Question of the Century: The Future of work

On the cold Danish morning of December, 2, 2018, over 1200 trade unionists from 132 countries gathered in Copenhagen for the fourth ITUC World congress. In her address, Lizette Risgaard, President of host LO-Denmark, set the tone for the week ahead, reminding delegates, “We are – and always will be – the global trade union movement. We are the world’s biggest peace movement, based on international solidarity and cooperation. I am convinced that this Congress will deliver strong political messages. Messages that provide answers to many of our global challenges.”

Of the many global challenges that beleaguers the world was the question of the Century, the question of our generation: the future of work. The greatest question of the century is ‘How do we create jobs and retain jobs in a world that is increasingly getting automated? I, for one, am ready to concede that this is not an easy question to answer. Many essays continue to be written on the matter. This is the biggest question that every government has to decisively answer. This is one question that will determine the stability of the world; social and economic stability. National and international security hinges on this one single question.

The question of employment and employment creation has been a subject for both political and academic debate for centuries. This a question that great economic thinkers of this world have debated for centuries end among them John Maynard Keynes, Michal Kalecki among others. Their seminal works in the field of economics have tried to explain and answer this central question. Notwithstanding, their differences in philosophical approach, their quest was singular – to come with a model that would explain how the economy works consequently shedding light on how decisions on investments leading to job creation are made. This, however, is not an attempt at discussing any economist’s work in this regard.

As manufacturing, the all-time mainstay of economic growth and job creation, continuously – in the quest for efficiency of capital – gets heavily automated, traditional jobs are being shed as they become redundant. This leaves policy makers with a headache to answer the question I have mentioned above. In this quest, the world has been left with two kinds of people; those in denial of the impending change and those acknowledging that change has come in all its glory and brutality. Orthodoxy versus modernism if you will. Ambition versus fear. Bravery versus cowardice.

On the first of May, the working class will gather in their different localities through their various organizations to commemorate MAY DAY as it has been known. The history behind this day is well known and need not be rehashed herein suffice to say it marks the importance of civil and organized advocacy in the trajectory of the human social experience. The role played by Union or the labour force in carving out social policy cannot be understated. The modern-day welfare state is a consequence of this relentless advocacy. As an example, the Landsorganisationen i Sverige (popularly known as LO) a Swedish Labour Unionadopted the so-called Rehn-Meidner Plan after the second world war aimed at reducing income inequality. Furthermore, in 1936, under the Swedish Government of the Socialist Party, the trade unions and employers’ organizations entered into the historic Saltsjobaden Agreement which is the basis of Sweden’s welfare state. Such is the power of the labour movement in policy formulation when harnessed properly.

On the first of March, the trade union movement will be expected to deliver its manifesto for reform in answer to the question of the century. The precariousness of work today should be the main concern for the labour movement and for governments equally. However, the trade unions, of all civil organizations, occupy a historic place of prominence on matters of this nature. It is thus imperative that they make their voices heard like they have throughout all the decades of economic change. Their voice is, today, required with more urgency that ever before to the nature of the ongoing changes. A rather proactive than reactionary action is required.

The fruits of this change have already bore its ugly head in the world leading to the rise in racist, sometimes almost fascist populist governments and xenophobia. The worsening economic situation, especially for the working class, is plunging the world into chaos. Youth and general unemployment continue to rise adding fuel to fire. This, therefore, calls, at the risk of repeating myself, for urgent action. In the words of the American Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg we can choose to wish to reverse the time and cling to past glory or we can look forward to a new future by defining how we integrate these changes into our lives with little distraction. The current state of affairs shows we are failing in this regard.

The failure to react to this change is due to one or a combination of the following; lack of political will and or political gridlock. Vested interests embedded in government have also proven themselves to be another hurdle to finding long-term solutions. This is not a new phenomenon at all. History is littered with people who have resisted change only to clamourto its doorstep when the flood knocks at their now house of cards.

During the interwar period and in the grip of the great depression, in the United States a New Deal was proposed as a response to the chaos that had befallen the economy. Today, the Green New Deal is being proposed much to the chagrin of the conservative right wing who still hold on to past glory. Is the Green New Deal the solution to the question of the century? Maybe or maybe not. What is required, using the US as an example, is to have more political will to find a solution regardless of philosophical standing and for politicians to free themselves from the shackles of special interests, to be fearless. It is on this basis that we can begin to seek credible solutions. A concerted effort between government, labour, capital and the entire civil society is more than necessary it is imperative.

This is a challenge for all to come up with solutions to this great question. What is beyond question is that the intangible asset of human over machines is our intuition. How often have we seen diagnostic machines fail to tell us what was wrong with a car only for an experienced mechanicto point out the problem partly due to his intuition? Clearly the human element remains essential to the world of work and it is upon us to make this new world of work work for us. In a recent Twitter interaction, Ms Angie Chuma posited that human knowledge systems should be made the core of all innovations. Thus, as per the example above, there remains an avenue for us to leverage.

Furthermore, we need to revamp our education system to be responsive to the ever-changing economy. Education as the basis for human knowledge should keep up with the evolving knowledge base of the world. As we go deeper into the 4thindustrial revolution, which is a knowledge technology-based economy, we should see our education system placing an emphasis on subjects that are essential to this economy. STEM programmes should be the new gospel of the modern curriculum.

As for the trade union movement, I argue that their new and greatest calling within the collective bargaining parameters is no longer wage inequity but rather retooling and upscaling of the current work force to ensure that where technology and automation are introduced, they are not rendered redundant but remain part of the productive force.

The above ideas are one of the few that as a people we can look to. It is beyond any doubt that we need to be bold and deliberate in our approach. This is a call for all to act and act now.

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