It’s nice work if you can get it

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew Broert­jes

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

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