Inside the Information Society: What about the workers?

 Women Working In Industry, Department of Labor. Women's Bureau. (Flickr Commons)From: Women Working In Industry, Department of Labor. Women’s Bureau. (Flickr Commons)
David Souter’s weekly blog for APC about the Information Society returns today from its summer/winter break. This week’s blog is about the impact of ICTs on the world of work.

More attention’s being paid of late to the impact that ICTs are having on the world of work. Not before time, I’d say. After all, the work we do is central to most of our lives. It plays a big part in deciding how we define ourselves, our incomes, our social networks. If ICTs are transforming all around us, they’re surely transforming the work we do or might do in the future – and that should concern us.

Optimists and pessimists

There are two schools of thought here. As usual, what’s going on is likely in between.

On the one hand stand the cyber-optimists. ICTs, they say, offer all kinds of opportunities, just like previous generations of new technology. Productivity will make work more efficient, releasing people’s time and creativity to do more, better. Innovation and enterprise, hand in hand, will create new workstreams we’ve not considered yet, as steam, electricity and the internal combustion engine did beforehand.

And work could be done in many different ways, they add. People no longer need to be co-located in order to work together. Platforms like Uber and Airbnb allow the ‘self-employed’ – or quasi-self-employed – to challenge established business models (and the jobs of traditional employees). Many tasks that were dangerous and arduous can be done in safer, healthier environments.

On the other stand the pessimists. We’ve already seen the first waves of job destruction arising out of ICTs, they say. Machines now sow and harvest fields that people used to tend. Robots have replaced technicians in many factories. Computers have swept aside swathes of clerical and administrative jobs, with professional services – even doctors and lawyers – likely to follow.

All this is happening, they say, because machines can now do most things more efficiently and more cheaply than human labour. And that will become truer still as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things sweep onward. Driverless cars and automated financial services are just the start of a wave of job displacement that will reduce the quantity and quality of work for all.

Why think about this now?

Now, of course, we should be cautious. Past predictions of drastic changes in employment – not least telecommuting – have not all come true. But the impact of ICTs on jobs is clearly growing as the pace of ICT development accelerates. And it could grow sharply, at least in developed countries, as artificial intelligence and robotics become more important. I’ll cite two reports from earlier this year.

The World Bank’s World Development Report sounded the alarm in January. It expects digital technologies both to create and to displace jobs, pointing in particular to the polarisation of employment – with high- and low-skilled jobs surviving better than those with middle-ranking skills. ‘The policy response,’ the Bank says, ‘besides rethinking social protection systems, is better and more responsive education and training.’

The World Economic Forum discussed The Future of Jobs in Davos the same month. Its survey of employers anticipated big changes in job markets, with a net loss of jobs from various causes between now and 2020, big differences between sectors, and growing disruption to assumptions about what skills would be needed in the future.

Both Bank and Forum see skill-building as a critical dimension here. But that takes time. And, if there aren’t enough jobs to go round, skill-building could be more about enabling people to compete for those there are than about enabling everyone to have one. So much for the ‘full and productive employment’ called for in the international rights regime.

What are the issues?

I’d say there are four main issues here. I’ll list their possible downsides.

The first’s the quantity of jobs. Optimists think that innovation will create new jobs faster than old jobs will disappear. I think that’s doubtful. The machines of the industrial revolution needed people to manage them. The machines of the information revolution can do so themselves – and AI’s going to spread that more. If the number of jobs declines as a result of ICTs, what happens next? Do we share those jobs more equally by cutting working hours? More likely, surely, that a rebalanced labour market leads to reduced incomes and higher unemployment.

The second is job quality. The Bank’s far from alone in warning about polarisation of the labour market. The hollowing out of middle-skilled jobs that it anticipates has implications not just for employment but also for equality, social mobility and the livelihoods of the majority of people.

The third issue, associated with this, is casualisation. Platform enterprises such as Uber and increased self-employment are displacing formal employment relationships, and the legal framework that goes with them – health and safety legislation, regular working hours, holiday entitlements, representation through trade unions and staff associations.

Finally, there’s the impact of all this on our economies. ICTs enable businesses (and governments) to provide better services more cheaply. But if wages fall and unemployment grows, who will afford to buy them? It’s demand for goods and services that drives economic growth: demand that’s more likely to come from prosperous consumers with secure well-paid jobs than from those in insecure low-paid work.

The world of work’s already changing fast in rich economies. Traditional jobs are being displaced and new ones being created; casualisation is growing; even telecommuting is taking off at last. Change will be slower in developing countries where labour’s cheap and machinery expensive, but it will come there too. Watch, for example, as automation and avatars take the place of the back-office outsourcing in which some developing countries have invested much.

Where should we go from here?

That summary above, of course, falls on the pessimistic side of the debate, perhaps too much so. The fact is we don’t know yet what the long-term relationship will be between jobs and the Information Society. But we should accept that it will be important. So here are three suggestions.

First, we need a serious debate about these issues in the fora we’ve established. The Tunis Agenda that emerged from WSIS set up eighteen Action Lines concerned with different aspects of the Information Society. There’s one on ‘e-employment’ but it’s never been convened at any WSIS Forum. Now’s the time to do so, making sure that all stakeholders are invited – and that they address the policy space that lies twixt hope and fear. That might help to start the much wider debate that’s needed.

Second, to inform that debate, we need to understand what’s happening or what’s likely to, and to develop strategic responses. The skills agenda is an obvious one, but only partial. Governments need to build a wider range of policies that maximise the scope for workers in the digital age and mitigate the negative impacts of change. Those policies should focus on the unskilled and the non-entrepreneurial at least as much as on the skilled entrepreneurs that policymakers make so much of in our Information Society debates.

And third, we’ll have to reimagine what we mean by work, and how to enable people to build secure lives and livelihoods in a digital age. The rights framework may be one way to start doing so. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has more to say about employment and trade union rights than any other subject. Sticking to old ways of enabling rights won’t work much better in the digital age than sticking to old business models, but the rights themselves are worth more attention than they’re getting.

Next week I’ll look at one of the implications of this week’s post – the need for better ‘capacity-building’ for the Information Society.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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