The shifting boundaries between tasks performed by humans and those performed by machines are attracting growing attention. This column – by GlobalDev’s founding editors, together with Ramiro Albrieu of Future of Work in the Global South – introduces a new series of contributions on the implications of technological advances for development. New perspectives on technology, skills, labor market institutions, demography, and inequality from researchers in the Global South are particularly welcome.
The meaning of the word progress, as we understand it today, is inseparable from the last three centuries of technological advances. Technology is embedded in advances in living standards, both materially and in our imagery and culture. It is central to the concept of ‘economic growth’, a 20th century invention, and to the even more recent ‘Science, Technology, and Innovation’ triad. Both are too often used as a shortcut to describe and explain ‘development’.
Some scholars, such as Robert Gordon (2017), have questioned the promises of current technological advances to usher a new era of growth and rising living standards. Today, perhaps for the first time since Luddite protests against automation in the early 19th century, the shifting boundaries between tasks performed by humans and those performed by machines are attracting growing (critical) attention, and even concern.
With the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) – a set of technologies that has entered the public discourse well before its actual implementation, thanks to science fiction in literature and cinema – questions such as ‘Who will work in the future?’, ‘Will anyone work at all?’, ‘Who will work for whom, and for what?’, and ‘What will work look like?’ are making headlines again.
With it also arises the fear of a ‘jobless future’. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic introduces prospects of deep changes in the structure and organization of work and it likely to have lasting impact on reallocations of labor across sectors.
A global narrative
Researchers and policy-makers have been paying increasing attention to these debates – see Albrieu et al (2018) and Grimshaw (2020) – and a global narrative seems to be taking shape on the topic. On the one hand, new job opportunities are being created, particularly in software, design, and marketing, while on the other hand, AI promises to render a number of tasks obsolete (for example, information processing) and perhaps even entire sectors (such as the maquila industry). Employment levels are expected to decline for these types of jobs, as well as relative returns to the skills involved.
This narrative is rooted in the notion that AI is a ‘general purpose technology’ (GPT) that will lead to a ‘new industrial revolution’, thanks to the work of scholars such as Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo (see their 2016 and 2019 pieces).
If history is any guide, the narrative continues, in the long run, the positive effect will outweigh the negative effect so that both employment and real wages will increase thanks to technological innovation. The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2020, for example, states that while automation may destroy around 85 million jobs in the near future, AI and related technologies will add an additional 97 million jobs to the global economy.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF, 2018) added a note on wages: as real wages follow productivity trends, they will move upwards vis-à-vis the adoption of emerging technologies. A successful re-adaptation of skills and labor market institutions will be the main driver behind this structural transformation.
This narrative, which focuses on quantity and productivity, does not cover all relevant issues. The quality of new jobs is also at the heart of current concerns, subsumed by debates around the ‘uberization’ of the economy and popularized by celebrated movies such as Ken Loach’s ‘Sorry we missed you’.
As underlined by the pandemic, and, in other ways, by the 2007-09 global financial crisis, the social value of jobs (for example, in health services or garbage collection during lockdowns) may be at odds with current wages. How do we recognize social value in a world dominated by the quest for technology proficiency and performance?
Southern views – a call for contributions
Technology does not exist in a void, and a global narrative about a looming new industrial revolution sits uneasily with the incredibly diverse socio-economic realities that researchers and policy-makers alike face every day. Far from being an independent variable, technology has been theorised convincingly as a sub-system of modern societies, rather than an independent variable shaping society, by sociologists such as Niklas Luhmann.
The emerging global narrative around a jobless future might say more about the anxieties of some than the reality of many – and might not help anyone. But the counter-acting narrative, which assumes that repeating the past is the path to success, will not help either. For one thing, there is ample evidence that early adoptions of disruptive technologies were responsible for large bifurcations in income, productivity, and wellbeing across countries (the birth of what have become known as the Global North and the Global South).
In a global context increasingly critical of the persistent longevity of inequities between South and North, and with passionate calls to decolonise technology itself, delving into the nuances and context-specific conditions of the changing nature of work, with the rigour of social enquiry, is more urgent than ever. It’s the starting point for thinking, debating, and designing future policy frameworks.
Research produced in the Global South has started to feed this debate on a number of issues. We call for researchers from and/or based in the Global South, who are working on the future of work, to share their insights and knowledge, bringing their research and that of others to bear on the rebalancing of a debate that deserves to be truly global in scope.
Contributions are welcome across a number of topics, including but not limited to the following.
Technology – What do we know from existing research about the most promising technologies (and risks)? Are they taking place and what are the obstacles? What potential approaches might promote them and mitigate risks?
Skills – What do we know from existing research about which are the necessary abilities for the future of work? What are the mechanisms to deliver them? Are these mechanisms effective or where are the issues?
Labor market institutions – What do we know from existing research about the meaning of informality in ever more flexible labor markets? Is it still a bad thing? How can technology help to reduce or manage it? What are the costs of reducing informality? Which institutional reforms are needed to account for new forms of work?
Demography –What do we know from existing research about demographics and debates about the future of work? Is the labor market prepared to absorb the incoming labor force?
Inequality – What do we know from existing research about the digital divide? What is the role of the gender divide? What is the role of the race and ethnic divide? What is the role of the structural differences between the Global South and the Global North?
See the call details at http://globaldev.blog/blog/southern-views-future-work-call-contributions
Ramiro Albrieu, Project Leader of FoWIGS
Pierre Jacquet, Founding Editor of the GlobalDev
Francesco Obino, Founding Editor of the GlobalDev
This article was modified on August 28, 2021.