This week the IPA are co-publishing with Acas ‘New technology and the world of work: the winners and the losers.’ This discussion paper is designed to prompt debate about the impact that technology is having on our working lives, for good and for ill.

The first aim of this paper is to move the debate away from a simple focus on the number of jobs created or lost to technology. Much as the media likes to fixate on apocalyptic warnings of automation replacing vast swathes of human jobs, in reality it is not entire jobs that are being automated for the most part, but individual tasks. The automation of certain tasks will in turn lead to profound change in the skillsets needed for many jobs and will change which skills are valuable in the modern economy quite radically. And this may leave many people and places behind. Hub cities like London are seeing the bulk of new job creation, while job losses are concentrated in small towns and northern cities like Sunderland and Mansfield. Will people simply be expected to move to the growing cities or can a way be found to protect these left behind locations?

Technology has winners and losers at different ends of the labour market as well. The IMF published last year ‘Should we fear the robot revolution (the correct answer is yes’ which concluded that “automation is good for growth and bad for equality.” Highly skilled workers, capital owners and top performers in their field are likely to be big winners, while the bulk of people who depend on their labour to earn money, but have average rather than exceptional skills, are likely to lose out in the growth of ‘winner-takes-all’ or ‘winner-takes-most’ economies.

Meaningfulness at work might improve if automation takes away most of the dull, repetitive tasks from our daily work, leaving humans to focus instead on the more varied, creative or social tasks that machines find harder to perform. Two groups of humans could still lose out significantly though. Firstly, those who perform meaningful but unpaid work, such as caring and domestic or reproductive labour, who are predominantly women. Secondly, those who perform paid but meaningless work; the so called ‘bullshit jobs’ identified by David Graeber; ‘flunkies’ like door attendants or receptions and ‘box-tickers’ like performance managers, whose work has no real social value. As these roles are unlikely to be automated, more and more workers are likely to find themselves in these categories unless we rethink how we value and reward labour.

Those who want more flexibility from work and enjoy working from home are likely to be another of the winners from technology. Remote working in the UK has increased by over a fifth since 2005 and is forecast by ONS to reach half of all workers by 2020. On the downside, however, those who like to have a clearly defined work-life boundary are in trouble. Smartphones, email and other virtual communication means work is continually invading further into our personal space and blurring the lines between work and home life. The continual information overload and volume of communications we receive are having a detrimental impact on our mental health and wellbeing, even while technology improves our physical wellbeing by automating away dangerous or strenuous tasks and providing fitness trackers and other devices to improve our health.

Of course, the spread of these fitness trackers points to another danger from technology; increased monitoring and surveillance and growing questions around who has access to our personal data and what they are doing with it. With ever more intrusive devices and software available, from sentiment analysis, motion sensors, to wearable tech or even implanted chips, the impact on privacy and autonomy could be profound unless clear guidance and boundaries are established. While employers might think they could be big winners from these possibilities, in practice both employers and employees will be losers if excessive surveillance crashes employee engagement and poisons trust between management and the workforce.

Finally there is the question of algorithmic decision making and bias. We know that, when used well, algorithms can make far more consistent decisions on objective criteria than human managers, offering the tantalising prospect of removing bias from workplace decision making. However, an algorithm is only as good as its training data, most of which is itself full of human biases – so in many cases algorithms can simply embed and amplify human biases while hiding them behind the black box of computer decision making. Accountability risks being sacrificed on the altar of greater efficiency. If we are going to entrust our future to the machines, we had best make sure that they are programmed with human values and ethics, or else we will all lose in the end.

Patrick Briône is Head of Policy & Research at the IPA

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