A better future for work?

International Futures Programme

It appears that with every passing age work in most societies has got better and less exploitative. Now, with new technologies profound transformations within the firm are again in store. Will those changes deliver new benefits and improve the quality of life as before?

The impact of information tech-nology (IT) on work is a question which probably worries us more than we care to admit. Will information technology be a liberating force on the individual and the herald of a new social and economic contract? Or will it cause a drastic cut in jobs and massive unemployment? Will the quality of life be improved by opportunities both inside and outside the workplace, or will the work experience deteriorate into a race, with the jobless in search of unstable, unpredictable and above all insecure contracts?

To start with, it is most likely that IT - as with other forms of technological changes in the past - will have an impact, not so much on the overall employment level, as on its makeup. The nature of working relations will also be deeply affected by IT, as it brings about a radical transformation in the organisation of production. There will be a reduction in the layers of management and virtual organisations will emerge without fixed locations and with flexible, demand-oriented, production networks.

As to the composition of employment, many jobs are likely to be destroyed, notably low-skill repetitive jobs and middle management posts, as organisational structures become flatter. Even highly qualified professionals, such as medical doctors and lawyers, will not be immune to the onslaught of IT. At the same time, new forms of employment will become more prevalent; notably, participation in task-specific team production and teleworking will usher in a new type of job tenure, a sort of "jobless" employment market.

These changes will bring new challenges for employees and for employers alike. Employees will have to be prepared to upgrade their skills on an on-going basis and to switch jobs, perhaps several times in their career, as a matter of course. They may have more frequent spells being unemployed, or on time-out between jobs. Overall, employees will need to be more entrepreneurial in their career development and will have to adjust to a new working environment where the very concept of job, as we know it, will have evolved and may even disappear.

But employers too will need to adjust. With innovation, rapid product cycles and high quality as basic requirements for success in the market place, firms will have to find new, flexible ways of employing knowledge workers effectively. In this context, resolving tensions between the need for a secure environment to nurture employee initiative and the potential insecurity due to unfamiliar work relationships will be important. This will call for managerial innovations in the way both work schedules and job descriptions are tailored to the needs of employees. Notably, employers will have to pay particular attention to the needs of "core knowledge workers", who are workers charged with knowledge production who will probably insist on less linear, less hierarchically defined career paths. In a more competitive environment where human capital will play an increasingly dominant role, such workers will be in a strong position to negotiate their fees and their working conditions. Firms will have to bid for employee time, which may drive up wages for certain skills, though boosting efficiency and improving business-partner relations.

Job satisfaction

As the job market changes, the workplace experience will change too. The question is in which direction, good or bad? According to some, it will deteriorate. Just as mechanisation resulted in the dehumanisation of work in assembly line industries, it is feared that future workers will become mere extensions or servants of computer-driven production processes. As system software increasingly controls and defines the work to be done, computerisation may turn many contracts into mind-numbing McJobs, with individuals being systematically stripped of their capacity for human involvement and judgement.

Optimistic technophiles, on the other hand, argue that the quality of work will improve for most of us and that those who are left out will still be able to enjoy a higher level of income. This sounds perhaps a little utopic, though there is a logic to it. The argument is that increased prosperity brought about by progress in information technology will result in a major increase in leisure time, which in turn will translate into more fulfilling lives. Not only will individuals have more time out for themselves and more money to enjoy it with, but also work itself will become more rewarding. Indeed, for some workers the distinction between work and leisure will become blurred as they find they are able to work at what they enjoy doing. This is because "intelligent" machines and systems will do the dirty, dreary work, replacing manual labour and some of the more mundane intellectual work too.

Decision support programmes will provide essential help for more complex intellectual work, allowing individuals to focus on the most satisfying tasks. In this vision of the future, work will increasingly become a means to satisfy higher order needs, part of one's self-fulfilment. In other words, work could become a hobby for more and more people. In this optimistic scenario, even those who cannot find the jobs they want will be better off as the rising tide of affluence lifts all boats, improving welfare programmes and ensuring that the basic needs of society are indeed met.

On balance, there is good reason to believe that IT can bring about a period of unprecedented material prosperity to the world. Indeed, it is quite possible that, after a period of painful adjustment, workplace improvements will spread globally in the longer run, albeit perhaps in an uneven way, with some periods and places witnessing faster progress than others. As the technophiles argue, our pay cheques and welfare payments should on the whole become fatter. However, there is no guarantee that everyone, or even most of us, will benefit.

Indeed, if current trends in income are a harbinger of things to come, income inequality may very well increase in the future, possibly becoming a source of serious social upheaval. So, will IT favour only an affluent highly skilled small elite, while the less skilled become poorer as they are automated out of the equation and cornered in dumbed-down jobs? That is a key question and it is one on which the true promise of new technology will be judged.

Other stories on this Spotlight on the 21st century

©OECD Observer No 217/218, Summer 1999

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