As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, for the next four weeks, we will publish the responses to a different question.
2. Why, despite the automation of so much labour, are many people working longer hours than ever before? What should be done?
There has been a great deal of discussion in recent months about the impact of automation. The question of the moment appears to be, “Will robots take my job?” The answer to that partly depends upon who you are. The changes that automation will bring to the employment landscape depend not simply upon technical developments and transformations, but also upon a wide range of social factors. Crucially, this includes the forms of work to which one has cultural access – something that is shaped by the fusion of gender, race, class, ability, nationality, and numerous other structural variables. Within the next five years or so, we are unlikely to see the wholesale substitution of machines for human workers, but we may well see paid work redistributed as the character of available employment begins to change.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 ‘Future of Jobs’ study predicts ‘strong employment growth across the Architecture and Engineering and Computer and Mathematical job families, a moderate decline in Manufacturing and Production roles and a significant decline in Office and Administrative roles’. It also speculates that many traditional sales jobs, such as that of the cashier, may be likely to go as a result of emerging technologies. So, whilst we can expect a big uptick in the need for highly skilled programmers and technicians (those responsible for creating and maintaining automated systems), these systems themselves may make other kinds of paying jobs less necessary. It seems likely that the redistribution of labour this implies will be highly gendered. Drawing upon survey data gathered from large global employers, the report notes that ‘women make up low numbers in the fast-growing STEM’ sector whilst ‘female employment is also concentrated in low-growth or declining job families such as Sales, […] and Office and Administrative.’ This may be suggestive of ‘a possible reversal of some of the gains made in workplace gender parity over the past decade’.
‘…the predicted effects of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ are unevenly distributed. As such, we should be aiming to integrate gender, class, and other forms of structural oppression more fully into our understanding of the potential effects of automation.’
The study estimates that, between now and 2020, male workers will face three jobs lost for every job gained – and women workers five jobs lost for every job gained – as a result of this reorganization of paid work. In other words, there will not be sufficient new jobs to fully replace the old ones, and those that are arriving are both highly skilled and highly gendered. If labour market transformation towards new roles in computing, technology, and engineering continues to ‘outpace the rate at which women are currently’ taking up these roles, the report suggest, then this clearly has implications as regards whose employment prospects are most at risk. This is assuming, of course, that the current gender balance of specific job families stays the same, which may not necessarily be the case. It also notably fails to take into account the variation within gendered categories, subsuming all difference beneath a single banner of gender. One cannot really talk about women’s experience of work, given the myriad ways in which intersecting forms of oppression such as race, class, cis-sexism, and able-bodiedness have affected the scope of women’s opportunities, and their ability to enter or withdraw from the labour force. The point remains, however, that the predicted effects of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ are unevenly distributed. As such, we should be aiming to integrate gender, class, and other forms of structural oppression more fully into our understanding of the potential effects of automation.
Let me conclude by quickly addressing one of the gaps in the World Economic Forum’s report. Given its attentiveness to certain issues of gender disparity, it has surprisingly little to say about care work, in both its paid and unpaid forms. Partly, this relative silence is a result of the kinds of employers with which the study engages (large, global multinationals in nine specific industry sectors) and on the kind of work it considers (waged jobs in the formal economy). It is also likely to stem from the fact that comparatively few public sector employers, such as local government departments, participated in the research. However, the relative absence of care still registers as quite conspicuous in a study addressing something as encompassing as “the future of jobs”. After all, as the American economist Nancy Folbre recognised in 2001, employment in professional care services has ‘increased steadily over time, [accounting for] one-fifth of the total paid labour force, about the same as employment in the combined sectors of manufacturing, mechanical, and construction industries’ (Invisible Heart (2001), p. 49). The popular image of work still tends to fixate upon masculinised forms of waged labour, and we need to remind ourselves that schools, hospitals, and day care facilities are as central to what constitutes work as the building site or the production line.
‘With more competition for “less-skilled” jobs as workers are displaced from other sectors, and as the market for domiciliary care expands, we may witness an “uberization” of care.’
The neglect of waged forms of reproductive labour is particularly disappointing, given that the role of care within the developments of automation is a matter of particular debate. A number of commenters see professionalized care work as resistant to automation – a growth area capable of offsetting potential job losses resulting from automation, particularly in light of impending demographic changes. Others, however, suggest that employment in this area might be more automatable than one would initially think. A 2016 study by Deloitte, for example, suggests that Health and Social Care is amongst the top three sectors in terms of existing jobs at high risk of automation.
I’m of the opinion we are likely to see increasing polarization within the sector, with a sharp divide emerging between “high-tech” and “high-touch” jobs. This would involve the management of technologies on the one hand and the care of bodies on the other. The number of high-tech roles will increase, thanks to rapid developments in telemedicine, whilst the need for high-touch jobs centred on tasks like washing, lifting, and dressing will continue. Many of these basic care services have historically been performed by feminized and non-native workers, or by unpaid family members. As such, I’d argue that the division between high-tech and high-touch is likely to fall along a gendered dividing line, and will bring with it a marked income and opportunity gap.
With more competition for “less-skilled” jobs as workers are displaced from other sectors, and as the market for domiciliary care expands, we may witness an “uberization” of care. There is a risk that this will amplify the unfavourable characteristics common to both basic care services and the gig economy (namely, insecurity, forced flexibility, and low wages). A more optimistic vision of this “uberization” would involve publicly owned platforms for care services. This would facilitate the effective regulation of app-work (DBS checks, qualifications vetting, and so on) whilst allowing the NHS and local authorities to circumvent a reliance on expensive agency workers. A percentage of the money saved on the high commission charges such agencies impose could be diverted to the workers themselves, ensuring that they earn a living wage, or used to fund skills training that would foster mobility across the high-tech and high-touch ends of the sector.
It is clear, then, that the home and the household (and many of the un- or underpaid activities associated with them) demand to be included in any meaningful attempt to characterize contemporary labour.
It seems unhelpful to discuss the future of jobs without also thinking about the future of work more broadly, though. I’m thinking particularly here about the burdens of unpaid activities associated with domestic maintenance, tending to the body, and so on, which are inextricably tied to gendered cultures of work. Tellingly, the World Economic Forum report does briefly gesture toward unpaid domestic labour – but only to suggest that ‘household work, that is still primarily the responsibility of women in most societies, could be further automated, leaving women to put their skill sets to better use’ in the formal labour market. Such comments are problematic for many reasons, not just for the vision of fully-automated immiserating capitalism they propose! With the stubborn continuation of the gendered division of labour and the nuclear family, women remain responsible for the bulk of routine domestic chores and childcare, even as their hours in the waged workplace are brought increasingly in-line with those of cis men.
As I have already discussed, as households feel themselves to be evermore time-poor, many of the most affluent seek to outsource reproductive labour in a shift towards market-mediated social reproduction. It is clear, then, that the home and the household (and many of the un- or underpaid activities associated with them) demand to be included in any meaningful attempt to characterize contemporary labour. Work – even in the limited sense of formal waged jobs – cannot really be understood without them. This is important not just in terms of appreciating the nuances of what technological change might mean for the labour market, but also in terms of articulating a pro-active politics in the face of imminent disruptive changes – a politics that does not transform the perceived scarcity of waged labour into an uncritical demand for more work.
Dr. Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2018, with Nick Srnicek)