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Rewriting the Future of Work

Summary:
Three common assumptions skew economists' forecasts of automation’s impact on employment. Addressing each is essential to protect workers’ rights and change the fatalistic storyline of the prevailing narrative. TORONTO – Much has been written about the “future of work,” and much of it makes for gloomy reading. Study after study predicts that automation will upend entire industries and leave millions unemployed. A 2013 paper by two Oxford professors even suggested that machines could replace 47% of jobs in the United States within “a decade or two.” JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images Previous Next Conclusions like these sustain the narrative that the future will

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Three common assumptions skew economists' forecasts of automation’s impact on employment. Addressing each is essential to protect workers’ rights and change the fatalistic storyline of the prevailing narrative.

TORONTO – Much has been written about the “future of work,” and much of it makes for gloomy reading. Study after study predicts that automation will upend entire industries and leave millions unemployed. A 2013 paper by two Oxford professors even suggested that machines could replace 47% of jobs in the United States within “a decade or two.”

Conclusions like these sustain the narrative that the future will inevitably be jobless. And yet this view is favored primarily by the corporate sector and supported by negative trends in the so-called gig economy; workers and trade unions have played little role in the conversation. If that were to change, the future of work could look very different.

Three common assumptions skew forecasts of automation’s impact on employment. Addressing each is essential to protect workers’ rights and change the fatalistic storyline of the prevailing narrative.

The first assumption is that fully automated jobs will displace workers in the near future. This view is little more than conjecture, and even those using the same data can draw different conclusions. For example, a 2017 McKinsey study, drawing on similar datasets as the 2013 Oxford research, found that only 5% of jobs in the US could be fully automated, but that about 60% of American jobs could be partly automated. In other words, automation does not mean that human work must disappear, only that it could become more productive.

If anything, current trends underscore why it is important to democratize how technology is built into business processes. When major corporations introduce innovations to speed up production – like handsets to time warehouse workers in Amazon’s facilities – the unintended consequence can be a decline in productivity. For many workers, the way that technology is adopted may be more relevant than the technology itself.

The second assumption is that automation will not benefit most workers....

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