I wrote a blog post last month about the seminar I have helped organise, "After work". The seminar was held 10 days ago and these are a few post-seminar reflections about it. We had booked a large lecture hall with 285 seats and we were out of seats some days in advance!
Two very timely articles were published in the two largest Swedish newspapers during the weekend just preceding the seminar:
- "What happens when the jobs disappear?" (SvD, April 18)
- "The technologies that take over your work" (DN, April 19)
Do note that while this text is written in English, most of the links that lead to texts and other resources in Swedish.
The 3-hour seminar was divided into three parts (one hour each);
- 1) Current state of technical and economical factors (driving forces)
- 2) The new and the lost jobs
- 3) Effects on society and humans
The whole 3-hour seminar was fast-paced and each part of it had several guest speakers. The whole event was videotaped and is available on the web. Do also note these excellent resources in the form of newspaper and journal articles about the future of work (mostly in Swedish though)
The first part had two speakers:
- Mikael Haglund, Technical Director at IBM Sweden presented technical drivers in his talk "The era of cognitive systems - Real expert systems and brain-mimicking chips"
- Anna Breman, Senior Macro Analyst at Swedbank presented economic drivers in her talk "The future labor market - full of possibilities or just challenges?"
The second part had two new speakers:
- Lars Ingelstam, Professor Emeritus from Dept. of Technology and Social Change at Linköping University talked about long-term labor market trends (e.g. historical developments) in his talk ""We live in a post-industrial society": Both right and wrong".
- Darja Isaksson, digital strategist, concept developer and founder of Ziggy Creative Colony talked about the same topic but more oriented towards the present and the future in her talk "Sustainable growth is possible (but different)".
Lars and Darja were then joined in a panel discussion by two other guests:
- Sara Modig, a consultant in innovation policy and former Senior Adviser at the Ministry of Industry
- Christofer Gradin Franzén, an economist and psychologist and the founder of "Hoffice" - a concept for pop-up offices.
The third part had three new speakers
- Per Johansson, a human ecologist/historian has looked at the relationship between humans, technology and nature and gave a talk called "Why should the computer (not) do the job?".
- Christina Andersson, a psychologist and researcher at the Centre for Social Sustainability at the Karolinska Institute talked about "Belonging - a prerequisite for human well-being and value creation".
- Joel Halldorf, a church historian and lecturer at the School of Theology discussed existential perspectives on work in his talk "The Benedictine work policy".
I was a co-moderator of the second part together with Jonas Andersson Schwarz and I did thus not really have the luxury to relax and actually listen and think about what the speakers said. During the first part I instead listened attentively and searched for questions that I could ask our panelists and during the second part I was fully concentrated on monitoring, livening up and trying to tighten up and steer the discussion. The guests and us organisers finished the evening by having dinner together and it seemed like the speakers themselves were happy about the evening. Several persons have afterwards told me that the varied mix of speakers really added to the event. I even got a spontaneious e-mail from an acquaintance who wrote that the seminar was great and very relevant to the research project she is currently working in. It seems the whole event was a resounding success, people even raved about it when I tried to shoo that back in to the lecture hall after the break between the second and the third session.
The whole seminar (3 hours) is now available on the web. Do also note that the largest Swedish morning newspaper have published a series of articles of which heading of the most recent article was exceedingly similar to the title of our seminar, "After work - when computerisation takes away the jobs" (Roland Paulsen). Here's another great text (from the second largest newspaper) that was published a few weeks before the seminar, "Computers will take half the jobs 20 years from now" (Simon Winther).
The emphasis of the seminar was on width so it is inevitable that depth suffered some. It is hard to discuss and analyse a topic when there is a new speaker waiting for his/her 10 minutes to speak. I however thought it was remarkable that almost all speakers looked at the future with sanguinity. Despite may apocalyptic predictions (e.g. the newspaper articles above), most speakers thought this challenge (robots taking our jobs) will be solved in the medium- or the long term. It sounds like a cliche but one speaker mentioned how hard it would be to explain some of the jobs that are around today to people who lived 50 or 100 years ago; web developer, user experience architect, search engine optimiser etc. It is therefore equally hard for us to imagine what jobs our children and grandchildren will have a few decades from now. I personally thought there must be more to worry about and asked my four panelists if anyone harboured an "inner pessimist" we hadn't heard from yet - but no one chopped at that bait.
Still, I think all speakers agreed there is a problem in the short term (i.e. right now) since the people who lose their jobs to robots don't have the sought-after skills that are or will be in demand. Anna Breman used statistics that showed that highly skilled high-paying jobs have exploded during the last few decades while primarily middle-income jobs have been squeezed and while the "new normal" for unemployment would have been seen as unacceptable only a few decades ago, unemployment among those without a high-school degree is, at 20% open unemployment, four times higher than unemployment among those with a university education. It is hard to imagine that the labour market will not continue to become even more polarised in the near future.
Several speakers mentioned "the sharing economy" as a possible solutions. That's good news for me, but it's not clear of the sharing economy represents a purely positive development (sharing resources is good for the environment) or if it also represents a defensive position against "hard times" (people have to share more or become poor). I think it's fair to say that the majority of speakers imagined that wealth would exist and that the challenge would be how that wealth would be distributed. Will some (capitalists) be immensely rich while other are poor and belong to the lumpenproletariat or the precariat? Or will we find ways to "share nicely", e.g. an unconditional citizen's income/basic income? Another suggestion was that we should not strive to increase our salaries but rather decrease our work week and share the jobs more equitably. An issue that was raised repeatedly but not really discussed in depth was thus what our societies can do to prepare and to navigate the changes we go through. Several of the suggestions that are on the table and semi-revolutionary and not really something that can be fixed with little effort and in the short run as they go to the heart of what we believe about work, effort, rewards, justice etc.
Even though the organisers were busy organising, presenting and mediating discussions, I think we had many things we could have added to the discussion but this was of course not the time or the place to do that. Still, we have met regularly for some months and planning sessions have inevitably also veered into discussions about these and other issues. We will have a post-seminar meeting this coming week to discuss if and how we could continue to promote a discussion around these topics.
While this seminar was very central to discussions about social sustainability, my final comment here is that the perspective that I am primarily interested in, environmental sustainability, was not really discussed at all. There are definitely touch points between environmental sustainability, the sharing economy, basic income and a shorter work week, but there are also many touch points between environmental sustainability and the current economic system (built on continuous economic growth) that we did not touch upon at all. All speakers and all the future scenarios we discussed assumed a continuation of current trends, but what about climate change and resource scarcity? Would the trend of automatisation and robots continue to replace humans also in a steady-state or a shrinking economy? This would be personal number one question to discuss if the current conversation was to not only be continued but also expanded. Still, when all has been said and done, I think I and the other organisers can be very happy about the event.