It’s nice work if you can get it
Gig economy. Uberfication. The precariat. These once unfamiliar terms have become commonplace in the post-global financial crisis world. We are witnessing an economic shift and changing labour relations that mirror the major disruptions of the past. Technology has changed certain jobs while rendering others obsolete. Economic uncertainty fuels social and political anxiety around the world, seen in the Brexit vote in Britain and the election to the White House of Donald Trump, a political candidate who tapped into anxieties about economic dislocation to stunning effect.
These anxieties form the backdrop for Tim Dunlop’s Why the Future is Workless, which examines the issues concerning the present and future face of the workforce.
Dunlop is a Melbourne-based journalist who combines political and economic analysis. Here he emphasises that concerns about economic change and disruption are not new. He draws on earlier theorists, particularly in the 19th century, who were deeply concerned that industrialisation alienated workers from their labour, changed family structures and fundamentally altered how people saw work.
Dunlop argues the rise of capitalism and the threat of automation go hand-in-hand. In the scene-setting sections The Past of Work and The Present of Work he sketches out economic events that have shaped our society, most significantly the neoliberal agenda pursued by Western governments across the past 40 years. This agenda has stripped away many of the aspects of the welfare state, leaving vulnerable people who slip through the economic cracks.
In The Present of Work Dunlop outlines how serious this situation has become in recent years. Borrowing the term “precariat” from British economist Guy Standing, Dunlop describes a new class of working people whose income derives from uncertain, often part-time or short-term employment. Unfortunately, these forms of employment lack many of the hardwon benefits of the 20th century, including guaranteed hours, income security and the right to adequate workplace health and safety.
While some elements of the precariat are fine with this, many are deeply uncomfortable, desiring full-time work that is increasingly nonexistent. The uncertainty about the future of work has entered into the political discourse.
The direction forward forms the heart of Dunlop’s work, in three chapters titled Will a Robot Take My Job?, Will an App Take My Job? and Basic Income. At times these sections make for grim reading. In the robots chapter, Dunlop draws on studies showing a vast number of jobs have the potential to be automated within a generation: When researchers from Oxford University declare that “47 per cent of total US employment” is at high risk of disappearing within the next 20 years, it is no wonder people sit up and take notice … the limitations of their findings don’t really mitigate too much of their baseline claim: 47 per cent of the jobs that exist today are at “high risk” of no longer being around when a child born in 2016 graduates from university.
One intriguing example Dunlop provides is the explosive growth in 3-D printer technology. That we have reached a point where a 3-D printer can “print” out entire houses (as seen in China) shows that large-scale jobs such as housing and urban development could one day be done entirely by machines. Addressing the rise of the sharing economy, the app chapter explores the benefits and pitfalls of the new gig economy, where the ease of entry into jobs such as driving an Uber car or renting out your home on AirBnB is balanced by the lack of employment security, workers’ rights and the core question of who benefits from this kind of work.
Potentially the most controversial chapter is Basic Income. Universal basic income trials have been enacted in the past few years, from villages in India and Africa to countries such as Finland and Switzerland. The idea of a minimum income that everyone is entitled to has been championed by the Right and Left as a way of alleviating extraneous bureaucracy regarding welfare systems (the Right) and guaranteeing the dignity of people who are unable to find work (the Left). Implementing these policies stumbles on political rather than technical grounds, with several trials demonstrating that giving people a basic income does not remove their incentive to find other work.
These three factors, of further automation, the sharing economy and basic income, establish the final sections: Three Paths to the Future and Workless and Work Less. While Dunlop has an optimistic streak, he remains a realist, stating bluntly that in the end we will need a “different form of governance to that which most nations have today” to make some of these ideas a workable reality.
Dunlop’s writing is punchy and witty, weaving in anecdotal evidence from his own life (his account of his wife’s need to make it to the office by 6.30am for a meeting on the work-life balance will ring true for many), providing a conversational style that makes his deeper economic analysis easier for the layperson.
We find ourselves in momentous times in terms of changing technologies and economies. There will remain in democracies a deep-seated urgency to articulate these economic frustrations in a way that doesn’t blame racial or ethnic minorities but instead acknowledges the limitations to the capitalist system as it stands. Dunlop has written a timely and highly readable work vital for anyone curious to see where these economic disruptions may take us next.
teaches history at the University of Western Australia. He is at work on a book about controversial US presidential elections.
About 47 per cent of US jobs are ‘high risk’ because of robots