Social and ecclesiological factors in the future of work

Photo:  By  Andrew Neel  on  Unsplash

Photo: By Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Here is an article, and excerpt from Workship 2, which will be published in an upcoming issues of Zadok Magazine. Below is the beginning of the article, you can read the full piece here.

In my lifetime I have changed career seven times, held 22 jobs and now balance two part-time roles, a couple of projects and my own writing and speaking endeavours. Right now I am earning less than at any time in my working life. However, I have the flexibility that I love and am doing work that energises me, while avoiding the work that used to drain me.

I am impacted by a lack of job security, do not receive much professional development and have no career plan. What I experience now is the probable shape of the work of the future: casual insecure piecework, where I wear the cost of my development, and the risk of ill health.

During the Humanising Work seminar at Morling College in 2017, we each had the chance to share some observations about how the shape of work is changing with the rise of technology, shifting economic levers and globalisation. Following are some of my observations.[1]

A changing definition of ‘work’

Most people would define work as something you are paid to do. Such a definition is very limiting. It excludes the work that is essential for the functioning of our society but that remains largely unremunerated, such as care of children and the elderly, the voluntary work done through charities and churches and sporting clubs, and the earth care work of gardening.

In the Bible we do not see such a limiting definition. Work is that which you do with purposeful intent, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen. God is interested in all work including work that might not be valued economically, including prayer, character formation and worship in everyday life.

As we look to a future where forecasters anticipate that there will not be enough paid work to go around[2] , there is a move to decouple work from the payment received. At one extreme is the concept of the universal basic income (UBI): an amount paid to everyone to cover basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, regardless of the person’s employment.

It is an idea promoted by leaders in Silicon Valley, the source of much of the technology that is anticipated to displace almost 50% of the current jobs. It was popularised recently in a Harvard University commencement speech by Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg who said: ‘We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful…. We should explore ideas like universal basic income, to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas.’ [3]

The change of definition of work is welcome, although there are many critics of the UBI who see its potential to create a culture of laziness and entitlement, and stifle innovation and productivity. Indeed, the Bible recommends that we should all work, that work is good for personal health and the functioning of community, and that it is good to reward work (not necessarily financially).[4]

The impact on those who are vulnerable

It is reasonable to assume that the hardship anticipated as a result of the technological revolution will have a proportionally larger impact on those most vulnerable to economic and labour force changes: the disabled, older workers, youth and women[5] .

A June 2015 report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, called Australia’s Future Workforce? summarises the technological advances and their impact:

Computers will reshape the labour market in two key ways. They will:

1. Directly substitute for labour, with a high probability that as much as 40% of the jobs in Australia could be replaced by computers within a decade or two; and

2. Disrupt the way work is conducted, expanding competition and reducing the costs to consumers but also reducing the income of workers.

In The impact of emerging technologies in the workforce of the future, Telstra Chief Scientist Professor Hugh Bradlow describes how a range of existing technologies, such as cloud services, Big Data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics are rapidly reaching the point where they will have widespread impact on the economy.[6]

Already there has been what has been described as a feminisation of poverty. Social and economic factors such as the lack of superannuation/pensions and asset accumulation due to gender inequality unfairly impact on women, further disadvantaged having taken significant time out of the workforce due to caring responsibilities and/or long term casual or unstable employment.

In Australia, almost 45% of women reported that their quality of life worsened after retirement.[7]

It seems that changes in technological advancement are widening the gap between those who can adapt and those who struggle already.