Use or be used: Skills, technology and the future of work

By Dr Frederick Harry Pitts, Lecturer in Management at University of Bristol

When people imagine the future of work, their minds often jump to AI replacing jobs and machines taking over the world – leaving humans in an age of widespread unemployment. But in reality, automation is more likely to replace individual tasks within jobs than the jobs themselves.

Indeed, we already coexist with machine learning in the workplace using everyday processes like predictive text. This shows the future of work lies more in the augmentation of human labour with technology than its replacement by it.

This augmentation could alienate workers, rendering them what Marx called the mere ‘appendages of machines’. But it could also liberate and empower them to apply their skills and knowledge to the active control and mastery of technology.

Far from something that arises naturally and automatically, technology is a human creation subject to the social and political conditions in which it’s developed. But, without workers’ freedom to wield power over the tools and devices they use in their work, these conditions often mean new technologies can take on a life of their own.

Whilst policymakers and commentators get caught up in grand schemes to adapt to robotised worklessness or fully automated luxury, a more urgent imperative goes overlooked. This is the need to regulate and organise the world of work as it stands now, in order to bend technology to our will rather than the reverse.

Empower, not dominate

This centres on skill. We might think of skill as the capacity to control and shape the world around us. Whilst it’s popular to speak of skill as ‘talent’, this isn’t true – as the term might suggest, it’s not something innate, but something learned.

Economic, social, political and cultural contextual factors can impact the learning conditions necessary to attain skill. And just as technology adoption and implementation is influenced by these factors, so too is investment in the skills to use it.

Several factors impact employers’ and governments’ decisions to invest in the skills needed to thrive in a technological world of work. From wages and contractual conditions to wider political-economic, regulatory and legal structures, these environments often add to the challenge.

Where precarious, low-pay work arrangements are the norm, as they are in the UK today, there’s little incentive for employers to invest in the technology to make that work better and more productive. Specifically, developing the skills necessary for workers to experience technology as an empowering rather than dominating force.

Whether a warehouse, an office or an Uber, new technology being imposed to manage workers in a workplace often goes hand in hand with a ‘wild west’ regulatory regime. And this is unlikely to have any sense of longevity or commitment on the part of employers or employees.

This culture leaves little basis around which workers and employers can share in the gains of greater productivity – whether that’s through skills, training, better pay or terms and conditions.

Somewhere in the augmentation of human labour by technology, there’s a real opportunity for a new mission of skilful mastery that turns technology to human purposes. This can’t be achieved through the supply of skills in education alone. There are wider political-economic constraints on the capacity to innovate and develop that need addressing at other levels.

What’s the solution?

Increases in minimum wages may help. This would force employers to seek more from workers at the bottom end of the labour market and invest in productivity-raising technologies and the skills to use them. But this could have unintended consequences. Although employers might gain in profits, workers won’t necessarily have an equal gain in skills – or a fair share in the benefits of greater productivity.

Rather than tweaks to pay alone, the best solutions rest in the legal and regulatory environment of work. Increase in trade union membership and collective bargaining would help grant workers the voice to protect themselves against rapid change. This could also drive wages upwards and incentivise investment by employers at the same time.

By forcing employers’ hands to the fire with increases in wages and bargaining power, this could help replicate some of the gains of the twentieth-century industrial compromise. This was when managers and workers had a shared interest in increasing levels of productivity in workplaces.

At the time, the interest was much more likely to be based on skilled, secure and fulfilling work where humans used technology to their ends. It is, however, the reverse that’s the reality of work for too many today.

It’s too often the case that the human power to shape the world around us slips by the wayside in discussions of technology. The latter is commonly presented as developing autonomously, with skills shifting passively in response.

We are constrained by conditions that are ever-changing – and not always of our choosing. But skill is the measure of our ability to bend technology and the wider world to our purposes and determine the direction it takes. It is up to us to use it – or be used ourselves.

Dr Harry Pitts is speaking at RSA Bristol: Future of Work on Thursday 7 November. The text is based on a talk given at Millennifest Bristol. Millennifest’s organisers, the thinktank Common Vision, will also be publishing a version of this blog.