A few years ago I gave a lecture about the changes on the labour market to students at a college. A group of young men were seated in the back of the auditorium. They seemed to be half-asleep; some had baseball-caps pulled down over their eyes. Some ways into the lecture, when I was talking about digitalization and the changes on the labour market, one of them sat up, pushed his cap back, and said: “So if the robots take our jobs, are we to just lie down and die?!”. It was a brave question in a room full of friends. It was also a relevant question and the question I spent the rest of my lecture answering.
In their 2013-article The future of employment Osborne and Frey show that about half of the jobs performed in the US could be performed by computers or robots by 2033. The study was repeated in a Swedish context by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research and similar results emerged . It is now five years since Osborn and Frey published their article and their piece has both been re-evalutated and critizised. A recent OECD-report shows that “only” 8 percent of all humans on the Swedish labour market runs the risk of being replaced by computers and robots. A study from 2015 of the reporting on the matter in Swedish media showed that “half of all jobs will be replaced” is however a frequent narrative that is retold over and over again in a way that has made it part of the public discourse on digitalization. In interviews with managers and employees in the research project Digitalized work and organizing (DAO) carried out in the Swedish steel industry during 2017, I and my colleagues heard this often: “you know, since the computers will replace the jobs…” or “I have heard that half of all jobs will disappear”.
So what was it that the young man asked about during the lecture? Will computers and robots mean that half, or 8 percent, of us, could lie down and die? After all, we aren’t needed. The public discourse about job loss is connected to fear. To be or become unemployed means less income for the individual, but also the experience of not being needed, and of becoming a social outsider. Linn Spross, researcher and author, writes that unemployment all through the 20th century has been constructed in Swedish politics as one of the greatest threats against a well-functioning society and to the possibility for the individual to lead a meaningful life. Whereas Thorstein Veblen, in his book The Leisure Class from 1899, described not having a job as something to strive for, work today is associated with high status. Sociologist Roland Paulsen argues that work has gone from something people have to do, to an individual right, and a virtue. In a report from 2018, the Swedish think-tank Futurion shows that many people in Sweden are worried about the consequences of digitalization.
So what should the young man in that class room do with his worries about not being needed on the future labour market? Who is responsible? Who or what embody the threat against his role as a worker in tomorrow’s society? Is he to smash his smart phone, iPad or computer, like the Luddites of the English textile industry did in the early 1800’s, when the machines were about to take over their jobs? Will he stop scanning his food in the supermarket and refuse to pay his bills on-line? No, the report by Futurion show that those who see themselves as most vulnerable in relation to digitalization also run the largest risks of becoming attracted to populism. Instead of directing their anger against the app, the computer, or the robot, immigrants are accused of “taking our jobs”.
How the story of the consequences of the digitalization of the labour market is told is thus of greatest importance. It matters to the young man in the back of the class room, as well as to his friends, and it will impact how they see themselves and others in a changing of society with a new political climate.
We can dampen our worry by referring to the new jobs that currently emerge: some as a consequence of digitalization, some through the changing needs of society. How we define “the labour market” – what type of work is paid for or not – is also historically and culturally contextual. Some of the tasks that are performed in the labour market are both useful and meaningful, while others may be perceived as unnecessary and without purpose for those that perform them. Many people perform meaningful tasks and have a sense of belonging in the work place; others achieve this outside of the work place.
But let us, for a moment, together with the young man from the class room, play with the idea that Osborne and Frey really were right, and that the need for human labour in society will decrease. How can we form a society where the need for human labour is decreasing but where the needs to be able to support oneself, to feel needed, and to lead a meaningful life remains?