week? Or is it a charade, a ploy by companies to look like they are customer-centric, agile and forward-thinking while behind the scenes humans are continuing to do all the grunt work? And will automation usher in a surveillance worker environment, with tools monitoring every aspect of employees’ movements?

These are among the questions discussed in a new report by the UK’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) that comprises essays from a range of experts. While offering different perspectives, the RSA Future Work Centre’s Field Guide to the Future of Work agrees on one thing: power is shifting when it comes to business and work today.

However, the RSA believes the quality of public debate around the impact of technology on jobs leaves much to be desired. It identifies four major shortcomings:

  1. Commentators tend to fixate on artificial intelligence and robotics while paying little attention to the less glamorous but still powerful innovations like e-commerce platforms, the internet of things, distributed ledgers, cloud computing and smartphones
     
  2. There is a relentless focus on automation, as though this is the only way technology will shape the lives of workers. Machines are also changing recruitment practices, facilitating surveillance and monitoring, altering the nature of business models and restructuring industries (with new technology often aiding market concentration)
     
  3. Analyses of the effects of technology too often dwell on what is theoretically possible while ignoring what is actually happening. Seldom do we learn whether breakthroughs in individual technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and personal voice assistants, are adopted in the real world
     
  4. We pay too little attention to the systemic effects of technology, such as how its adoption in one corner of the economy can affect the lives of workers in different sectors. An example is the phenomenon of ‘recycled demand’, whereby the deployment of technology in one industry leads to cost savings for consumers, which frees up cash to spur demand (and potentially job growth) in another part of the economy.

The corporate HR chief reconsidering their employee welfare programme [is] susceptible to making bad decisions with bad intelligence

Report author and head of the RSA Future Work Centre Benedict Dellot says these shortcomings cannot go unaddressed. “The quality of the conversation about technology matters greatly to our ability to prepare it,” he says.

“The civil servant in the Treasury dictating tax policy, the FE college leader rethinking their skills curricula, the corporate HR chief reconsidering their employee welfare programme – all are susceptible to making bad decisions with bad intelligence. “

The Field Guide aims to offer a plurality of perspectives to act as a wake-up call to employers and government.

“Too often we yearn for neat forecasts that aim to tell us exactly how the future will play out (‘X million jobs to go by 2040’). In fact, we should be contemplating and preparing for multiple eventualities,” says Dellot.

“The good news is that there is time to respond. We are still in the early stages of the age of automation and many jobs are yet to be affected. The challenge for government, employers and educators is to make sure the 2020s play out differently to the 2010s, so that everyone – regardless of gender, age or location – shares in the spoils of new technology.”

Read one perspective here: Of course robots will steal our jobs

Published 9 January 2019

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