Autor, D. et al (2021) The Work of the Future. Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines. MIT Press: Cambridge Massachusetts.
In 2018, the president of MIT commissioned the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. This task force was to explore the relationships between emerging technologies and work. This book is a summary output of some of the initial work of this task force. It is set within an American context, and hence the data used, and examples given are all from the USA. However, whilst this is the case, the arguments which are developed through the book will have wider currency, especially in the UK where this reviewer is based.
The book begins by looking at the changing labour market within the USA, and sets this in relation to the processes of task automation and the creation of new work as a result of the development of new technologies. The authors demonstrate that there has been shifts in the types of jobs, and that many new jobs have been created as a result of technological change. Within this discussion, it is made clear that there have been downsides to the development of technology in the labour market. There is clear evidence that whilst graduates have faired well from shifts, continuing to see increases in real wages, many other workers have seen a stagnation, or even a fall in their real wages. This has led to what the authors call ‘the great divergence’. As a result there has been a rise in inequality, as they state,
‘Within this great divergence lurk multiple dimensions of growing inequality – by education, race, ethnicity, gender and even geography.’ (19)
Linked to this growing inequality is a divergence in job quality and the loss of good conditions for many low paid and low skilled workers. This part of the book finishes by demonstrating that the rise of inequality and its linked issues of poor job quality have a detrimental impact on the US economy; unsurprisingly the conclusion appears to be that if you want a better functioning economy, you need to close the inequality gap by developing a better environment for work.
The authors next turn to the technological side of the equation. Here, they recount issues around the development of artificial intelligence, and its potential for changing the world of work. There are examples of how work might change, but overall the message appears to be that these shifts will lead to a change in jobs rather than the loss of jobs and resultant mass unemployment. One example shows the rising employment numbers and wages of nurses and health information technicians, whilst seeing a fall in the number and pay of medical transcriptionists over time. Another example explored is that of driverless vehicles. This shows that as the technology matures it may well be that many jobs are lost, but as the old jobs decline, new sectors will grow up around servicing and maintaining the new automated vehicles.
Whilst there is a lot of focus on the adoption of new technologies and how they will radically change the way people work, the authors do emphasise the uneven adoption and use of such technologies. They include a discussion of small and medium enterprises where the adoption of automation has been far less obvious than in large companies. This is often due to the cost of swapping over to these new processes; where production runs are small or where profits don’t allow for large capital expenditure, companies choose to retain existing ways of working. This then shows another potential for inequality through lessened competitiveness.
Having outlined the complexity of the current shifts in the workplace as a result of emerging technologies, the authors then open the second part of the book which focuses on what responses are needed to ensure that inequality is lessened and not amplified. They begin by exploring the role of education and training. It is refreshing to see a focus on workplace training rather than seeing the formal education system as the primary way of correcting education need. A number of options are considered, including in-sector training programmes, private sector investment in training as well as better vocational training in schools. These are all focused on developing, and continuing to develop, the expert skills-based and knowledge of workers. It shows the idea of ongoing development as opposed to a single programme at the start of a career.
Next job quality is considered, as the authors highlight,
‘the US has not translated rising productivity into commensurate improvements in job opportunities and earnings for the majority of workers during the last four decades.’ (101)
Several policies are suggested here including better unemployment insurance (a form of social security) which has fallen to low levels with less protection since the 1980s. This is suggested in conjunction with meaningful minimum wages and the development of workers as stakeholders, including renewed labour movement activity to work in partnership with employers. It seems here that there are no really innovative suggestions, merely the reinstalling of rights and securities enjoyed previously before the free-market ideology of the 1980s kicked in. However, the authors believe these interventions could play a crucial role in increasing job quality across the labour market.
To finish their exploration, the authors look at the need for institutions for innovation. They make it clear that many of the large-scale innovations the USA have been global leaders in came from government backed investment, for example in space engineering and the internet. This shows that the free market alone cannot create innovations by itself, and needs the State to act as partners if innovations are to develop the economy further.
The result of the discussions engaged with throughout the book lead to a set of policy directions, which the authors believe will create a better workplace which can integrate technologies positively. Unsurprisingly these policy directions focus on investing and innovating in skills and training, better job quality, and a greater role in bringing about innovation.
This is a really interesting book which provides both data and examples as evidence for the arguments being made. It will be accessible to the general reader. I particularly like the fact the authors don’t present emerging technologies as either the saviour or the demon of the future labour market, but as a set of tools which need to be considered in relation to the outcomes we want for ourselves as the workers and populations which will interact with them. It also demonstrates that whilst the New Labour government of the 2000s who pushed a skills agenda in schools with videos such as ‘Shift Happens’ which oversimplified the potential changes in future job markets, those who laughed and said that such shifts were a mirage and that education should go back to being ‘stuff to memorise’ were equally naïve.
Some reflections on things I'm reading