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Social and ecclesiological factors in the future of work

Thursday, 16 August 2018  | Kara Martin

Photo: By Andrew Neel on Unsplash

In my lifetime I have changed career seven times, held 22 jobs and now balance two part-time roles, a couple of projects and my own writing and speaking endeavours. Right now I am earning less than at any time in my working life. However, I have the flexibility that I love and am doing work that energises me, while avoiding the work that used to drain me.

I am impacted by a lack of job security, do not receive much professional development and have no career plan. What I experience now is the probable shape of the work of the future: casual insecure piecework, where I wear the cost of my development, and the risk of ill health.

During the Humanising Work seminar at Morling College in 2017, we each had the chance to share some observations about how the shape of work is changing with the rise of technology, shifting economic levers and globalisation. Following are some of my observations.[1]

A changing definition of ‘work’

Most people would define work as something you are paid to do. Such a definition is very limiting. It excludes the work that is essential for the functioning of our society but that remains largely unremunerated, such as care of children and the elderly, the voluntary work done through charities and churches and sporting clubs, and the earth care work of gardening.

In the Bible we do not see such a limiting definition. Work is that which you do with purposeful intent, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen. God is interested in all work including work that might not be valued economically, including prayer, character formation and worship in everyday life.

As we look to a future where forecasters anticipate that there will not be enough paid work to go around[2] , there is a move to decouple work from the payment received. At one extreme is the concept of the universal basic income (UBI): an amount paid to everyone to cover basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, regardless of the person’s employment.

It is an idea promoted by leaders in Silicon Valley, the source of much of the technology that is anticipated to displace almost 50% of the current jobs. It was popularised recently in a Harvard University commencement speech by Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg who said: ‘We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful…. We should explore ideas like universal basic income, to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas.’ [3]

The change of definition of work is welcome, although there are many critics of the UBI who see its potential to create a culture of laziness and entitlement, and stifle innovation and productivity. Indeed, the Bible recommends that we should all work, that work is good for personal health and the functioning of community, and that it is good to reward work (not necessarily financially).[4]

The impact on those who are vulnerable

It is reasonable to assume that the hardship anticipated as a result of the technological revolution will have a proportionally larger impact on those most vulnerable to economic and labour force changes: the disabled, older workers, youth and women[5] .

A June 2015 report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, called Australia’s Future Workforce? summarises the technological advances and their impact:

Computers will reshape the labour market in two key ways. They will:

1. Directly substitute for labour, with a high probability that as much as 40% of the jobs in Australia could be replaced by computers within a decade or two; and

2. Disrupt the way work is conducted, expanding competition and reducing the costs to consumers but also reducing the income of workers.

In The impact of emerging technologies in the workforce of the future, Telstra Chief Scientist Professor Hugh Bradlow describes how a range of existing technologies, such as cloud services, Big Data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics are rapidly reaching the point where they will have widespread impact on the economy.[6]

Already there has been what has been described as a feminisation of poverty. Social and economic factors such as the lack of superannuation/pensions and asset accumulation due to gender inequality unfairly impact on women, further disadvantaged having taken significant time out of the workforce due to caring responsibilities and/or long term casual or unstable employment.

In Australia, almost 45% of women reported that their quality of life worsened after retirement.[7]

It seems that changes in technological advancement are widening the gap between those who can adapt and those who struggle already.

Globalisation and the role of government

One of the issues with technological advancement is that it is outpacing government’s ability to react. Already we have seen it with a slow response to the transport disruptor Uber. In September 2017 in the UK, Uber was stripped of its London licence, years after it had started operating, due to a ‘lack of corporate responsibility’.[8]  Among the criticisms were the way Uber treats its drivers as ‘sweat labourers’ with no minimum wage and the high cost of meeting Uber’s vehicle requirements.[9]

A McKinsey Report has indicated that companies such as Uber, Google, Amazon and Facebook are so globally omnipresent that governments struggle to regulate them. It is increasingly the private sector that is investing in and setting policy for technological advancement. The Report outlines the issues that go beyond geographical boundaries:

  • Encouraging broader uptake of technologies to ensure competitive markets.
  • Addressing employment and income-distribution concerns.
  • Resolving ethical, legal and regulatory issues.
  • Ensuring the availability of data.[10]

Taking up just one of those challenges — some of the ethical issues — the authors of the report outline a number of concerns. Real-world biases risk being embedded into training data. Since the real world is racist, sexist and biased in many other ways, real-world data that feeds algorithms will also have these features — and when AI algorithms learn from biased training data, they internalise the biases, exacerbating those problems. There are also concerns about the algorithms themselves — whose ethical guidelines will be encoded into them, what rights should people have to understand the decision-making process and who will be responsible for their conclusions? This has led to calls for algorithmic transparency and accountability. Privacy is likewise a concern — who should have ownership of data, and what safeguards are needed to protect highly sensitive data, such as health-care data, without destroying its usefulness?[11]

How can the Church and Christians respond to the future work scenarios?

In the past it was Christians who led many of the companies at the forefront of the industrial revolution. It was the Protestant work ethic that enabled the rise of capitalism. It was Christians at the forefront of the union movement that were involved in tempering the excesses of capitalist endeavour, and it has been the church that has spoken in favour of limiting work hours, improving work conditions, quarantining Sunday as a day off for families to worship, maintaining public holidays and guaranteeing minimum wages.

However, in most western democracies, churches no longer command the same position in the public square. Their influence has been impacted by scandals, such as the child abuse epidemic, as well as falling membership and increasing secularisation of government and society.

Notwithstanding our reduced influence, this is an area where we have much to contribute. The Bible provides an ethical framework, a robust understanding of work and the dignity of the worker, and points to a higher authority than governments or CEOs; and Christians in most countries still run the charities that deal with the fallout of wage inequality, labour market change and poverty.

One of the most distinctive features of the ‘digital vortex’ that we are in is the way that it speeds up business and our lives. A study by the Center for Digital Business Transformation in 2015 indicates that businesses and individuals will become hyperaware with 24/7 quick data turnaround, allowing democratisation of decision-making and fast execution via dynamic processes. It is here that the deep rhythms and rituals laid down in the Bible can encourage us to prioritise taking time out, switching off and pursuing deep wisdom rather than shallow information.[12]

The future of work must be something that Christians watch closely, and we must prepare strategies to mitigate the dangers, enhance the dignity of our work and protect the soul of the worker.

Kara Martin is Project Leader with Seed, lecturer with Mary Andrews College and author of Workship: how to use your work to worship God and Workship 2: how to flourish at work. She was formerly Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute at Ridley College in Melbourne. Kara has a particular passion for integrating our Christian faith and work, as well as helping churches connect with the workers in their congregations.

[1]  I am grateful for the research contribution of Clare Inwood to my preparation for the seminar and the observations that follow.

[2]  Oxford University has estimated that 47% of current jobs will be at risk within the next 20 years because of technology advancement. As quoted in Fortune magazine: Clay Dillow and Brooks Rainwater, ‘Why Free Money for Everyone Is Silicon Valley's Next Big Idea’, 29th June 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/06/29/universal-basic-income-free-money-silicon-valley/.

[3]  See Fortune article: Dillow and Rainwater, ‘Free Money’, 2017.

[4]  This is especially clear in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian churches, where there was a tendency to not work, anticipating Christ’s return. Paul models hard work (1 Thessalonians 2:9), and is critical of those who are slack and do not work (1 Thessalonians 4:12–14). In fact, work is described as the act of doing good to one another and to all (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

[5]  These impacts have been summarised in various reports, including Australian Human Rights Commission, Willing to Work (2016); and Foundation for Young Australians, Report Card 2015 (2015).

[6]  Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), Australia’s Future Workforce? 16th June 2015.

[7]  Wesley Mission Brisbane, Doing it Tough: Queensland Older Women’s Experience of Poverty, 30th October 2015.

[8]  As reported in Sarah Butler and Gwyn Topham, ‘Uber stripped of London licence due to lack of corporate responsibility’, 23rd September 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/22/uber-licence-transport-for-london-tfl.

[9]  This was documented in a UK parliamentary enquiry, as reported in Felicity Lawrence, ‘Uber is treating its drivers as sweated labour, says report’, 10th December 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/09/uber-drivers-report-sweated-labour-minimum-wage.

[10]  Jacques Bughin et al., Artificial Intelligence: The Next Digital Frontier? (NY: McKinsey & Company, June 2017), pp.36-37.

[11]  McKinsey, Artificial Intelligence, p.37.

[12]  In Jeff Loucks et al., Digital Vortex: How Today's Market Leaders Can Beat Disruptive Competitors at Their Own Game (DBT Center Press, 2016), p.180.

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