Written by Douglas White, Head of Advocacy, Carnegie UK Trust
I was in London this month for the latest Digital Leaders research salon at the University of Liverpool campus in London, exploring the relationship between digital technology and people’s experience of work, particularly in the gig economy – and how this relationship will change in the future.
I have the privilege of overseeing both our Digital Futures and Fulfilling Work policy and development themes here at Carnegie and the issues under debate at the salon clearly cut right through our work in both of these programmes.
Here’s a summary of the 7 key points that I made in my short presentation:
The relationship between technology and the gig economy is not a settled issue. This is a contested space. There is evidence of how technology can support progressive developments – enabling workers to self-organise, providing channels for collaboration and upskilling and, in some sectors, allowing workers new opportunities to develop portfolio careers that prove both financially and personally rewarding. However, there is also plenty of evidence of a more malign relationship between technology and precarious work – including atomisation and isolation, surveillance and downward pressure on pay. The challenge for policy, practice and advocacy is to robustly tackle the problems while simultaneously supporting the positive developments. Achieving these twin goals is unlikely to be straightforward.
This is a space where false assumptions are common. The gig economy and technology are often seen as synonymous; while technology itself can often be seen as neutral and objective, separated from human decision making. Neither of these suppositions is true. Precarious work, of course, existed long before digital platforms (think of the reliance on casual labour in many major industries – construction, agriculture, dock yards – over many years) while humanity and technology are intractably linked – it is people who design AI, write algorithms and analyse data. Most importantly, it is people who decide how technology is deployed within any given business or sector. These are decisions driven by business culture, ethics, regulatory requirements, investment need, shareholder priorities and (occasionally) public perception. Technology is not the root cause of problems in the gig economy – it is a symptom of decisions made by people running businesses, based on their values, priorities and incentives. What technology does is take the impact of these decisions deeper and faster than ever before.
Building on these points, technology per se is not what drives people’s experience of employment either in the gig economy or the wider labour market. The extent to which work is fulfilling and its impact on our wellbeing is determined by the critical issues of pay (actual and satisfaction with), job security, under or over-employment, the use of our skills, control, intensity, opportunity for progression, sense of purpose, relationship with peers, relationship with our line manager, physical and mental wellbeing and involvement and influence. Technology can impact on any of these measures in a positive or negative way. It’s the decisions about how technology is deployed – and who takes these decisions and why – that really matter.
The gig economy is not homogeneous. The interaction between technology and different aspects of job quality varies by sector, in terms of importance and in terms of whether the direction of travel is more negative or positive. We need to look at issues on a sectoral basis – retail, logistics, care, transport, graphic design, software development and so on – to understand the relationship between technology and the different determinants of job quality and identify the priorities for action in each sector.
People do not enter the labour market on an equal basis in terms of their digital skills and experience. Qualifications level is one of the top three determinants of digital inclusion. Those with the lowest level of the qualifications are least likely to have digital skills and are most likely to be excluded according to almost every other social or economic measure. This means that within increasingly digitally-driven parts of the labour market, including the gig economy, those who are already experiencing disadvantage are the least well-positioned to maximise the benefits that technology might offer them in their work and mitigate the risks. The risk therefore is that technology extenuates and extends existing labour market inequalities.
The public policy debate on these issues is not always joined up at present. For example, while technology has a prominent place within the Industrial Strategy it is far less visible in the UK Government’s recently published Good Work Plan, which considers a wide variety of issues in relation to precarious work but makes only limited comment on the interaction between this type of work and technology. Meanwhile the digital skills agenda has some focus on the digital skills required for employment, but does not necessarily relate these to the key determinants of job quality and the relationship between work and wellbeing. Strengthening these connections should be a matter of priority for all of us interested in these connected agendas.
Predicting the future is difficult. As the famous quote from Bill Gates goes ‘we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten’. It is unwise to be too certain in our expectations about how the interaction between technology and the gig economy will develop. However, we can be reasonably certain that the nature of this relationship will continue to be driven by business decisions, worker voice, shareholder value and government intervention – and we need to understand when, how and why we want to influence each of these potential levers of change.