The Progressive Post

Digital work and politics: What impact will "Work 4.0" have on the world of work and politics?


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Inevitable consequences

Digitisation is a fact. Its impact on the working world is often portrayed as an inescapable constraint to which labour markets, and thus workers, can or must just adapt on pain of social exclusion. The affects can neither be tracked nor described. The march of progress will free people from boring and arduous work, but also take away the opportunities for many people ever to find paid work: “Because a job for all was yesterday”, according to an Austrian Human Resources Manager (Die Presse, 17.11.2016). The power to decide is owned by companies, which will thus set the course of development. Many companies need, or are at least striving for, equal or higher returns with less human labour. Dramatic studies have been triggered by the debate on the digitalisation of the working world. In their study “The Future of Employment” (2013), Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne predicted a share of 47% of automated jobs for the US, with 42% being the share for Germany. More cautious studies indicate a percentage of 9% for the OECD average and 12% for Austria (ZEW 2016). The basic assumptions are often that: paid work will run out and the qualification of people, especially young people, will be the central element in order to prepare them for the inevitable consequences of the digitisation of the working world.

A new development?

Changes in the working world have always been characterised by the deployment of new technical resources. Since the 1950s, the debate on the effects of automation has reverberated through the workplace. By the 1980s we already saw the flexibilisation and erosion of the normal working relationship and the use of electronic equipment and software as working equipment. This was followed by gradual innovation and the continuation of rationalisation and automation measures. Electronic workplace equipment was combined with electronic communication technology. The Internet opened up a global information and working space and the production and processing of intangible working items and goods became possible. Last came the “Internet of Things”, the connection and networking of software, mechanics and electronics.

Yet from the combination and interaction of various factors, new dimensions of the transformation of labour have emerged. What is new is the digital networking of all areas of life, the temporal and spatial blurring of the boundary between work and leisure and the acceleration and anonymisation of the current change. In many occupations, a shift from physical to more mental demands can be seen. There are also developments such as the blurring of boundaries, intensification, flexibility and instability. Many legal and organisational forms of work are being created which are burdened, for example, by legal uncertainty, a lack of social security, low levels of participation as well as isolation in the work process and poor pay, and which destroy traditional social bonds (e.g. entrepreneurial platforms which organise food delivery services and so on). These tend to deny more and more workers in the workplace the experience of appreciation and the sense of participating in a joint enterprise (see Sennet 2000). Much of this applies not only to self-employed work, but also increasingly to new forms of self-employment and sole trading.

Digitisation and automation have also spread in administration and case management. Customer self-service has also grown considerably and has led to “working customers”, who themselves perform work which was previously paid work done by customer support personnel. Similarly, the new role of the “prosumer”, i.e. consumers who are also producers of the product (e.g. co-designers or co-producers as loyal skilled customers) is having an impact on paid work. Operational activities can be outsourced as long as the customers have the potential for integration. It is only all these developments taken together, not the isolated automation of one activity, that causes the big difference from earlier and raises the question of the future of employment (Flecker 2017).

All these developments together create high savings potential in traditional paid work. This is attributable to a persistently low level of economic growth, an increase in income and asset inequality and cutbacks in the public sector. This means that jobs in operational activities in the production of goods and many forms of simple as well as (highly) qualified services are at risk. Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that the definitive automation of a workplace depends on economic considerations and ultimately also on the form of societal acceptance and does not just necessarily arise from the technical development itself. In addition, during earlier rationalisation processes, not only have jobs and professions been destroyed, but new ones have also been generated.

Work is becoming more scarce

What is crucial is the awareness that political decisions always have to be made as to whether and how work is digitised and whether and how the productivity gains are distributed in society. Shortening working time to redistribute paid work is a question of the future of the labour market, as is the distribution of the productivity gains achieved through efficiency gains. The question of new public employment must also be raised, even if the public sector is under financial pressure (e.g. employment guarantee for over 50s). The debate about the concept of “good work” is the focus of the discussion. Good work as the model of a modern and humane working world, which can exploit the digitisation advantage. This will mean that the focus of Labour policy disputes can again concentrate on the quality of working conditions.

It is noticeable that the quality of work does not automatically rise through digitisation, as constantly claimed. The change in qualification requirements is not only in the direction of higher qualification. Rather, there is a polarisation between “good” (skilled, well-paid, workable and stable) and “bad” (low-skilled, poorly paid and precarious) work. Digitisation leads to a professionalisation of work processes, which opens many opportunities. Technology can create design spaces, allow greater self-organisation and lead to higher qualification. The ideal image of “creative knowledge workstations” comes into play here. However, digitisation also carries the potential of the “degradation of work” (Jörg Flecker). Qualifications and professional experience are devalued and less in demand, while work becomes more limited and standardised and thus more closely monitored. Finally, technology can lose its status of a tool and take over the control of work. The human being is reduced to a functional tool which is arbitrarily replaceable.

The quality of work through digitisation

Examples of storage management with data glasses for warehouse workers are already in use in this area. This degradation of labour can in turn be accompanied by alienation.

The most far-reaching impact of digitalisation is not technical innovation itself, but rather the change of work organisation, work processes and services. Two scenarios can be compared in the development and application of technology: the automation scenario or the tool scenario (Windelband 2014). One is oriented to maximum automation with as few as possible decisions and interventions by the workers (self-controlling plants, machines and processes), while the other seeks to provide assistance systems with instrumental functions for skilled workers. People remain here in a controlling, supervising and or checking role and are supported by the technology. At the same time experience, learning in work and the ability to deal with unforeseen situations become a central element of the work process. This comparison shows that technology and its application are not neutral, but socially determined and configurable; e.g. either by the interests of economic profit or by the political orientation to the general good.

Social innovation

The humanisation of work is once again a central requirement in this development. Already in the 1970s, high-impact industrial work began to be made more humane. In technology policy at the moment, however, there is no centred approach which seeks an application of digital technology in order to make work more human-friendly and easier. Added to this is the problem that there is little or almost no political debate on the issue of work.

Technology can contribute to the support and empowerment of people in the work process. Through the use of intelligent assistance systems longer and more age-appropriate work can be made possible. Digitisation can also increase the role of people with disability in working life and make an important contribution to inclusion. However, these potential benefits of the digitisation of labour can only be harvested if the associated added value and productivity contribute to general prosperity and do not radically exacerbate existing imbalances in the distribution of resources and opportunities. Technical progress in the working world must be linked to the competence acquisition and individual self-determination of the employees. There must not be a continuous decoupling of technological progress, with associated added value, on the one hand, and the development of the political, social and legal context, on the other. Digitisation can contribute to the improvement of work and working conditions, but it needs state frameworks and wide social debate about its purposes.

There are several attempts to define “good work” and thus propose (political) guidelines for the integration of technical and social innovation (e.g.: “White Paper Work 4.0” of the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs 2016). Security and flexibility are the key concepts here, which, in the future, should not represent a contradiction but form complementary elements of innovative and democratic businesses in an innovative and democratic society. Only in this connection can a societal climate of creativity and innovation arise. Challenging learning processes need a climate of security and not a fear of decline and exclusion. High levels of employment and high employability remain a key political objective.

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