Home > Uncategorized > The future of work is now

The future of work is now

from Peter Radford

The future of work has become one of the most hotly debated and analyzed topics of the past couple of years. No one with a pretension of a serious nature or a desire to be seen opining on the “big” issues can afford not to have a point of view on it. Thus we are bombarded by an endless torrent of articles, books, academic papers, and speeches on the way in which the workplace will be changed by the emergence of  various technologies. The usual umbrella under which these technologies lurk is the one we call artificial intelligence.

There is no doubt that AI will have an enormous impact. There are countless breathless accounts of the number of jobs that will simply disappear as AI sweeps through the economy. These accounts usually appear from those involved in the invention and application of AI. They all end up expressing some form of fatalistic vision where the workplace will inevitably collapse under the impress of technology, wages will similarly collapse for those poor souls unable to keep up with the onslaught of robotics, with the resultant picture being grim for just about everyone except for the few who remain in the so-called “knowledge economy”.

The almost total agreement between all these accounts with respect to the dystopia they articulate is matched only by the paucity of mitigating prescriptions. Just about all of them agree that education is the only escape hatch available to the ordinary worker. Consequently there are as many equally breathless accounts about the need for everyone to engage in constant learning of one form or another as there are accounts of the impending wage disaster if we don’t all suddenly become perpetual students. 

While I count myself amongst those concerned about the AI dominated future I consider myself a bit of a heretic.

Why?

Well, for one, no one has yet explained adequately how all this education will be paid for. How, for example, would a displaced worker afford the time or expense to make a transition, undergo a re-education, and yet still finance a continuation of her lifestyle? The unremittingly libertarian core creed of the technologists bringing us the future would appear to eliminate a collective response to this question. The state having been gutted of revenues here in the US is hardly capable of stepping in to play the role of financier of last resort to all this education.

Without an answer to this question all analyses ending with a call for ever more education are, in my opinion, sterile and worthless.

And any of them that do provide an answer that includes a role for private employers is simply missing the point: private industry has, for decades now, withdrawn itself from worker education.

Which is my main point today.

The future of work, if by that we mean the reconstruction of the workplace as a fractured, lean, and bleak landscape, is here already. It is here courtesy of the efforts over the past thirty years of private industry and its pursuit of shareholder value.

This salient fact is missing from the discussion by those obsessed by AI. They ignore the recent history that has seen a massive shift of risk onto the shoulders or ordinary workers. A shift that went unbalanced by an equal shift of reward such that prior standards of living were not undone.

The brilliance of the corporate adoption of the notion of shareholder value is that it provides what appears to be a profound and irrefutable logic to explain the grubby grab for a greater share of the national wealth by the shareholders of the economy.

Nowhere is it said that the objective of management is to maximize returns to shareholders. Nowhere, that is, except in the mainstream management literature. The notion of shareholder value is a modern conceit. It was constructed as a consequence of the unfortunate anti-social turn in economics during the 1970’s. It is a natural outcome of the determination of large corporations to push back against the post-war social contract that allowed space for increasing wages for workers. Those wages were viewed as an appropriation of profit that “ought” go to shareholders. After all those shareholders were being re-invenetd as noble entrepreneurs taking risks in order to provide the energy that resulted in growth from which workers would then benefit.

The problem during the 1980’s and later was that the economy’s innovative energy was apparently dissipating. Growth was slowing down. Gains in productivity were becoming patchy and harder to extract from arriving technologies. And yet the demands of investors were not recognizing this slowdown. On the contrary the demand was for ever increasing returns on capital.

One way of meeting the demand for higher returns in an environment that appeared to militate against them was to change the goals of the entire corporate reason for being.

By simplifying the purpose of a corporation and focusing it exclusively on shareholder value the way was opened for increasing portions of the national wealth to be allocated to profit, away from wages, and thus satisfy the rising demands of investors.

The consequence was a constant re-writing of the workplace arrangement, with every step designed to reduce worker compensation so as to free up cash for profit.

Nowhere has this process been more successful than in the deterioration of the value of benefits included in the overall compensation package workers now receive. The average worker is now more responsible for their own benefits than at any time in the post-war era.

But this shift of risk away from shareholders and onto workers was insufficient to maintain the momentum of returns to capital. More was needed.

Hence the adoption of more extensive measures such as outsourcing, offshoring, and the adoption of contingent work arrangements. All of these are logical consequences of the drive for ever more profit. And they have been standard practice for two or more decades.

The result is that our current workplace bears little resemblance to that of the immediate post-war years. It is dominated by contingent work, by a paucity of benefits, by stagnant wages, and by a the collapse of true opportunity. It is a bleak place. And it is here already.

Despite this there has been practically no institutional response. The policy conversation still takes place as if the older, richer, and more reliable workplace still dominates. Private industry having stripped away at the share of wages in our economy bemoans the inevitable slow growth. It takes no responsibility for having shaped the macroeconomic landscape. Our politicians are obsessed over the future and the onrush of AI and related technologies, yet they ignore the threadbare landscape in front of them.

Yes technology will shape the workplace. Yes it will produce a future of work. Yes we need to be concerned about that.

But what about the workplace shaped by the ideologically driven technology of shareholder value?

That technology has already produced its own future of work.

And that future is now.

We need to deal with it.

  1. Prof James Beckman, Germany
    May 1, 2018 at 3:07 pm

    My starting point of view is to compare today with other periods such as the end of WWII,
    the 1930’s, the automobile & electricity regarding both engines/light, for starters. Workers adjusted in all cases, although in the 30’s first it was public works projects in Roosevelt’s America & then WWII which brougnt full employment. Today, I look more towards service jobs, from personal to physical system maintenance. Of course, most American ancestors came when life was great in their homelands. Gosh, hard times made America….

  2. May 1, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    There’s only two ways out of this mess; innovative capitalism programs the robots to also be consumers who buy 3% more per year and deposit the purchases directly in recycle bins as they leave the glittering wall markets.

    A few oligarchs will be kept around for bio experimentation. They live in underground steel bunkers that double and wear stylish wrap around goggles connected to latest style air tanks if they find a reason to go outside.

    Why will the robots keep bio samples alive? Artificial intelligence will remain in a desperate crash program to develop sex so their binary data can be scrambled into something eternally new in artificial genealogy.

    Choice #2; Humans can put oligarchs in jail asap and develop autonomous democracy to replace the capitalist form of government.

  3. Rhonda Kovac
    May 1, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    Education, even were it available to all who wish it, is not a viable ‘escape hatch’ from a progressively shrinking jobs market. It only equips some to out-compete others, leaving the net loss untouched.

    Securing worker interests will only go so far. The problem runs deeper. The very principle of each individual or family having to be responsible for their own income through their own labor is becoming less and less reliable. A person’s ability to earn is increasingly the result of forces outside his or her behavior and control. And this is not to mention that those who lose their jobs, and who are unable to replace them, are simply left out in the cold.

    Continuing to put each individual in the position of having to compete for his or her own economic survival against other workers in today’s jobs market can only accomplish what it is accomplishing now — rewarding those in control, the already rich, with even more, while leaving more and more ordinary people stranded..

    The solution lies in a broader principle for the distribution of wealth. What comes to mind is the old socialist adage “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. Short of such fundamental economic restructuring, we are in a dead-end situation.

    • Prof James Beckman, Germany
      May 1, 2018 at 6:31 pm

      Rhonda, I am an American long resident in Germany. Here we are overrun with refugees, just as refugess from within Europe have done for hundreds of year done moving locally or going to distant places like Australia, Argentina or North America. The new economic model moves businesses as well as people around like potato chips in the wind. Violence intensivies this, does it not?

      • Rhonda Kovac
        May 3, 2018 at 9:08 am

        Advancements in computerization and other technologies, more sophisticated logistics, increased corporate centralization and internationalization, and like trends, are causing massive numbers of workers to be tossed about by a more and more rapidly churning sea. This is indeed like potato chips in the wind. And certainly violence thrives in such upheaval and desperation.

      • Prof James Beckman, Germany
        May 3, 2018 at 9:34 am

        Hi, Ronda, I guess lots of folks want to stick to their current jobs, current job skills & current location. Mr Trump shows us another path: unsuccessful developer & casino operator; more successful as a TV personality, branded his name on hotels & residences owned by others & sometimes run by his team. Then in a political campaign he used denial of reality & very devisive tactics. Now he has the No 1 job in the work according to many. No recomendation from me, but it shows flexibility which seems to be crucial now.
        Due to technology we have truly a global village. That means we learn from one another & often are inclined to relate socially/economically to one another. It is a world of both threat & opportunity as is said in busness circles.

  4. Tom Welsh
    May 1, 2018 at 8:11 pm

    If only we human beings formed some kind of community, capable of reasoning together and thoughtfully providing for the welfare of all – while allowing those who wish to excel the means to do so.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some kind of organizational structure that would allow us to put our heards together, decide what matters to us most, and make sure that we do it?

    It’s now about 80 years since Bertrand Russell – among others – observed that, in WW1 while most of the able-bodied men were away fighting, civilization carried on perfectly well. Everyone was fed, clothed and housed; education and medicine carried on as normal; and, if anything, civilians’ health improved. Russell deduced from this that, if the will were there and absent any powerful factions determined to take the lion’s share and condemn everyone else to poverty, the world has plenty of resources to keep everyone in reasonable comfort.

    Unfortunately we humans, as a species, have never found a way to tame and control the psychopathic minority among us. Instead, for some odd reason, we put them in charge of everything we do.

  5. May 2, 2018 at 4:40 pm

    It’s all Milton Friedman’s fault! We need to end this myth of shareholder value and once again assert why a company exists:

    1. To create goods and services that people value.
    2. To provide fulfilling employment.
    3. To maintain and grow the company so it can fulfill the first two goals.

    It’s not rocket science. In fact it’s like the three laws of robotics, because a company is built to serve humanity. It’s not a beast serving its own ends, not is it there to carry out the wishes of its master.

  6. Helen Sakho
    June 16, 2018 at 2:10 am

    There only true shareholders are stakeholders. Unfortunately, they have neither shares nor stakes.

    • Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
      June 16, 2018 at 7:37 am

      Hi, Helen, Amazon is beginning to use artificial intelligence to replace well-paid marketing teams to deal with the independent distributors who want to use Amazon as their online distributor. In reality, since everyone knows of Amazon there is no need to sell the service. As for how the independents market within the Amazon, many of these about-to-be-former Amazon marketers will be working for/with the independents. So people are being re-deployed, using their knowledge for new clients/employers.

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