The future of work is coming but it might not be what you think (The Mandarin 9 Oct, 2020)

Nov 6, 2020

Visions of the future of work, utopian and dystopian dot our popular culture. Thinkers behind these visions have often taken a Fukuyama-like plunge foreshadowing, if not the end of work, at least a radical re-working of the role work plays in our lives.

Yet, despite many predictions to the contrary, work persists as a cornerstone of peoples’ lives today. There have been changes of course. But reflecting on American writer Annie Dillard’s observation that how we spend our days defines how we spend our lives reveals a simple truth. Work is a dominating part of life.

This needn’t be so. In the 1930s, Bertrand Russell, echoing a line of philosophical thought extolling the virtue of leisure, called for a four-hour workday. Set historically between two world wars, 80 years after Melbourne’s stonemasons downed-tools in support of an 8-hour day and 13 years before 8 hours become the norm in Australia, it was a bold call.

Behind Russell’s call was the idea that science had given us the means to provide everybody with a comfortable life, and that both we and society would benefit from spending more time on voluntary community-based activities. Comfort is, it must be said, a relative concept – many people today would find the thought of leisure without the internet inconceivable.

History seems to have left Russell behind. Far from working less, we are in fact working more, despite the progress of science and the potential leisure it provides. From the 1940s to today hours worked per household has increased, indeed dramatically so.

In large part, this reflects important improvements in gender equity, supported by changing technology. The 20th century saw a burst of innovation that substantially reduced the time taken by many household chores. Combined with the increasing availability and social acceptability of childcare, this has underpinned female empowerment and work participation – a dynamic captured beautifully in a recent television series hosted by Annabel Crabb. Male working hours, on the other hand, have fallen, but only slightly.

We are also working longer as individuals. OECD data, for example, shows that average retirement ages have been rising across the globe since the turn of the century, reversing a trend from the 1970s. Our post retirement lives remain a large component of our lifetime leisure, but even here work calls.

As it stands today, our connection to work remains as strong as ever. The future of work, it seems, is more work.

Why do we work?

Those caring for the dying say that is vanishingly rare for someone at the end of their life to wish they had spent more time at work. So why do we do it?

The first point to make is that we live in a fortunate and wealthy society. The grinding widespread poverty of Dickens’ England or Adiga’s India is not a feature of 2020s Australia. Poverty does exist, and our imperfect social safety net has more than its share of holes. But for most of us, the societal resources so admired by Russell in the 1930s pale compared to what we have today. Work today is about more than survival. We seek ‘good’ work, not just any work.

From inside this privileged world, social researcher Hugh Mackay identified a number of fundamental desires that, in his words, make us tick. While Mackay was not writing specifically about work, it is clear that (good) work provides a basis for meeting many of our desires. Work provides, for example, an opportunity for us to be taken seriously, to have something to believe in, to connect to others, to be useful, to belong and (for some) to have a sense of control.

McKay also describes another desire that work provides – the desire for more.

Our pursuit of good work – the type of work that meets our desires – is strong and causes some tension in our policy structures. Advocates for the unemployed, for example, often talk of the need to provide good work when policymakers talk of an obligation to take all available work. In a similar way, immigration is often used to fill roles that are seen as less good by the broader domestic population – aged-care support or fruit/vegetable picking for example.

Good work is defined by its intrinsic nature and the environment in which it is conducted – not the level of pay it provides. Pay is important – and helps meet our desire for more – but it is not the be all and end all of good work. This is increasingly being recognised by business, which often competes for talent on non-pay conditions as much as pay. Good work is important for the future of business too.

Obviously, good work is not the lived experience of everyone. For many Australians work remains a means to a financial end, and many businesses still see workers as a simple labour. It is also true that what is good work for one person is not for another. Casual work, for example, creates flexibility for some and insecurity for others.

But, accepting these important caveats, it is clear that it is good work we desire.

What does work provide society as a whole?

Just as work is a cornerstone of our individual lives, it is a cornerstone of our society as a whole.

The role of work in our society is rich and complicated. Differing conceptions have defined societies from the Grecian republic of Plato to the authoritarian China of Xi Jinping. But if we step back, three things emerge.

First is the role work plays in promoting individual and community wellbeing. This is more than the simple production of goods and services for people to consume, as we have seen. But fundamentally, work, in combination with technology and capital, is key to delivering the material wellbeing our society desires.

Second is the role work can play in creating social cohesion. Here we must be a little careful. History shows many periods where the organisation and distribution of work has acted to harm cohesion or offend fundamental human rights – slavery providing an obvious salutary example. At a minimum, work must benefit the worker, benefit the community and pass a broad test of fairness. Where this occurs, the widespread availability of work – especially good work – acts to reinforce equity and cohesion in society.

Third is the role that work plays in furthering the interests and objectives of the nation state. The work done by our defence forces, diplomats, traders, human rights advocates are all part a system for pursuing the external objectives of the state. Our police protect the interests of the state internally, as does the judiciary (noting different conceptions of what this means across the world). More broadly, work is critical to meeting other collective objectives – such as protecting the environment or providing care to the vulnerable.

The importance of work to the aspirations of the nation state reinforces its place in our society and provides another reason why the future of work is more work.

What will define the nature of work in the future?

It is this question which most captures the imagination of those thinking about the future of work. Will the robots take over? Will rampant capitalism or butchered socialism leave us in a world of bad work? Or, more immediately, should government invest more in STEM, more in the humanities or more in trades?

The reality is that we do not really know. Our messy world could go in a number of different directions. Given this, betting too heavily on any one vision of the future would be foolish.

So, what can we say?

First, we can be confident that technology will continue to drive changes in the nature of work. The path of technology for the last couple of hundred years has seen machines replace people in some jobs. It is a process that many, Hartmut Rosa for example, argue is accelerating.

Machine learning, a newish kid on the block, significantly extends the range of tasks machines can potentially undertake. But it too has limits. Human judgement will remain an important part of how we conduct society. It is a safe bet though, that machines will continue to take over repetitive tasks from people – both removing and creating jobs in the process.

Second, we can expect the forces of globalisation to continue, if at a slower pace than in the past. Technology and globalisation have combined to dramatically reduce the cost of many goods and services. Basic needs in many areas can now be met cheaply through global supply chains, sometimes created by winner-takes-most businesses. This has seen significant shifts in the distribution and nature of work globally.

Our currently pandemic-ridden and fractious world makes predictions about globalisation difficult. But unless we see a major breakdown of the world order, the role played by the global trading system and winner-takes-most businesses will continue to be defining.

A third trend involves the rise of the care economy. As our society has grown richer and older, we have seen a substantial increase in demand for professionalised care (aged, end of life, disability, health, child). High quality care is hard to mechanise and requires judgment and empathy. The development of care robots in Japan may play a supporting role, but care is likely to remain a fundamentally human task.

The professionalisation of care provided previously within the family home is a defining feature of modern society. It has seen a major shift from a valued but unpaid activity into paid work – financed largely by government. As inquiries into aged and disability care reinforce, the quality of care this work produces matters deeply to our society.

While the future demand for care is clear, it is less clear that it will provide a source of the good work we desire. As a general proposition, care jobs are not sought after – lowly paid and with difficult conditions.

Government decisions seem destined to define the role care plays in the future of work. As it stands, despite increasing demand for care, our frameworks for financing and delivering care remain weak. The end result is that who pays for what, and who does what, loom as critical policy questions. And this is before we think about the creation of good work.

A final trend lies in the increased role played by an increased demand for bespoke services and experiences.

The role baristas now play in our society today provides a somewhat trite, but meaningful, example. Not so long ago, coffee was largely commoditised and standardised. For most of us, our daily brew was unremarkable – cheap and satisfactory. Today is a different story. The craft of coffee making has become a loved part of our society. People genuinely care about who makes their coffee and the produce from which it is made. Not everyone of course. But enough to matter.

The coffee-making example reflects a broader trend of valuing craft and novel experiences. It is part of what Richard Florida calls the rise of the creative class. Our richer society, with its basic needs met more cheaply, is unlocking our desire for something different and our more creative side – another thing machines cannot replicate.

Some conclusions

In thinking about the future of work, it is hard to resist taking a Fukuyama-plunge. But, at the risk of getting wet, some conclusions do seem reasonable.

First is that the utopian/dystopian image of a world of leisure where few of us work is unlikely. Put simply, work delivers too many of the things we desire, and is too important to the operation of society, to disappear.

Second, is that the march of technology will continue to change the nature of work. This will both remove jobs and create new ones. Along with the ongoing forces of globalisation, it will define the flow of work across the world.

Third, our richer and older society will continue to focus on and increasingly value care, craft and experiences – creating new opportunities in the world of work.

And finally, but importantly, our search for good work will continue to drive the direction of our society.

As all this is happening, it might be wise for society to circle back to Bertrand Russell and Annie Dillard. For humans, time is perhaps our most precious commodity. How society values our non-work time and how our leisure is distributed across our lifetime remain crucial – but under-considered – parts of the future of work equation.

This is an expanded version of remarks made at a Future Leaders Forum hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

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