Digital technology, a reinvention of employment?
The impact of digital technology on employment is complex and multifaceted, and it is not possible to discuss all the aspects here. We have left out challenges linked to work scheduling in companies, which we looked at in the Digital Society Forum n°5 , allowing us to concentrate on the effects of digital technology on major job market balances: to what extent does the increase in digital technology create more jobs than it destroys, what quality jobs are created, and how can we prevent some of the negative effects of these changes? These are the three digital employment themes that we are going to examine in this forum - destruction, transformation and regulation.
More job losses?
The main question stems from the effect of the current digital revolution on the number of jobs available in the economy, and therefore on unemployment. Today's programmes and machines, like those in previous industrial revolutions, are likely to replace a certain number of jobs; at the same time, technological development leads to growth by creating new products, encouraging new investments and improving worker productivity. The scale of this impact remains controversial amongst specialists on the topic, and varies based on both their chosen theoretical framework and the empirical investigation method that they use. Some are confident in market laws and the evidence of previous industrial revolutions, emphasising the ability of economies to reinvest productivity gains into new areas of growth, thus creating jobs; others, noting a general lethargy in the global situation, have a differing opinion, suggesting the possibility of a digital revolution without growth, i.e. a scenario of growth without jobs. The different opinions on both sides (the rate of job losses/substitution of humans with machines) is specifically based on different assessments of the abilities of machines, robots and algorithms to take on a very large portion of the tasks now carried out by humans.
However a consensus has been reached on the fact that the current industrial revolution will affect available jobs, in terms of sectors and qualifications. Various empirical studies have attempted to ascertain in detail which jobs are likely to be carried out by machines in the near future, distinguishing between the jobs which are most threatened by replacement and those which are complementary to machines. Several scenarios suggest the distortion of the jobs market towards the most highly educated (or a part of them), whilst low-skilled and intermediate jobs appear to be strongly threatened. The effect of technological progress, combined with globalisation of the economy, affects those with the least education, but also the middle classes, which is unprecedented in the history of the technology/job relationship.
The impact of digital technology on job quality
In addition to reviving the old debate on the effect of technology on employment and unemployment, the digital revolution leads us to consider changes to job quality. In addition to replacing human work, machines are also likely to organise it differently. During the past few years, a very large number of tools have been created to organise relationships between companies and non-salaried workers which still have irregular statuses and names (freelancers, slashers, self-employed workers, etc.).
Digital technologies are supporting an older movement to outsource salaried work to self-employment through the creation of platforms which allow a very large number of people to meet and offer and take jobs. They encourage competition between workers and provide monitoring, involving an increasing number of jobs and tasks: creation and writing, craft, transport, IT... From this point of view, some collaborative consumption websites can be seen as an additional extension to competition between workers, by mixing private individuals and professionals in the fields of hotels and transport. In addition, crowdsourcing platforms extend the general movement of on-demand work to micro-tasks.
This multifaceted development in work outside of salaried employment frameworks is still poorly described and assessed. A significant issue concerns the amount of choice and independence that self-employed workers have when using digital platforms. When it is chosen and not imposed, self employment combines social aspiration with independence and the desire to control one's own work schedule, which are strongly favoured by self-employed professionals in different surveys. The issue is knowing to what extent these digital platforms actually allow self-employed workers to achieve independence (sufficient income, control over work schedule, etc.). A certain number of studies suggests that this is often not the case, due to the use of pricing, matching and task scheduling algorithms. Independence also depends on the development of adapted statuses. In France, several studies and research reports provide an overview of the uses of the sole trader status, focusing on its deficiencies as a sustainable activity.
What regulations are in place?
Research highlights more or less optimistic scenarios for the future of employment; they often contain appeals to public authorities to attempt to anticipate changes and to prevent the most damaging consequences. In the short term, an initial debate is based on the regulation of activity organised by digital platforms such as AirBnB or Uber: in different countries, regulators attempt to find a balance between a laissez-faire approach to allow development of this new sector and to create jobs, and a control which protects established sectors (with large numbers of jobs) from unfair competition.
In the medium term, several players and researchers have considered the future of professional relationships in a world where digital platforms play a growing role in job distribution. The balance of power relationships built during the industrial era are disappearing due to the scattered nature of workers and their systematic competition. Several areas are outlined in terms of measures and tools to defend these workers: new unions, control of work schedule algorithms, transparent prices, etc.
Still in the medium-term, some outline a universal social protection model attached to the person throughout their life, regardless of their type of job and/or periods of inactivity, rather than tying it to status or professional affiliation. Such an approach should help encourage professional development and the risk taken by workers, whilst providing social protection. In France, the personal activity account which is currently being considered deals with this issue.
Finally, several players are attempting to consider a long-term perspective of a more or less drastic reduction in employment, and work overall. Researchers widely agree upon the importance of encouraging education and training, to the extent where technical progress shifts jobs towards better qualifications; but this might not be enough. For end of work theorists like Rifkin or Stiegler , as well as robotics commentators such as Brynjolfsson and McAfee, the current industrial revolution will render a large portion of the available workforce redundant. We must therefore consider alternative work income payment systems, through schemes such as negative income tax or basic income, to ensure that a society where machines take on most of the work is viable and fair.