COVID-19, Democ­racy and the Fu­ture of Work

Policy - - In This Issue - Lisa Van Dusen

The global econ­omy was al­ready be­ing trans­formed be­fore the COVID-19 pan­demic hit, most sig­nif­i­cantly due to the im­pact of the Fourth In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion on the na­ture of work—a trend knowl­edge­able ob­servers were pre­dict­ing would be felt more se­ri­ously in the com­ing decade. Now, gov­ern­ments will have to bal­ance brac­ing for the im­pact of that me­te­orite with re­duced rev­enues and a pos­si­ble debt cri­sis post-pan­demic.

One of the ques­tions that arose in Wash­ing­ton in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis was to what de­gree the crash would pro­duce struc­tural un­em­ploy­ment.

Be­cause the dis­as­ter was man-made and cor­rup­tion-driven, it was not fu­elled by or­ganic weak­nesses in the U.S. econ­omy and so did not pro­duce ei­ther cycli­cal (re­flect­ing the nor­mal cy­cles of re­ces­sion and growth) or fric­tional (post-univer­sity job searches, peo­ple chang­ing cities) un­em­ploy­ment be­yond the lev­els that would have ex­isted with­out the force mul­ti­plier of a global mar­ket col­lapse.

At the time, the first decade and a half of the fourth in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion had had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on how peo­ple worked, less so on where and for what price. The gig econ­omy was brand new (the term was coined in the wake of the crash by for­mer Van­ity Fair editor Tina Brown in a Jan­uary 2009 Daily Beast col­umn). Many peo­ple now work­ing at free­lance rates, in­clud­ing in jour­nal­ism, were then still work­ing for ac­tual salaries with ben­e­fits and rea­son­able in­come security.

Struc­tural un­em­ploy­ment is de­fined as that “re­sult­ing from in­dus­trial re­or­ga­ni­za­tion, typ­i­cally due to technologi­cal change, rather than fluc­tu­a­tions in sup­ply or de­mand.” The in­dus­trial re­or­ga­ni­za­tion re­sult­ing from the un­prece­dented technologi­cal change of the in­ter­net—in­clud­ing au­to­ma­tion, robo­ti­za­tion, dig­i­ti­za­tion and the sys­tem­atic re­dun­dancy of many meat space jobs and work­places—was al­ready well un­der­way when the COVID-19 out­break be­came a pan­demic, fol­lowed by the only ex­am­ple of self-in­duced, wide­spread eco­nomic stag­na­tion in his­tory.

The pre-pan­demic struc­tural em­ploy­ment sta­tus quo was al­ready tilt­ing from un­cer­tain to pre­car­i­ous, at least in terms of sus­tain­abil­ity, a fact un­der­scored by a range of ex­perts in­clud­ing Bill Gates, who said in 2014 that “Tech­nol­ogy over time will re­duce de­mand for jobs, par­tic­u­larly at the lower end of skill sets… Twenty years from now, la­bor de­mand for lots of skill sets will be sub­stan­tially lower. I don’t think peo­ple have that in their men­tal model.” His more re­cent rhetoric has been less alarmist, pos­si­bly be­cause of the firestorm that pre­dic­tion ig­nited. In 2017, McKin­sey man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Do­minic Bar­ton—then head­ing the Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s ad­vi­sory coun­cil on eco­nomic growth, now Canada’s am­bas­sador to China—predicted that 40 per­cent of Cana­dian jobs could be lost to au­to­ma­tion over the com­ing decade.

That pre-ex­ist­ing pre­car­i­ous­ness re­flected a two-decade trend whereby tech­nol­ogy-en­hanced pro­duc­tiv­ity and prof­its have been broadly val­ued above hu­man liveli­hood and qual­ity of life, partly due to the state cap­ture of gov­ern­ment leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties by Big Tech and other in­dus­trial be­he­moths that has pro­duced, among other de­liv­er­ables, the dec­i­ma­tion of unions. The pre-pan­demic em­ploy­ment num­bers did not re­flect the rel­a­tively re­cent evo­lu­tion in the prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions of the words, “job”, “em­ploy­ment” and “ca­reer”.

The pre-pan­demic em­ploy­ment num­bers did not re­flect the rel­a­tively re­cent evo­lu­tion in the prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions of the words, ‘job’, ‘em­ploy­ment’ and ‘ca­reer’.

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