The world is changing rapidly, and the future of work is very different to what we know now. Many roles will be performed by robots – where will that leave humans? Will we value work that is currently seen as unskilled? What will the millions of people who no longer have work do? How will they earn a living? Mel and Alex discuss some of these meaty questions.
Mel Young: One of the challenges for the New Ism will be how we define work. At the moment in most societies, work is dictated by market forces. Certain jobs or professions are respected and can be well paid while others are not – skilled versus ‘unskilled’ for example. Jobs that society considers to be ‘unskilled’ are traditionally low paid but can be vital to the running of any organisation. Imagine if we had no cleaners, for example. I remember some years back when I spent time in former Soviet Bloc countries; I learned that being a waiter was seen as a highly-skilled job, and was a respected and sought-after career. The waiting service was immaculate. So, it is all about how we view jobs and work that is done professionally no matter what that job might be. I am challenged about what ‘fair’ work might look like in the New Ism and how it would be organised, particularly in a world that is becoming automated.
Alex Matthews: This is such an important topic, and particularly pertinent now. Here in the UK, there are labour shortages in some key industries that are critical to our daily lives; nursing, social care, lorry drivers and taxis are just some examples. These are all relatively poorly paid jobs, especially when you consider how hard they can be. Understandably, therefore, many people who work in these industries have found better-paid jobs in other sectors, resulting in shortages and the resulting problems. Many people say that we should just rely on the market to sort the problem out, but that doesn’t solve the issue of what work we value. It doesn’t really make sense that a nurse is paid less than a marketer (and I say that as a marketer!). How do we show that we value work like this? As you mentioned, the world is becoming increasingly automated – will we naturally start to value jobs that can’t be performed by machines, like caring and teaching – jobs that are typically relatively poorly paid?
MY: Hey, you ask difficult questions in these blogs! It is challenging to imagine a world in, say, 50 years where automation will be much more dominant. Will this mean that a system will be created where we have much more leisure time? A world where there is a guaranteed minimum living wage for all regardless of what we do? Or is this far too simplistic a view? Work has always been the main pillar of economic theory and systems since the beginning of time. If work is no longer available and no longer necessary, then what is this central economic pillar replaced with? Do we start to value activities that are currently unpaid and seen as leisure pursuits, like painting or sculpting or sport? You get paid for playing sports at any level or carving some sculptures, for example? That might sound a bit crazy for the way we lead our lives today, but if robots can carry out much of the work we currently do, then what are we all doing every day?
Or is this vision completely wrong? People have been saying for decades that the world of work is coming to an end. Look at the car industry, for example, which used to employ thousands of people and is now dominated by robots. The word was that this was going to lead to mass unemployment; well it didn’t – and we are now talking about shortages of workers everywhere. So, perhaps for the future, we simply have to rely on the old economic adage of labour supply and demand which is depressing. I think we should be looking for something totally new.
AM: I agree we should look for something new. It’s quite a radical thing to consider – as you say, our entire society is based on the concept of working for a living – and the money you earn being taxed as a source of revenue for the government. Could we – and should we – turn that upside down in the New Ism? I really like the idea of the focus being taken away from work and placed on making people happier, essentially. And we need to acknowledge that many of the jobs that exist now will become obsolete in the future. But will we feel fulfilled? How will governments pay for the services that we rely on? Especially if they are giving everyone an income on which they can live? The future of work raises some big, difficult questions which I certainly don’t know the answer to!
MY: It is a very difficult area and I am disappointed by the lack of thought which is going into this area across the globe. No one is really thinking about how the future of work will impact everything. After all, it is central to economic theory and therefore how we will live our lives. I think that the ‘creative industries’, for want of a better term, will be part of the solution, although I am not sure how this will play out in a practical sense. Human imagination is very special and I think it might take over from clunky work as a way we live and organise ourselves. It will become a central plank of economic policies. Now, don’t begin to ask me how, but this is my gut feeling and I think the notion is worth exploring further.
AM: That’s really interesting Mel – imagination and creativity are two of the key human assets that set us apart from machines and will be key to our survival in a machine-dominated world. The other, I think, is empathy – and I think that will be important too. Machines can dish out medicine and measure patients’ heartbeats, but they can’t offer emotional support – and that brings me back to what I was talking about earlier, about the caring professions becoming more valued.
You are right that this is not being talked about enough by political leaders. It’s probably because it’s so thorny and complex, and fundamentally challenges the very foundations that our society has been created on. Basically, they are burying their heads in the sand. That means that people like us and organisations like The New Ism have to do the talking and exploring! We’ve got a great conversation coming up with young people who are already thinking about this, which we can’t wait to release on the podcast.