Work in the Digital Age – An Essential Read

  • Laura Monti
  • Digital Equality, Future scenarios, Industry 4.0, Policies, Workforce Resiliency
  • No Comments

In times of great uncertainty, Max Neufeind, Jacqueline O’Reilly, and Florian Ranft’s new volume Work in the Digital Age: Challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is an essential read. It opens the academic space and widens policy choices shaping the future of workers and our society. Their work reminds us that the current revolution will be sociopolitical rather than industrial or technological in nature.

The first half of the book details the overarching complexities of the socio-technical transition currently underway in broader historical and socioeconomic perspectives. In the latter half, readers are invited to delve deeper into comparative national digital discourses of twenty-one European and Western countries – apart from a Chapter on India by Marc Saxer previously at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

Neufeind, O’Reilly, Ranft, and the 50 contributors acknowledge that,

by now, it is undeniably clear that technological development and economic growth do not necessarily go hand in hand with social progress. Therefore, it should be the goal of our politics to ensure industrial and societal transformations provide opportunities for social mobility and citizens’ personal and professional development – rather than being cause for concern and insecurity.

The book opens with a reminder of Karl Polanyi’s work – The Great Transformation: The Social and Political Origins of Our Time. Polanyi’s economic and historical analysis exposed how 17th-century technological advancement crashed with human development. This is just as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. During the First Industrial Revolution, the masters of technological capital encouraged the brutal dehumanization of workers by re-engineering humans as machines – as commodities. Gig work and unacceptable forms of work, such as child labour, were the ordinary. Poor working conditions festered into great social upheavals and the social countermovement that followed.

Similarly, in our present Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are starting to see more clearly the unprecedented reappearance of precarious and invisible labour and dynamics of social strata of privilege and marginalization. These transformations are reflected in the changing face of work in today’s digital age (pp.117). In the 2018 Global Risk Report: Fractures, Fears, and Failures, the WEF warns that persistent inequality and unfairness continue to be the foremost risk worldwide that can result in high unemployment or underemployment and profound social instability.

Interactive map showing the connections between inequality, unemployment, and global social instability | Global Risk Report 2018

A critical contribution of Work in the Digital Age is its analysis of the politics and the countermovements required for future labour relations and the welfare state. Since the late 1970s, societal choices and institutional experimentation have produced what is often referred to as the “great decoupling” between economic productivity and wage growth, as first cited by Hodrick and Prescott (1997). In the United States, and elsewhere in Europe, this great decoupling coincided with the erosion of standard or full-time employment towards more flexible employment models for workers – see Colin Crough (pp 191), ILO’s Janine Berg and Valerio De Stefano (pp 175), and UNC at Chapel Hill’s Anne Kalleberg (pp 513).  These circumstances collectively contribute to the delicate state of the current social contract in a potentially ‘post-full-employment society.’

In response, Cornell’s Virginia Doellgast documents and offers policy solutions to the vicious circle of expanding precarity experienced by countless short-term contract or gig workers. Furthering this, Cecile Jolly of France Stratégie reiterates that the core principle of social dialogue is to improve working conditions and economic growth through consensus-building. However, current labour relation frameworks are not well adapted to addressing networked production chains. These current realities renew calls for contemporary forms of unionism, collective action and bargaining, and social protection for the emerging forms of workers in the digital era (Bruno Palier, pp. 247).  

We must rethink our concept of a good society in the digital age. Technological change will continue to network economies and change the demand for future skills. In the face of future waves of technology-induced creative destruction, and the growing ‘fluidity’ within the world of work, demands policies which secure stable employment and the safeguard of social standards throughout one’s life course. Work in all its forms and the future of workers in the digital age must contribute to the general welfare and a good society.

The culmination of the project can be read in the full volume, available to download here and in hard copy from Rowman and Littlefield, with a selection of contributions that set the context of future debates.

Feature image from Policy Network.