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Earlier this year, the RSA launched research that modelled four potential scenarios for work in 2035.

They were:

  • The Big Tech Economy: What if technology develops at a rapid pace and leads to widespread automation, alongside tech companies entering new markets?
  • The Precision Economy: What if ‘Internet of Things’ sensors flood the economy, subjecting workers to new levels of algorithmic oversight and spurring the growth of gig economy platforms?
  • The Empathy Economy: What if technology makes emotional work more important while augmenting human capabilities?
  • The Exodus Economy: What if another economic recession causes technological progress to stall?

Read more about the RSA’s Four Futures of Work.

At a recent online event, we asked a group of RSA Fellows and members of the public what they thought of these four scenarios. They raised vital questions about the role of humans in the future of work, who has power over technology, and how can we use education to prepare for the future of work?

What role will humans have in the economy?

Any debate about the future of work raises serious questions about the nature and role of humans within the economy.

Significant advances in labour-saving technology take place in both the ‘Big Tech’ and ‘Empathy’ scenarios.

In the ‘empathy economy’, our extra time is more productively directed to jobs that need physical touch or emotional intelligence – areas humans will still have a clear advantage in.

The people we spoke to broadly accepted the idea that humans have an edge when it comes to “compassion” and “empathy”. There was strong support for a society that places a higher status upon these values and other “advanced interpersonal skills”.

In the ‘Big Tech Economy’, we predicted a union-led response to job losses – but thought it was key area of uncertainty. Some participants suggested that the “counter-cultural reaction” might be more radical and harder to predict than this.  

Indeed, people suggested that given the nature of the climate crisis even our ‘Exodus Economy’ (which sees a number of movements opting out of capitalism) might understate the reaction against the current economic system. This might even mean an “anthropological” transformation – changing what it means to be human. As someone put it:

“could it be possible that in a new scenario people get rid of the need for possession”?

Who has power over technology?

Discussion at this event tended to return to a simple question: who wields the power or agency that controls the technological forces that shape our lives?  

This was asked with a technological frame: human or machine? A practical one: worker or manager? And, when considering the ‘Big Tech Economy’ scenario in particular, a democratic one too: people, the government or corporations?

It is fair to say that the people we spoke to almost universally wanted humans to wield reasonable power over machines, workers to have reasonable agency over managers (particularly when it comes to surveillance tech), and for big tech firms to be democratically accountable.

Although there was some acknowledgement that the tech giants had “disrupted sectors that needed disrupting”, there was also a worry that they are “behaving like countries – trying to use muscle, political influence, even avoid oversight and control”.

On the technological question, it was acknowledged that quite often it is the human control that causes the problems – for example, with algorithms merely replicating existing prejudices and biases.

Part of the systemic problem with how we currently use technology is that we have not tried to build systems – for example, social media platforms – that push against our worst behaviours. As one participant said:

“maybe the next generation can build frictions into technology so that we actually slow things down, give people more of a chance to reflect upon ideas and decisions”.

How can we use education to prepare for the future of work?  

Perhaps the most consistently raised topic at this event was the need to rethink how we educate people for the new world of work.

This is hardly surprising given the rapid pace of change. “We are now educating kids for a world that doesn’t exist anymore”, one participant observed.

At times, rethinking education was discussed in the context of needing to raise our collective technical literacy in order to meet social objectives. For example, when considering the potential uses of data capture in ‘the Precision Economy’, participants were keen to place a set of rights or an ethical framework that could give individuals agency or control over their data.

First, one person said, we need to:

“help society understand what data actually means to them, how we actually manipulate that data and serve it to them through technology and products in a way that can be useful or not useful”.

However, most of the discussion concerned changing the values and focus of the education system – ‘educating for empathy’.

“We don’t spend time trying to encourage these young people to be comfortable working with all sorts of other people and understanding their own psychology. In this sort of scenario [the empathy economy] that advanced interpersonal skill is what we’ll need”.

 The hope for some was that reframing education in this way could help move societal values in a positive, more “compassionate” direction, particularly given the scale of challenges like the climate crisis.

Others were more sceptical and pointed out that if, for example, some of the sustainable social experiments envisaged by the ‘Exodus Economy’ were to become scalable then this would probably require buy-in from a potentially hostile media and fragmenting body politic.

“A greater balance between social outcomes and profit outcomes?”

Ultimately, there was an encouraging level of optimism that with the right political will, we can control the social and technological forces that will shape the future of work.

The people we spoke to seemed relatively confident that, even in the most extreme scenarios, there would be a social reaction that could be harnessed:

“There is a sense of a social contract which is being stretched and might break – and if it breaks then something’s going to change… society might flip to a situation where we look for greater balance between social outcomes and profit outcomes”.

Our job at the RSA Future Work Centre, working with our Fellowship, is to find that balance.

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