”So are we to just lie down and die?!” – about the worry about the future labour market

A few years ago I gave a lecture to a group of college students about changes in the labour market. A group of young men, some with baseball caps pulled down over their eyes seemingly half asleep, were seated in the back of the auditorium. Some way into the lecture, whilst I was talking about the impact of digitalisation 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 point to make in a room full of his peers, but it was also a relevant question and the question I spent the rest of the lecture answering.

In their 2013-article The future of employment, Osborne and Frey show that around 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 . Five years has elapsed since the original article was published during which time it has been both re-evaluated and critiqued. For example, in contrast to the alarmist nature of that original piece, a recent OECD-report suggests that ‘only’ 8% of human roles in the Swedish labour market run the risk of being replaced by computers and robots. Unsurprisingly given the earlier study’s conclusions, a report published in 2015 looking into the coverage of this phenomenon in the Swedish media revealed an element of hysteria with the message suggesting half of all jobs are at risk commonly reported.

This latter message is now part of the common narrative whenever conversations around digitalisation take place and a report by Swedish think-tank Futurion confirmed the fear Swede’s feel when thinking about the impact of digitalisation on their future.,

Returning to the lecture, the young man’s question was therefore highly pertinent. Will AI- driven computers and robotics mean that somewhere between 8% and 50% of us could just ‘lie down and die’ because it seems we will be no longer needed?

The public discourse about job loss is connected to fear. On a practical level to be, or to become, unemployed means a loss of income for the individual. It also has an emotional effect. The idea of being superfluous, and of becoming a social outsider, packs a deep emotional punch.

 Linn Spross, researcher and author, writes that unemployment throughout the 20th century has been constructed in Swedish politics as one of the greatest threats to a well-functioning society. Without employment, it is suggested, it is difficult to lead a meaningful life. This has not always been the case. The perceived role of work has in fact changed radically. In 1899 Thorstein Veblen in his book The Leisure Class suggested that not having a job was something that should be strived for. However, in the 21st century, the type of work we do is a driver of how society perceives us and can confer high status. Sociologist Roland Paulsen argues that work has gone from something people have to do, to something that is an individual right, and indeed a virtue.

So, worried about his future on the labour market, what should the young man in the lecture hall do? Who is responsible for the employment concerns of his generation? Who or what embodies the threat against his role as a worker in tomorrow’s society? The so-called Luddites, when threatened by automation in UK textile mills in the early 19th century   smashed the new machines that threatened their jobs. Should the young man do the same with his digital devices? Will he stop scanning his food in the supermarket and refuse to pay his bills on-line as a protest at the impact of digitalisation?

Of course, this is very unlikely! But it is interesting to reflect that the same report by Futurion referenced above shows that those who see themselves as most vulnerable in relation to digitalisation are also at the greatest risk of becoming attracted to populism. Instead of directing their anger against the app, the computer, or the robot, they are more likely to blame immigrants, accusing them of ‘taking our jobs’.

All of this means that the narrative around the process of digitalisation must be carefully told. 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. Commentators and media must carefully choose how they portray the future.

Worries surrounding the shape of the future labour market can be offset to some extent by referring positively to the new jobs that the new world will create. Some will come about directly as a consequence of digitalisation, some through the changing needs of a society readjusting to the new normal. How we define ‘the labour market’ is also historically and culturally contextual. Traditionally we think of our labour contribution as being the tasks we are paid for. Whilst historically some tasks performed in the labour market are clearly useful and meaningful, others may be perceived as unnecessary and without purpose for those that perform them. Many people are lucky enough to perform meaningful tasks and have a sense of belonging in the work place. Others achieve this outside of the work place.

Let us, for a moment, together with the young man from the lecture hall, contemplate a world where Osborne and Frey’s predictions were right and the need for human labour in society dramatically decreases. If this comes to pass, we have a distinct societal challenge on the horizon. We must face into the need to shape a society where we all have the means to support ourselves, we all have the personal validation of feeling needed and we all lead a life we feel is meaningful, all against a  backdrop of less and less ‘work’ as we currently know it? It is a challenge that should not be underestimated!