Arguably the most influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes had a famous, optimistic prediction about how technology would affect our working lives in the future. In the essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he says that by the time his generation’s grandchildren reached adulthood, they would be working fifteen hours a week as technology would take over their mundane tasks. Keynes, as many of his social class in the early twentieth century did, had an optimistic vision of what technology could do for us in the future. Clearly, his prediction did not come to pass. In fact, Keynes worked himself to death—literally. He envisioned work as something we would do to satisfy our longing to create and engage the world around us and not simply to maintain the physical world as much of work consists of today. He says, “Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy.” The problem he refers to is the human need for routine and creation.
Keynes’s optimistic view of how technology will change the future of work seems quaint today. Technology has simply made more work for us as we have to spread content out among a growing number of platforms in addition to learning multiple new interfaces every year. Technology has also failed to secure full-time, living-wage work for most. It has done the inverse. Those who work fifteen hours a week do not make a living wage. Their underemployment is due, often times, to technological advancements replacing them. However, their free time is not filled with the enjoyable and carefree tasks with which Keynes envisioned it being filled. Instead, it is being filled with more and more mundane tasks such as analysing and creating (sometimes meaningless) narratives about big data. Increasingly, though, narratives based on big data are producing frightened outlooks. Keynes was trying to map out an optimistic vision for those he saw “suffering . . . from a bad attack of economic pessimism.” Almost one-hundred years later, the pessimism has won out, as promised by an article in the Business Journal titled “Millennials: Things are bad now, and they’ll get worse”. The pessimistic view is that solid, full-time, benefited work is a thing of the past.
Our inability to make technology work better for us lies, in part, in how we have represented the future of work on screen. Most representations of work in the future simply map the jobs of today onto the future and do not rethink work fundamentally. We seem to be unable, at least in the U.S., to imagine anything other than a technological dystopia—one marked by violence and inequality. Netflix’s recent show Altered Carbon simply maps our current economic stratification and the jobs that underlie it onto a 25th-century future where human consciousness is stored in microchips that can be switched in and out of different bodies, what the show calls “sleeves.” It is a dismal future in which the extremely wealthy have an endless number of spare bodies and mutilate those of the poor for entertainment and sexual pleasure. However, the advanced technology has not reordered human’s working lives. There are still beat cops, sex workers, and bartenders who work the same hours—just in worse conditions.
If any technology could bring us to a realisation of Keynes’s vision of future work it would be AI. However, our visions of AI have been dire as well, seeing as jobs are going to disappear because of it. McKinsey predicts that jobs involving data collection and physical work are going to decline in large numbers. They also predict that those working jobs like these are going to need to transition into creative, care-giving, and judgement-making jobs. Kai-Fu Lee’s recent book AI Superpowers reinforces this prediction. In speaking on the podcast Recode Decode, he says that the jobs AI cannot do are “creative jobs.” He says, “Jobs like scientists, storytellers, artists and so on” will remain if workers in those positions can show themselves as compassionate and provide a human connection that AI cannot. Those of us in fields like education and creative arts would do well to take Lee’s advice.
So, our pessimism needs to be tweaked, and we must hold tech firms accountable. There are powerful interests invested in our pessimism toward the future of work. Sure, there are many articles that come out every day about how minor technological innovations will make our everyday lives a little better. These tend to be software upgrades and new apps for organising our working lives and leisure. But even these tend to be fixes for us to cram more work into the same amount of time. They are intended to make us more productive and not for forcing technology to be more productive for us.
What are the reasons we have so few optimistic visions of the future of work and technology’s role in it? Firstly, we have not found a way for the labour market to catch up with technological advancement. Jobs in certain sectors are going to disappear rapidly in the next few decades, and there is no plan to ease the cultural transition. A healthy fear of what is to come is understandable. Universal basic income is a viable solution to ease the transition, but I have my doubts this will come to pass in the U.S.. With more technology comes more work. We constantly have to learn more platforms and extend more data across multiple platforms. More than one commentator has pointed to the fact that being connected across sites and devices makes us, practically speaking, “never off the clock.” Finally, our visions of our technological future are pessimistic because they simply project our current problems and the systems that enable them onto the future.
We should start looking to those who have a well-developed policy plan for the work of the future. Andrew Yang is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020. His recent book, The War on Normal People, asks what is going to happen to American society if, as one prediction states, 73 million jobs disappear in the next twelve years due to automation. He tries to create an optimistic vision of the future but one that is based on solid policy and not just speculation. He explains that “The future without jobs will come to resemble either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble for resources of Mad Max. Unless there is a dramatic course correction, I fear we are heading toward the latter.” Optimistic science-fiction can help shape more egalitarian visions of the future, but policy and regulation are the only means for ensuring our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to become Captain Picard.
Choosing an occupation is an increasingly difficult undertaking for most of the generation currently entering the job market. Among the many challenges that millennials face, such as student debt, unaffordable housing markets, and smashed avo, a fast-changing labour market is one of the most significant.
This generation is confronting seismic shifts in modern labour markets that are altering decades of precedent regarding what it means to hold a job. Shared workspaces, increased freelance, and the casualisation and automation of many jobs are labour trends that are coming to define the future of work. Casualisation can most easily be explained as the shift of certain types of work from full-time or permanent positions to predominantly contract or casual labour. However, the optimism around these developments should also heed their still largely unknown psychological and economic impacts, especially on those just entering the job market.
In a post-GFC era of increased labour mobility compared to the past, it seems unlikely that a ‘job’ means the same thing it did to our parents and past generations. Millennials are less likely to be in the same job five years from now, and are frequently cited as enjoying the ability to move between jobs, or change careers more often. Looking closely, they seem to be the ideal group to take advantage of the growth in shared workspaces and freelance opportunities. This is especially important when it is estimated that over 50 percent of some developed economy workforces could involve some degree of freelance by 2050.
However, despite all these positive benefits, this debate has also reflected wider concerns about rising inequality, wage stagnation, and whether shifts in freelance and casualisation levels will exacerbate these growing problems.
The growing independence that results from the rising uptake of freelance work and shared workspaces also promises to bring a positive change to many aspects of work. In an era where wellness and well-being are the health trends of the moment, an increased work and life balance is a benefit of what can be offered by these new trends.
The growth of shared workspaces and the inexorable rise of new and existing shared workspace providers such as WeWork, Servcorp and Regus are some of the biggest corporate faces of the future of work. However, despite all the technological disruption of the past two decades, it remains remarkable that we are only just beginning to see the growth of shorter work weeks and more flexible work arrangements, fulfilling to an extent, John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 vision of his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.
From a psychological standpoint, shared workspaces are the manifestation of the upsides and benefits of new labour trends. Their selling points in recent years have been built on solving one of the biggest issues for freelancers: isolation. As a result, the promise of community has become the secret ingredient for the shared workspace industry. Creating networks and a sense of community in these spaces has been important to broadening the appeal of both freelance work and shared workspaces to industries and groups as diversified as creatives, to independent business consultants. This has been crucial to countering criticism that shared workspaces are just another manifestation of the ‘gig economy’ of work. With Harvard studies showing that traditional corporate workspaces can lead to a 60 percent reduction in inter-office interaction, an increase in communication could spur greater psychological benefits, productivity, and ultimately innovation.
The thing is that while shared office spaces, freelance, and new ways of working present strong opportunities, they also come at a time of increased inequality and disconnection caused by broader technological and economic trends. Casualisation is a significant manifestation of this and it has become one of the darker sides of the changing labour dynamics. This is one of the most visible changes to traditional definitions of a job, as for many it means losing financial stability and the security of things such as healthcare and leave. Casualisation is lauded by many as a means of increasing flexibility, but it has also been seized on by companies of the new tech economy, such as Uber, Deliveroo and others to lower operating costs. Coming at a time when a growing percentage of graduates feel increasingly uncertain about their prospects, these dynamics feed into concerns about what kinds of work they will be able to find and whether there are increased opportunities for mobility or rising incomes.
While these trends look set to both remain and intensify, the question remains: how will society and policymakers react to them? Will government and society work to harness the future of work as a powerful and beneficial force? Or will we only be reactive to their impacts? For now, the answer is predicted to unfold as these trends continue. There is no denying that the nature of work is changing drastically, so constructively embracing its positive upsides will be an important part of countering any future psychological and economic negatives.