Skip to main content

About this book

This short, accessible book seeks to explore the future of work through the views and opinions of a range of expertise, encompassing economic, historical, technological, ethical and anthropological aspects of the debate. The transition to an automated society brings with it new challenges and a consideration for what has happened in the past; the editors of this book carefully steer the reader through future possibilities and policy outcomes, all the while recognising that whilst such a shift to a robotised society will be a gradual process, it is one that requires significant thought and consideration.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

When we planned a symposium in February 2018 on the future of work, we divided the subject into eight areas. We hoped to cover more ground than is usual, and to look at how work has changed in the past as well as how it is changing now and in the future. Most of the contributions to this book came out of that symposium, and reflect their original beginnings as oral presentations. Other pieces were commissioned later in order to extend the thematic reach of the book even further. When we talk about the future of work, too often the discussion is narrowly focused on automation, and the social or economic problems that are assumed to arise from it. What this collection of essays aims to do is to broaden that discussion. How has the character of work changed in the past, and what can that tell us about how it will change in the future?
Robert Skidelsky, Nan Craig

2. The Future of Work

Is technology making the human race redundant materially and spiritually—both as producers of wealth and meaning? Ever since machinery became an active part of industrial production, redundancy has been seen either as a promise or a threat. Sociologists stress the importance of work in giving meaning to a person’s existence. Economists, on the other hand, see work as purely instrumental, a means for buying things people want. If it can be done by machines, so much the better. David Ricardo described the shift from human labour to mechanical as inevitable and ultimately beneficial, while Marx’s later analysis denied that there were sufficient compensations to labour for their redundancy. The optimistic view of redundancy relies on the idea that machines will complement human capacity, work is only relevant as a means to consumption and consumption can be unlimited. These assumptions are wrong. The idea that a supply shock like automation will automatically set in motion acceptable compensatory demand or complementary supply responses is delusive. Any responses are likely to be highly disruptive, even destructive. Given this, policy must pay much more attention to correlating the rate of change with the capacity of human society to absorb it.
Robert Skidelsky

Work in the Past


3. Patterns and Types of Work in the Past: Part 1

Work is a difficult concept to define, but fundamentally it involves change and transformation. This essay gives an overview of how work has changed from the earliest hunter-gatherer period to modern industrial times. For much of human history, work was inextricable from the rest of life—not only as a means of survival but also as an element of family or social life and as a pleasurable activity. While work has always been intimately connected with technology, environmental challenges we face today call for us to undertake work that is less driven by a need for economic growth and unnecessary production.
Richard Donkin

4. Patterns and Types of Work in the Past: Part 2

Studying the craftsmanship of the past gives us insight into how skill acquisition occurs, and shows how important the physical body is to mental labour. The difficulty of developing physical skills—such as fine drawing skills—helps also develop mental creativity and innovative thinking. This belies the argument that automated systems can effectively replace human labour, rather than supplementing them. We should be selective in the adoption of technology so that we supplement and augment human creativity and skills without undermining them.
Richard Sennett

5. Patterns and Types of Work in the Past: Wageworker and Housewife from a Global Perspective: Birth, Variations and Limits of the Modern Couple

The modern gendered wage-earner/housewife model of work was established in Europe during the industrial revolution and replaced the “household economy” model. Previously, work within the home was accorded the status of work, while the newer model no longer defined work in the home as work at all. This model spread beyond Western Europe but has failed to dominate in other areas of the globe. The case studies of nineteenth century Lower Austria and colonial India show that this model has met with and continues to meet with resistance. There have been numerous ways of combining waged work, house and care work; in the future work-life arrangements in the family economy could overcome established gender roles by distributing different types of work in creative ways.
Andrea Komlosy

Attitudes to Work


6. Attitudes to Work and the Future of Work: The View from Economics

Classical and neoclassical economists conceptualise work as intrinsically arduous and undesirable to workers, and entailing a cost in lost leisure time. This one-sided negative view of work overlooks the possibility that work can be fulfilling for workers. Marx and Veblen offer alternative ways of conceptualising work which could be a corrective to this narrow view—but mainstream economics has ignored their insights. Economics assumes that loss of work due to automation causes no harm to workers, since they just ‘choose’ more leisure, but this ignores the human need to work. Economics has failed to theorise work in any detail and the discipline must consider the variety and complexity of motives and meanings associated with human work.
David A. Spencer

7. Attitudes to Work

Work has traditionally been defined as either instrumental (to meet needs) or expressive (as a creative activity). In the twentieth century it has also, through the welfarist model, been seen as a route to human flourishing. Workers in France show paradoxical attitudes, in that they attach high importance to work, yet devote less time to it and express strong dissatisfaction with pay and career prospects, and feel a high level of insecurity about retaining their jobs. French employment and social policies help to explain this paradox, including regulation of working time, rejection of the ‘working poor’ social model and the high employment/high inequality economic model, and distrustful labour relations. There are three responses to this paradox: voice, loyalty or exit.
Pierre-Michel Menger

8. Work as an Obligation

Work as a concept escapes easy definition. Conflicting attitudes to work over time mean that different activities or spheres of life have been included and excluded from the definition of ‘work’ during different periods. What we define as ‘work’ has political consequences but also a personal aspect; despite being unable to define it easily, we think we know what work is. It is in fact possible to find a unifying element between different kinds of work: obligation. The idea of an obligation or sense of responsibility—that an activity ought to be done, for whatever reason—is common to all forms of work, even when they are also pleasurable or voluntary. Thinking of work in this way can help explain the tension between the concept of work as painful and work as meaningful. It also suggests that a reduction in paid work due to automation might create the opportunity to define work more broadly.
Nan Craig

Attitudes to Technology


9. Attitudes to Technology: Part 1

Automation tends to be partial rather than complete, automating tasks rather than entire professions. Partial automation can also cause increases in employment in the affected industries, as well as decreases. Nevertheless, it will still cause disruption in the near term, since it requires people to learn new skills in order to remain employed. In deciding whether automation creates or destroys jobs, the decisive factor is demand rather than technology.
James Bessen

10. Attitudes to Technology: Part 2

Technological progress has had varying effects upon the workforce in the past. Whilst the fear of mass unemployment has never been realized, the negative impacts on employment in the so-called ‘short-run’ can sometimes last for decades. Since automation mostly happens via simplification of the task in question, its impact is often underestimated. It is therefore likely that automation will harm a large number of workers in the future. However, technology is not an unstoppable force, since the adoption of new technologies is mediated by public attitudes towards technological development and automation.
Carl Benedikt Frey

Possibilities and Limitations for AI: What Can’t Machines Do?


11. What Computers Will Never Be Able To Do

Could artificial intelligence ever replicate all the abilities of humans? This question hinges on whether or not the mind is simply an advanced machine. If consciousness is non-physical then the mind cannot be reduced to a machine, and computers will never be conscious in the same way that humans are. The implications for employment and automation include the inability of computers to take on all empathetic and caring work roles.
Thomas Tozer

12. Possibilities and Limitations for AI: What Can’t Machines Do?

Comparing human and machine intelligence is inappropriate, since it falsely anthropomorphizes machines and defines intelligence in a way that only applies to humans. There are no fundamental technical limitations on the level of intelligence that software can achieve. However, in the near term, advances in AI will continue to be incremental, and we should be realistic about the speed of development. The existence of creative or art-making AI raises questions around authenticity, influence, the purpose of art and evaluation.
Simon Colton

Work in the Digital Economy


13. Work in the Digital Economy

Traditionally, many people have imagined that while ‘routine’ tasks can be automated, ‘non-routine’ tasks cannot. However, advances in processing power, data storage capability and algorithm design mean that ‘non-routine’ tasks can increasingly be automated—and so this commonly held view is no longer as reliable as it was in the past. This has four important implications for thinking about the future of work: for the limits of machine capabilities, for the pervasiveness of automation, for the ‘skill-blindness’ of technological change and for the uncertainty that clouds the future.
Daniel Susskind

14. Two Myths About the Future of the Economy

There are two common myths regarding platform economies. First, the idea that Uber’s business model will serve as a model for the rest of the economy is too simplistic. In that sense, both the promise and the threat of ‘platform capitalism’ to jobs can be overstated. Secondly, while AI does pose a threat to the economy, this is not because of automation but because it further encourages the tendency towards monopoly that already exists in the platform economy. Scholarly and media analysis of platform economies have overlooked their most important impact: the concentration of power in a handful of global companies.
Nick Srnicek

AI, Work and Ethics


15. AI, Ethics, and the Law

There are several ways in which AI can cause ethical problems in working life. Taking the field of law as an example, there are three key ways in which using algorithmic solutions without careful oversight can cause problems. First, systems can be gamed. Second, by using human data to train on, systems can reproduce human prejudices and bias. Third, prediction algorithms can become self-fulfilling as their effect on reality feeds back to them, producing a loop. Most importantly, though, use of AI tends to stagnate our ethics.
Cathy O’Neil



16. Policy for the Future of Work

The future of technological unemployment predicted by J.M. Keynes has in fact come to pass—but that we have compensated for the lack of work by creating millions of unnecessary jobs with little purpose. The way our society thinks about work is contradictory: we see work as necessary for meaning and identity, yet many of us hate our jobs. The values we attach to paid employment have a long history, strongly influenced by Puritan traditions of thought. We should give people the ability to leave pointless jobs by decommodifying work through a universal basic income.
David Graeber

17. Automation and Working Time in the UK

This essay discusses the history of working time in the UK and why working hours, having consistently fallen since the mid-nineteenth century, have ceased to fall in recent decades. Full-time employees in the UK now work the longest hours of all EU countries and yet are less productive than some of their European neighbours. Kay suggests that it is primarily the institutional makeup of the UK that has kept the working week so long. She explores the different arguments for reducing working hours, touching on the broader philosophical debate about the value of work. By taking the Netherlands, France and Germany as case studies, she makes policy recommendations on how the UK could change its norms around working time.
Rachel Kay

18. Shaping the Work of the Future: Policy Implications

Nübler focuses on how technological unemployment can be mitigated and job growth maintained. She analyses the way that different types of innovation and market forces affect job creation and destruction, as well as how those forces can be harnessed to support job creation. As well as intervention by governments to shape workforce skills, promote societal learning, influence the direction of technological change and innovation, and aid adjustment to new technologies, we need redistributive policies to ensure that productivity gains are more evenly shared.
Irmgard Nübler


Additional information

Premium Partner

    Image Credits