The future could realise the dream of Marx and Keynes for a society beyond work—or a populist nightmare of worklessness.
The year is 2030—an important milestone in prevailing policy narratives and futurist imaginaries. We live in a different world of work. Artificial intelligence is becoming pervasive, complementing and augmenting human capabilities. Due to increased connectivity, the line between work, home and leisure is becoming increasingly blurred, making new forms of ‘work-leisure’ more hybrid and virtual, more globalised and placeless. Large numbers of employees in the still-analogue economy or ‘crowdworkers’ in the digital-platform economy now sit in Bangalore, Lima or Johannesburg, work for companies in London, San Francisco or Beijing and service customers in still other locales.
By 2030, the emergence of ‘labour-linking’ technologies enabled by digital platforms, together with the advance of ‘labour-saving’ technologies in robotics, will have fundamentally reshaped the global jobs landscape. Labour-linking technologies are reinforcing a global mobility of virtual labour, by enabling (crowd)workers from low- and middle-income countries to enter new labour markets, often in wealthier economies, previously out of reach due to migration barriers and, in principle, achieve a higher material standard of living.
But new forms of digitally-enabled work and labour-saving technologies will continue to generate inequities across developed and developing countries, industries and workforce groups, resulting in a global yet fragmented world. And while remote employment is not limited by geography, it tends to reproduce the spatial inequities of traditional labour markets. The most profitable jobs will be drawn to the thriving technology-wise metropolis, with rural communities lagging behind.
The evolving landscape of jobs and employment opportunities will give rise to new problems—while history will repeat itself if we do not learn from it. Global-inequality scholars have demonstrated that the biggest losers of recent waves of globalisation have been working people in rich countries, while the biggest winners have been the ‘global plutocrats’ (the top 1 per cent in rich countries) and the emerging ‘global middle class’ of much less wealth, primarily in China. Between the mid-2000s and early 2010s, falling earnings of low-income workers in the United States and western Europe escalated political grievances into conflict and political discontent, leading in several cases to the rapid rise to power of populist parties. The changes we are currently seeing, as well as those that lie ahead, have the potential to unsettle liberal democracies once more.
Albert Hirschman uses the analogy of a traffic jam in a two-lane tunnel to explain how people respond to inequality: those stuck in the left lane feel better once they see a car in the right lane start to move. This initial gratification is known as the ‘tunnel effect’. Yet it fades rapidly if only the cars in the right lane are moving. According to Hirschman, those left out in the process of economic growth may better tolerate increasing inequality if they expect that their lot is likely to improve soon. Otherwise, their frustration may breed social unrest.
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If inequalities are not addressed in our digital economies, once the tunnel effect is over populists are likely to benefit from the frustration generated by the unequal future of work. A new brand, ‘Populism 4.0’, may thrive on the persistent failure to address the vulnerabilities created by the fourth industrial revolution and exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis.
Only a fairer future for work can make our societies less fragmented and democracies more resilient. And by 2030 we could see a ‘post-work’ world in which work is profoundly changed—or even vanishes as such.
The promise of a society devoid of work has often been highlighted in emancipatory visions. In the 1840s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels envisaged a communist society, in which individuals would ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, grow cattle in the evening and critique after supper’, rather than being bound by the monotony of a single exhausting job. By the early 21st century, John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930, technological advances would usher in an ‘age of leisure and wealth’, in which his grandchildren would work just 15 hours per week.
And change is already taking shape. In western countries, the average working week declined from over 80 to around 60 hours between 1800 and 1900. Between 1900 and the 1970s, it shrank even further, reaching roughly 40 hours. In countries such as Spain, Japan and New Zealand, there have been recent experiments with a four-day working week.
By 2030, reduction of working time will be in full gear, blurring the lines between the traditional employment contract and self-employment. Working-time patterns will have been redefined, fluctuating through technological innovation (with project-oriented freelance work), trade union pressure and shifts in mindsets towards a healthy work-life balance—a transformation younger generations will demand. Work values will have changed, transforming human experience.
Generations Y (millennials) and Z will make up by far the largest part of the working population, about 40 per cent. They see meaningful work as more associated with individual, societal and environmental and planetary wellbeing, with the boundaries between remunerated work, voluntary activity and leisure increasingly fuzzy. They will advocate a new way of working and living, working fewer hours and being more mobile and autonomous.
The journey toward a new foundation for work will reach a point of acknowledging the invisible domestic labour of caregivers—mostly women—and recognising these efforts. Post-work visions will thus give feminist ideas a new vigour.
Yet survival will continue to be at issue for the vast majority across the world. The pandemic has brought more than 250 million to the brink of hunger, shattering hopes of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and leaving populations in the global south worse off. In the north, there will be more zero-hours or ‘gig’ contracts, more self-employed with unpredictable incomes and more precarity, especially among young people—yet no effective offsetting public programmes, due to declining social resources and shifting demographics which favour age-related worklessness. In 2030, coping with intergenerational and distributional conflicts will become a pressing concern.
Work is indeed a basic human need, not only because it ensures our economic existence but also because it contributes greatly to the meaning ofa dignified life. We thus need to address more than just the economic and technological challenges the digital transition will bring. We need a robust public dialogue about the normative foundations of work—about the right ways to embed ‘post-work’ visions, distilling what principles we want to protect rather than allow to perish.
Such an effort would necessitate policies to strengthen workplace democracy and organisational performance, as well as fundamentally reimagining the relationship between labour, work and business, along more dignified, socially-meaningful and environmentally-sustainable lines. It would also require suitable structures and institutions for inclusive workplaces and labour markets, to make our democracies more resilient to the emerging divides between ‘digital losers’ and ‘digitally enabled value creators’, with their potential to reinforce populist threats.
An Oxford University survey found 53 per cent of young Europeans (aged 16-29) doubted democracy’s capacity to deliver on climate change, placing greater trust in authoritarian states—an alarming finding. Other research not only finds a link from youth dissatisfaction to the rise of populism but also reveals that, throughout the world, younger generations are becoming increasingly unhappy with democracy in absolute numbers, as well as compared with prior cohorts at comparable stages of life. With youth exclusion from jobs—because of automation—on the riseand amid chronic precarity, the complex dynamics of demography, technology and populism unfolding in the post-pandemic era will prove critical for the future of our democracies.
Rather than allowing the future of work to become part of the 2030s populist playbook and its emerging versions, we need reforms—now.
Dr Maria Mexi serves as a special adviser to the president of Greece, a consultant at the International Labour Organization and a senior researcher and fellow at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and the Albert Hirschman Center of Democracy of the Graduate Institute Geneva.