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Making Technology Work for All?

Photo Credit: Kai-Hsin Hung


Your job (or your next job), workplace, and the wider labour market are undergoing incredible change. Once we factor in the potential impacts of disruptive technologies, there are many uncertainties about the future trajectories of labour markets around the world. Techno-pessimists believe automation puts jobs at risk. And their so-called “automation anxiety” is nothing new. In the 1950 and 1960’s and automation scare prompted the United Nation’s labour body, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United States government to commission studies on the potential impacts of automation on unemployment.


In 2015, MIT Economist David Autor took the question up again, from a historical perspective of workplace automation. He found that our historical experience with workplace automation tends to discredit techno-pessimism. Autor warns that journalists and expert commentators may be overestimating the speed of robots takeover of the labour market. This is backed up by the ILO, which last year reported that the global employment rate has actually increased by around 10 percent over the last 55 years.

Here’s an interview David Autor did with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about his thought-provoking research.

Automation anxiety: jobs and robots – Late Night Live – ABC Radio


Then again, past trajectories may not predict our future. Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University give three reasons why automation may pose more of a threat today than it did in the past: 1) the pace of technological change has accelerated, 2) its scope has widened immensely and 3) they argue the benefits of that change are less widely shared. The concern is that productivity gains will benefit the few, while weakening consumption and growth. As Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots, explains

“Accelerating technology is likely to increasingly threaten jobs across industries and at a wide range of skill levels. If such a trend develops, it has important implications for the overall economy. As jobs and income are relentlessly automated away, the bulk of consumers may eventually come to lack the income and purchasing power necessary to drive the demand that is critical to sustained economic growth”.    


The role of work in redistributing wealth is eroding. Around the world, the quality of new and existing jobs  is already trending downwards (WESO 2016, 2015) and according to Piketty (2014), income inequality has reached a historic high. Irmgard Nübler, the Coordinator of the ILO’s Technology, Structural Transformation and Jobs Programme asks, “Is technology-driven polarization [distributional challenges] inevitable? How can full employment be achieved in the context of current and future technological changes?” To get there, the ILO’s brief on “Making Technology Work for All” suggests three critical issues will demand serious policy debate:

  1. Technological change is transforming the nature and quality of existing and new jobs
  2. Economic and social impacts and costs of economic and labour adjustments
  3. Technological gains have widened inequality


Click here for ILO Future of Work Brief


Get the latest analysis on these three policy debate areas and key questions go to the ILO Future of Work Programme’s brief on “Making Technology Work for All”.                    


Future of Work Centenary Initiative Issue Notes Series:

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