Polygon Created with Sketch. Home | Research

Thinking Twice About Technology and the Future of Work

Skills Next banner

Technology is being used to change power balances in workplaces and to perpetuate long-standing precarious employment relationships, Jim Stanford argues. But the exploitative practices of the gig economy reflect deliberate choices, rather than the inevitable onward march of technology, and creating better jobs also lies within our power.

Download Report

Key Takeaways

New technologies, such as AI, automation and self-driving cars, have led to concerns that technology will rapidly transform and even eliminate many jobs. In this report, economist Jim Stanford reviews the literature and finds that these assumptions misunderstand how our economy works, disregard the history of labour, technology and employment relationships, and misdiagnose the challenges facing workers. He reminds us that this time of disruption is a reflection of our past choices, rather than the inevitable onward march of technology, and creating better jobs also lies within our power.

1

Jim Stanford makes the link between low business investment in equipment and skills training, and a halving of productivity growth in OECD nations.

2

Disruption in the relationship between employers and workers – like the gig economy – is a reflection of our past choices, rather than the inevitable onward march of technology, and creating better jobs also lies within our power.

An individual wearing an augmented reality headset to visualize two office towers

Executive Summary

It’s usually taken for granted that the world of work is being fundamentally transformed by the irresistible, tectonic force of technology. Automation and artificial intelligence will destroy some jobs and create others. Digitized business models and on-demand platforms will convert jobs into gigs. Huge gains in productivity could usher in abundant leisure time—or create a world of digital sweatshops.

Some observers are optimistic about the economic and social benefits of these changes. Others fear a more frightening, polarized world in which the benefits of new technology are captured by a small elite, while the rest of society suffers mass unemployment and pervasive precarity. But either way, it is assumed that the driver of change is technology itself. And as the Luddites learned two centuries ago, you can’t stop technology.

This report examines the assumptions underlying these popular narratives about technology and the future of work. It adopts a longer historical perspective on the relationship between technology and work. Are these pressures and disruptions in labour markets truly unprecedented, or have we in fact seen them before? Measured in aggregate economic terms, has technological change really even sped up? Above all, is it technology driving these changes—or is there a degree of human agency and choice that is often overlooked, in both utopian and dystopian visions of the high-tech future?

The report concludes it is counterproductive for labour market stakeholders—workers, employers and policymakers—to accept that these epochal changes are technologically determined and hence inevitable. Technology itself is neither exogenous nor neutral: the trajectories of innovation always reflect the priorities and interests of those who pay for it to happen. And there is even more choice and agency at work in how and where technology is applied, and how its costs and benefits are shared. Assuming that technology drives the whole process of change, and is beyond our control, can promote passivity and complacency on the part of stakeholders and policymakers. Change is then left to occur in an unplanned, fragmented and chaotic way; opportunities for effective preparation and coordination are forsaken; and prospects for achieving a more inclusive and participatory high-tech future are squandered.

To challenge this often fatalistic approach, this paper argues that many popular assumptions about the future of work are unfounded. Specifically:

  • Technology is not replacing work and, in fact, cannot replace work in a general sense.
  • The “gig economy” is not a new, technologically generated development, but rather a relabelling of long-standing precarious employment relationships.
  • Technology is being used to change power balances within workplaces as much as to change the nature of production itself.
  • New technologies are being rolled out in the real-world economy more slowly than is often assumed.
  • Additional education and skills training, while desirable, will not on their own ensure efficient adjustment to change.

Ultimately, workers face more urgent problems than being made redundant by future technology. They already face pervasive precarity, stagnant and increasingly unequal incomes, and lack avenues to exert a collective voice in their work lives. These challenges, which cannot be fixed by market forces, demand quick and powerful responses from policymakers and other labour market stakeholders. By building more representative and participatory structures and processes to address these existing challenges, we will also enhance the capacity of the labour market to manage technological change more successfully and fairly.

The paper ends by considering the concrete steps required to achieve a future of work in which conscious and collective decisions shape the forces of technology, productivity and creativity to create better jobs and build better lives.

Download Report

Media Contact

Eglantine Ronfard
Communications Manager
eglantine.ronfard@fsc-ccf.ca
647.262.3706

Authors

Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, based at the Australia Institute. The Australia Institute is Australia’s most influential progressive think tank. The Centre for Future Work focuses on issues of work, labour markets, income, economic development, technology, inequality, skills, and more. The Centre was founded in May 2016, and Jim is its inaugural Director.

Related Content

Two women looking at a laptop screen

Small and Medium-Sized Employers (SMEs): Skills Gaps and Future Skills

Canada’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for more than 90 percent of private-sector jobs in Canada. To be competitive in today’s market, they need the right people with the right skills, yet they are disproportionately threatened by labour shortages and skills gaps – a situation made worse by COVID-19. Unlike large corporations, SMEs possess limited resources, making it exponentially more challenging to support these human resources needs. There is a dire need for innovative research & solutions.
Young boy working on robot project

Curriculum and Reconciliation: Introducing Indigenous Perspectives into K–12 Science

Curriculum and Reconciliation: Introducing Indigenous Perspectives into K–12 Science briefly and visually outlines the landscape of school science curricula across the country. Several jurisdictions integrate Indigenous content, perspectives, and ways of knowing, while others have yet to include references to Indigenous perspectives.
Group of women at a table working on their laptops

Economic Equality in a Changing World: Removing Barriers to Employment for Women

Action is needed to alleviate gender barriers. This report summarizes existing research and prevailing issues surrounding gender inequality, including those exacerbated by COVID-19, and points to further research that needs to be done on initiatives to reduce gender inequalities.