Bent Greve, Technology and the Future of Work

Bent Greve, Technology and the Future of Work: The impact on labour markets and welfare states, Edward Elgar, 2017, ix + 153 pp, 1 78643 428 9, hbk, £65

This book stands on the complex boundary between two connected and lively debates: How will new technology change the employment market? And how will welfare states need to adapt to cope with changes to the employment market?

The introductory first chapter outlines a number of hypotheses on how technological change will change employment markets and welfare states: that automation will remove low-skilled jobs from the employment market, and low-skilled individuals will therefore find themselves unemployed or on low wages; that welfare states might become difficult to finance; that societies might become less coherent; and that ‘there will be a stronger pressure in the more universal welfare states compared to the liberal and continental welfare state types’ (p. 4). The first chapter also begins the description of emerging employment market trends: more people in involuntary temporary employment, more in part-time employment, and a decreasing employment rate for low-skilled individuals.

Chapter 2 offers a useful history of technological change and of its dual effects on employment – both the destruction and the creation of jobs – and concludes that current and future technological change will probably destroy jobs but not create many new ones. Chapter 3 outlines current technological change, and suggests that, unlike during previous automations, high-skilled jobs could be at risk; and he also suggests that European integration will be put at risk by those countries still with large agricultural and manufacturing industries suffering disproportionately large falls in employment. Chapter 4 discusses new globalised market platforms, such as those for employing software writers, leading to low-paid self-employment.

Chapter 5 asks whether we will see a hollowing out of the employment market – that is, some remaining low-paid jobs for the low-skilled, and some remaining highly-paid jobs for the highly-skilled, but few reasonably paid semi-skilled jobs – and finds both a split employment market and a complex picture characterised by increasing precariousness. Chapter 6 finds that trades unions’ ability to stabilise the employment market in terms of wage levels and numbers of employees at a variety of skills levels will continue to decline, and that welfare states might have to fulfil a more active role in relation to working conditions. Chapter 7 suggests that the lower income tax revenues implied by employment market changes will make welfare states more difficult to fund; that more effort will be required to ensure that companies pay sufficient tax (especially considering that much of the modern technology from which they benefit was developed with public financial support); that economic activity negotiated through new market platforms will need to be taxed where the activity takes place; and that it might be useful to establish an employment status between the employee and the self-employed (which is what the recent Taylor review in the UK has suggested).

Chapter 8 discusses rising inequality, and concludes that progressive taxation will be crucial to ensuring both coherent societies and the future of welfare states. Chapter 9 suggests that as the number of low-wage jobs declines, and more kinds of work can be undertaken anywhere in the world, economic migration might tail off. Chapter 10 asks about the consequences of all of these changes for our societies, and discusses two possible scenarios. ‘The dark side’ would be characterised by ‘dramatically fewer jobs, with increasing inequality and a welfare state which is difficult to finance’ (p. 124). ‘The bright side’ would be

where new technologies imply better living standards and options than before … many new jobs will be created … [There could be] fewer working hours, and/or new types of jobs with new challenges … it could be a time of new ways of living longer in relative prosperity as technology opens the way for better treatment, and also as existing jobs with a physical strain on the labour force are wiped out. (p. 126)

For the ‘bright side’ to become a reality, appropriate public policy will need to facilitate lifelong learning, wealth redistribution, lower working hours, enhanced quality of life, and a ‘guaranteed minimum income – conditions to be attached’ (p. 127).

Unfortunately, the discussion of a ‘guaranteed minimum income’ in chapter 7 is bedevilled by confusing terminology. The problem lies with the term ‘guaranteed minimum income’ (p. 95). This could either mean that the government guarantees that each household will reach a stated income level (through a means-tested benefit), or it could mean a guarantee of a Citizen’s Income, in which case the word ‘guarantee’ is redundant. The use of the term ‘guaranteed citizen’s income’, and the author’s statement that a ‘guaranteed minimum income’ is sometimes called a Citizen’s Income, suggests that ‘guaranteed minimum income’ is in fact understood by the author to be an unconditional income for each individual, and is not the ‘minimum income’ discussed earlier in the chapter.

Either way, Greve decides not to discuss a Citizen’s Income, but instead to study a Participation Income. He recognises the difficulty of deciding what counts as ‘participation’, but does not address either the difficulty of administering a Participation Income, nor the fact that on the basis of Tony Atkinson’s criteria only 1% of the UK’s would be deprived of it at the cost of considerable administrative expenditure and bureaucratic intrusion. [1] Greve then confuses the value of an income tax personal allowance with a Negative Income Tax (which it isn’t: the personal allowance would have a fixed value, whereas a Negative Income Tax would reduce as wages rose). He then uses the term ‘basic income’ to describe an income that employs ‘a variety of means-testing or needs assessment’ (p. 96), when what the term normally means is an unconditional income. This is perhaps the most disappointing section of the book. It is under-researched, it employs confusing terminology, and it contributes nothing to the important debate as to whether an unconditional income would be useful to societies facing significant employment market change.

Having said that, most of this book addresses a vital topic in an accessible way. If a second edition is ever written then a well-researched and clearer section on Citizen’s Basic Income would considerably enhance it and make it an even more useful resource for an important debate.

 

Note

[1] Malcolm Torry, The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 124-6, 134-9.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

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