Research on the Future World of Work

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks working on a chapter for my thesis, and I’ll be presenting my work as a conference paper in June.

Luckily I get to present the same paper at two different conferences: The first is the Annual Research Conference, and I’ll be presenting alongside other research students from all the different faculties at the University, and the second is during the Memory Network’s conference on Memory and Immortality. Both in the same week, which is of course not daunting in the slightest…

One of the things I am interested in as an almost-historian is the idea of a collective community memory that instils certain ideas about ways of doing things for years to come. My work is centred on the activities of the GFTU, and I’ve found that because of the nature of federation, there are seemingly endless avenues to explore in terms of the impact union activity had on the collective memories. Today, in similar ways to their early years, the GFTU have a big focus on providing a wide range of educational services to the members of their affiliates. Before state intervention became the norm, it was trade unions that offered adult education services, and so this continuation of accessible skills acquisition intrigued me.

To put it very simply, Britain has already been through a technological revolution, and is about to again. First it was the steam engines, which brought the factories, which brought the slums, which brought (eventually) the social reforms. Now we’ve had the computers, and they brought the robots, which will lead to… mass unemployment of low-skilled workers? No one knows the future, but there are plenty of economists, journalists, scientists and innovators that are discussing what could happen, or should happen, as we watch the impact of technology unfold over the workforce.

So here’s my abstract for my conference paper:

 

Our world of work now encompasses striking new technological developments that mean driverless taxis and robotic doctors could be a part of our workforce in the near future. What could that mean for our workforce? The anxiety of widespread job losses is a spectre that looms over any discussion of breakthroughs in engineering and science that would mean increased productivity. This anxiety is not new, and is in fact something that is ever present in the collective memory of the British working class, and particularly those within the trade union movement from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In this paper, I will imagine two future worlds. In both worlds, we are surrounded by advanced technological innovation, but the crucial difference will be that in one world our future has been reached with simultaneous progressive social advancement, coupled with effective and accessible education and training, to mitigate the negative economic effects of increasing technology in the workplace. In contrast, the other world has the same level of technological advancement, but has lacked concern for the social impact and therefore has an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

As a society, we are at a crossroads, and our decisions will determine which of the two worlds our children will inhabit. I argue that it is not enough to have a collective memory of how we tackled our first industrial leap forward in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that we must convert these memories into a living, breathing immortal legacy that actively shapes and defines our future. I will show, through historical records of efforts by trade unions to effectively educate and re-train their members, what a future could look like in which people and machines work together to create a wealth shared by our global community.

 

Like I said, we can’t possibly know for sure how workers across the world will be affected as automation becomes smarter and more affordable. I’m hoping that we can learn some lessons from our actions and inactions in the past, and hopefully use our resources to help strengthen the changing workforce for the better.

So come along if you can make it! This is a huge topic, so I’m really excited to hear what people think.

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