The Cheat Sheet

Vanishing jobs? Don’t blame it on tech

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on August 23, 2018

Thus spake a Robot?

Smart! But no; this is an argument being pushed, with sound reasons, by a series of investors, economists and thinkers. And the latest comes in the form of an OpEd piece on NYT last week, written by economic historian and author Louis Hyman.

I’m not convinced, though.

In his article, which is a slice from his upcoming book — Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary — Hyman provocatively puts it that the history of labour shows technology does not usually drive social change.

Then what does?

Policy, to be precise. Hyman elaborates that what generally drives social change are decisions people make about “how to organise our world”. Technology simply helps accelerate and consolidate those changes. He feels “the nature of work always remains a matter of social choice”. Which means that what we decide to do with technology is entirely up to us. It is not a result of an algorithm, he says, “it is a collection of decisions by corporations and policymakers.”

Sounds complex. So we decided to use technology to wipe out certain jobs?

That’s more like it. To be frank, the very character of jobs was changing, and technology just made it faster enough for companies to exploit the changes. For instance, in the last 10 years, nearly 94 per cent of the new jobs that came up were outside the limits of traditional jobs. Today, according to Hyman, a third of all workers — that’s half the existing young workforce — are part of this new system. Jobs started losing security fast and furiously in the past few decades itself, technologies were used to create new forms of service that could help exploit this.

Services like Uber?

Bingo! Hyman observes that services such as Uber or TaskRabbit (an online hub for freelancers) were created to take advantage of “an already independent workforce”. As Hyman, who has also authored Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink, puts it, “Uber is a symptom, not a cause.”

Interesting. So, what’s the solution then?

Taking a cue from Hyman, one can argue that the first step to creating more jobs is to understand how faulty policies have messed up with the evolution of jobs across the globe. As historian Judith Stein argued in her seminal work Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, governments changed their priorities and attitude towards work, diluting job security provisions (labour reforms as they are ironically called), creating deeper layers of uncertainty among the working population, succumbing them more and more to the powers of the companies.

But wasn’t that a necessary evil?

Hardly. Stein has argued that the shift America made to finance from factories in the 1970s marked the beginning of a wave of policies that promoted deregulation, free trade and low taxation, while weakening trade unions. If such policies had managed to do away with all the benefits of the New Deal (where workers enjoyed better protection) in the US, in other countries it created enough manoeuvring room for companies to destabilise the long-held tenets of work and introduce temp work a pet panacea.

And advancements in tech came as a shot in the arm...

You said it. One of the first and most tangible changes happened with the arrival of computers that helped replace a clutch of already-unstable jobs, and then the advent of automation, artificial intelligence and data technologies destabilises an already fragile ecosystem of work. So, the solution is in going back to the drawing board and create policies for “secure” work, as some economists have pointed out, and incentivise use of technologies to create jobs that are stable and sustainable. That sounds good, in theory, at least!

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Published on August 22, 2018

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