Shaping the future of work in the digital age for the benefit of society is a key task for Progressives. The challenges surrounding the fourth industrial revolution are an impetus to think comparatively, put forward an inclusive narrative, and develop a holistic policy reform agenda.
Over the past century, envisioning the future relationship between work and technology has been recurring in media and culture. Depictions of a displacement of workers by robots have decorated the cover of the German magazine der Spiegel in 1964, 1978, and 2016. Yet, dramatic predictions are also present within the academic discourse, exemplified by an Oxford University study claiming that 47 percent of total US employment is at risk due to computerisation. Regardless of the validity of such predictions, it is evident that socio-technical changes caused by digital advancements cause uncertainty and insecurity. Their disruptive power requires a holistic analysis that fosters democratic discourse and control. Based on our book Work in the Digital Age, we believe that Progressives face three key challenges when it comes to reshaping the future of work in ways that benefit society.
First, it is essential to think comparatively. The wide-ranging implications of the fourth industrial revolution demand to catalyse debates at regional, national and supra-national levels, highlighting a variety of challenges that social and political actors face. Progressives must take seriously the fact that countries are moving at different speeds when it comes to adopting, harnessing, and regulating digital technologies. Given that countries are characterised by different levels of digital density, we must acknowledge that there are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions for minimising risks and maximising benefits. Still, progressive policymakers can learn from each other. When it comes to integrating ICT skills in curricula, for instance, Finland and Sweden are positive examples, as shown by their leading position in the most recent European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). With its decision to integrate digital education aspects into several subjects in compulsory and upper secondary schools, the Swedish government seeks to strengthen its strong focus on digital competences.
Digital transformation will be determined by those who have the power to shape narratives, advocate for pro-worker policies and hold employers accountable.
Second, as Progressives, we are the ones who must put forward an inclusive narrative on the future of work. We believe that the digital transformation of work will be determined by those who have the power to shape narratives, advocate for pro-worker policies, hold employers accountable, and shift norms. It is crucial to understand that the language surrounding the fourth industrial revolution, including terms like Industry 4.0, is embedded in certain discourses and asymmetrical power relations, and that is pursued by actors with their own interests. Neither technology nor discourses surrounding technology are neutral. Detaching the highly contested politics of technological innovations from the power of capital obscures the economic configurations that brought them into being in the first place. Furthermore, Progressives should stress that upskilling and reskilling – understood as proactive ways to shape structural change – must become an integral part of an inclusive narrative. But shifting discourses goes beyond that; it also affects outdated notions that are being used in public policy debates. For example, the diversity of fluid labour markets requires transforming dominant policy concepts by moving beyond the strict juxtaposition between ‘standard’ employment and ‘non-standard’ employment.
Detaching the highly contested politics of technological innovations from the power of capital obscures the economic configurations that brought them into being
That leads to the third key challenge for Progressives: developing a policy reform agenda. That agenda involves education and training, work transitions, social protection, redistributive taxes and transfers, and investing in infrastructure and innovation. One answer to the challenges posed by technological change lies in making education and training more widely accessible to all citizens over the course of their life, regardless of income and age. For example, Germany is discussing the implementation of ‘individual activity accounts’, which could be used for qualification or starting a business. Moreover, it is paramount to rethink employment law in an age of platform capitalism, with workers – who are not just in a very precarious situation but also generate data to train platforms’ algorithms – being misclassified as independent contractors. Unregulated, the proliferation of platform business models could lead to a two-tier society, which is why pluralising ownership of platforms poses as a key challenge for Progressives. Also, just as the industrial economy needed roads, sewers and public libraries to prosper, new kinds of digital public goods and infrastructures are needed, not only to drive innovation but also to fight inequality.
However, these challenges should be seen not as unsolvable puzzles. On the contrary, they are a generative impetus to further develop these progressive strands of political arguments and debates. New forms of work in the digital era must go hand in hand with new forms of collective dialogue to anticipate the major risks and opportunities. In so doing, Progressives should avoid both overly utopian and dystopian scenarios that postulate inevitable outcomes. After all, it is in our hands to bring a fairer future of work into being.