Beyond technological unemployment

the future of work

Originally Published in EPAT 7 May 2019

We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment. This means due to our discovery of the means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

J.M. Keynes (1930) Economic Possibilities for our Children.

Source: Robert Saracco – problem-the-digital-transformation-is-the-problem-ii/

In 2016, I published a brief editorial essay called Technological unemployment: Educating for the fourth industrial revolution1 that reviewed some scholarly work on the concept under the heading The robots are coming. It began by recording the anxieties expressed by a range of commentators at the 2015 World Summit on technological unemployment2 about a set of disruptive technologies that will allegedly create jobless growth and worldwide unemployment. My orientation was to give this topic a philosophical treatment because to me it was not just a question of measurement or prediction of possible job losses but rather a much deeper issue concerning end of work discourses’ that had first emerged in the 1970s with thinkers like Andre Gorz who in Farewell to the Working Class (Gorz, 1980), Reclaiming Work (2000) and later publications that argued that productivity gains from capitalism could be used to enhance social life. The problem for Gorz is not the destruction of work but rather the perpetuation of an ideology of work as a source of rights and income entitlement. Gorz wanted to break the employment relationship and also to back away from commodity-based social relations altogether. He was one of the first to challenge classic Marxist theory on the significance of the proletariat and also to offer a social vision where work was no longer central. Now after several waves of technologies the question of the social and kind of workless’ society, or at least a society not so heavily defined by work has become an urgent need for analysis and imagination. There are plenty of dystopian views that provides a picture of what might happen when there is no work or when work no longer structures our post-industrial society.

The philosophical reappraisal of the concept of work is a way of rethinking the concept of the laboring society’ that characterized industrial conceptions of work and society. On further reflection much of the current anxiety has expressed itself in predictions but few responses have ventured into the much more difficult terrain of imagining a different kind of society where work and the institutions it structures (unions, politics, education, retirement, etc.) might be institutionally re-written. Despite the rapid growth of information services and adoption of new intelligent technologies we still inhabit an industrial landscape based on industrial attitudes, defined through industrial ontologies and subjectivities. In sociology we are told the industrial society is driven by technologies that enable mass production with an increasing complex division of labor, generally fossil energy sources, steam power and electricity, assembly lines, Tayloristic management regimes, and so forth. Indeed, the foundation thinkers of sociology were all concerned with the constitution of industrial society, the transition from agrarian society to a capitalist organization of industrial production where the concept of work was central, and the transformation to the next stage beyond capitalism. Most of the forecasts about the impact of the new wave of technology seem condemned to repeat the past – they highlight changes that might be made in order to keep the society we have. Education is seen as a social sponge and lifelong learning is seen as a solution’ to the need for perpetual retaining in new skills. The emphasis seems to fall on mopping up the unemployed, creating work, rather than focusing on a sustainable future society that can protect its citizens.

Industrial society is based on an economic mode of production that relied primarily on a concept of work defined by machine technology for the production of industrial goods. In one sense these characteristic features of industrial society experience a cultural lag when it comes to new social institutions that are structured through intelligent technologies. By intelligent technologies I mean new wave technologies that create platforms for new applications – 5G mobile networks, convergent technologies of genomic and information that are combined at the nano-level – ‘bioinformational’ – that are pushing cognitive technologies, and quantum computing. The digital is not a simple substitute for the industrial but the digital does offer a generalized online solution’ to industrial institutions that emphasize decentralized, personalized, citizen civic spaces’ based on the co-creation and co-production of symbolic public goods. It is a model that to some degree characterizes social media as based on connectivity with friends (and others), user-generated content, custom-based individual profiles, integrated features that encourage interaction, instant communication, that provokes engagement. The type of new institutions based on social media then is very different from industrial media as broadcast one-to-the-many. In its ideal form the new institution is many-to-many, interactive and constituted through forms of social exchange.

Part of the problem is that the economic definition of work has changed and is changing rapidly but the social institutions that developed around an industrial concept of work are much slower to change. There is a degree of institutional inertia or cultural lag. The industrial revolution that was based on steam soon gave way to a new round of technological change that utilized electricity and the internal combustion engine that permitted the development of heavy industries. One consequence in the history of labor was its industrialization the consequences of which we are still living through.

The world of work is changing as a result of three simultaneous tectonic shifts depicted in Figure 1 – The Future of Work.

Figure 1. The future of work.

  1. A demographic shift, including an aging population that is living longer combined with a declining population in full employment. The population bomb takes places when the employed can no longer support those unemployed. Mass migration becomes an important young labor reservoir and work is no longer seen by the young as essential for self- definition who require a better work-life balance.

  2. The economic shift of digital globalization, that creates massive global commodity markets especially for cultural goods that can be accessed digitally with same-day delivery; financialization as the accelerated growth of the finance sector, deregulation and the development of leverage, debt economy and financial derivatives, with effects on the political system endangering representative democracy.

  3. A technological shift, driven by the internet, internet platforms, including robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, 3D-printing; and bio-algorithmic capitalism bringing together the twin forces of genomic science and information at the nano-scale to produce a new scientific unity and a form of technology convergence that is driving the 5G mobile technologies over the next decade.
  4. I added Democratic shift because in the West it includes the contemporary shift to alt-right and far-right politics, the growth of white supremacist parties that are militantly anti-immigration; the breakdown of the two-party system with clear winners and growth of negotiated coalitions (often with strange partners) and highly labile floating day-to-day political issues; democratic deficits and lengthy hide-bound stand-off decision-making. (Various sources including Vos, 2018, Groz, 1980 and others)

Figure 1 is an attempt to capture the new ecology of work especially the digital economy with attention of 5G mobile networks and a set of accelerating synergies represented by technology convergence that emphasizes a semiological system in which everything speaks. In this new configuration there are pronounced risks of poverty and social inclusion3 and emergent atypical forms of employment with insecure contracts, hours and pay, as well as new models of out- sourcing, and often bogus self-employment have proliferated, leaving many people without adequate employment and social protection. At the same time in the digital economy there are new forms of platformcollaborative’ and sharing’ economies that are well suited to knowledge economy in higher education, health, and social services.4 One critic has argued that the future of labor is female.5

I have added the dimension of democracy because it is a vector that requires mention given the difficulties that democracies have in making effective decisions. Democracy is one of the best potential epistemological tools for making decisions and solving the democratic deficit we are currently facing. In The Epistemology of Democracy’ Anderson (2006, p. 8) examines the ability of democracy to model the epistemic functions of three constitutive features of democracy: the epistemic diversity of participants, the interaction of voting with discussion, and feedback mechanisms such as periodic elections and protests.’ She focuses on the epistemic powers of institutions to view democracy as an institution for pooling widely distributed information about problems and policies of public interest by engaging the participation of epistemically diverse knowers. The democratic norms of free discourse including dissent, feedback, and accountability function to ensure collective, experimentally-based learning from the diverse experiences of different knowers’ can be enhanced through digital technologies to provide better representative decisions and more effective judgements as the basis for law. Digital democracy focuses on participation in the proposal, development and the creation of legislation. It enables self-determination and puts to work new digital technologies in the service of the public and democratic good. This is part of the new social partnership state that promotes all forms of openness to expand and widen participation and to encourage citizen co-creation of social goods, an import- ant feature in an increasingly jobless’ society.6

In this transformed digital context the notion of Work 4.0 was introduced in 2015 by the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) to discuss changes in association with Industry 4.0 and the widespread adoption of principles of intelligent manufacturing.7 The World Banks (2019) The Changing Nature of Work is optimistic when it claims that overall technology has created more jobs than it has displaced’ (p. 18) and seemingly unware of different types of technological change. The report notes that while industrial employment has dropped more than ten percent in advanced western economies there has been a corresponding increase in services. The report also notes that returns to tertiary education have remained high at 15% a year while platform technologies concentrate the wealth in fewer hands. The report is equivocal about the scale and rate of robotization of work and more sanguine of the consequences than other reports, noting that estimates of the percentage of jobs at risk from automation vary widely. The World Bank, like many other organizations, emphasizes the importance for social inclusion for all workers regardless of how or where they work’ (p. 31) but does not attempt an ecological perspective on the world of work.

The concept of Work 4.0 indicates that work has gone through four phases beginning with the birth of industrial society and the formation of the first worker organizations that developed in the late 18th century (Work 1.0). In the 19th century, Work 2.0 was organized through mass production and the development of trade unions that engineered an institutional compromise of labor with capital under the welfare state, committed to policies of full employment. Since the 1970s, Work 3.0 emerged through a stage of globalization, industrial outsourcing and first stages of digitization. Work 4.0 is distinctive in terms of use of internet-based intelligent technologies, new forms of work through digital platforms, the rise of flexible employment regimes, and novel human-machine augmentation. The German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs’ (2017) White Paper Work 4.0: Reimaging Work8 is perhaps the best developed concept of the social partnership directed at the question: how can we preserve or even strengthen our vision of quality jobs and decent work (Gute Arbeit) in an era of digital transformation and societal change?’ (p. 9). The report asks a series of important questions designed to arrive at a collective vision between flexibility and social protection:

First: will digitalisation enable everyone, as far as possible, to have a job in future? And, if so, subject to what conditions? Second: what will be the impact of new business models such as digital platforms’ on the work of the future? Third: if the collection and use of data is becoming ever more important, how can employees’ legitimate entitlement to data protection be guaranteed? Fourth: if humans and machines work together ever more closely in future, how can machines help to support and empower people in the way they work? Fifth: the world of work is becoming more flexible. But what might solutions look like which also improve options for workers, in terms of when and where they do their work? Sixth: what will the modern company of the future look like – one which may no longer resemble a traditional company in all respects, but which nonetheless facilitates participation and social security for its employees? (p. 9, Summary).

As the report summarizes: Social partnership, co-determination and democratic participation in shaping working conditions are core elements of Germanys social market economy, a stabilising force in times of crisis, and a factor for success in the face of international competition’ (p. 11). This is the vision promoted in Germany to cope with digital structural change’ aimed at the need to reach a consensus in society on the future of the welfare state and its social security systems.’ I admit to liking the concept of digital structural change’ that traces the shift from ana- log to digital technology and the rise of mobile devices in an era where digitalisation permeates much of everyday life, value creation processes and work’ creating new tipping points’ enabling new applications. The report lists the new level of digitalisation as being driven by advances in three areas: First, IT and software, especially cloud technologies and mobiles devices; artificial intelligence and applications to Watson, AlphaGo and Siri; robotics and sensors, with new application to small and medium businesses. These technologies are related to new manufacturing techniques with improved control and data collection, and connectivity that paves the way for cyber-physical systems as the basis for Industry 4.0.

I have difficulties with all of these conceptions – Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 and Work 4.0 – in that they embrace very simple causal histories of technological change as a linear sequence that implies a deterministic philosophy. At the same time, I do not think we can embrace the humanistic Marxist philosophy that motivates labor history.

In the twenty years after WWII labour history’ became an important source of ideas and motivation especially with the works of E.P Thompson and Eric Hobsbawn who emphasized history from below. Their approach was heightened by the winter of discontent’ in 1979 with the systematic attack on unions in the UK and the attempt to introduce more flexible employment regimes. In this kind of social history more attention was given to women and non-white minorities in a conception that emphasized gender and race in the construction of class analysis. But this social history did not on the whole engage with the coming future and the disappearance of labor under the impact of intelligent technologies. Indeed, in the 1990s and after, the field of labor history lapsed into a decline but has been experiencing something of a comeback recently.9 New labor history focusing on the working experiences of women and minorities has shifted the focus away from the traditional Marxist perspective that saw history in terms of classes and institutions but it is not well equipped theoretically to deal with changes to capital- ism from intelligent technologies beyond insisting on social protection.

Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) in Robots and jobs: evidence of US labor markets’ indicate that the use of industrial robots may reduce employment and wages. They document the rise of robots per thousand workers and the expected rise to 46 million by 2025. New labor history must now include human-machine augmentation and interface as well as the new division of labor, how we define work and the fruits of wage labor within the context of an evolving technological society. The new division of labor now includes robots and other forms of aug- mented intelligence and they must be incorporated in the new social division of labor.

In The Jobless World and Its Discontents’ Andrew Chakhoyan (2017) at the World Economic Annual Meeting reviews the possibilities of job loss in the face of the great uncoupling’ (the wid- ening gap between productivity gains and the creation of new jobs) asks how a person could support themselves when they are not expected to be working.10 The proposal of a universal basic income still leaves the difficulty concerning consumer demand. Even if we subordinate digital technology to global human needs rather than to profits there are still a multitude of social, economic and political problems. Over twenty years ago Aronowitz and Difazio (1994) in The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work discussed alternatives to the long wave of the job culture as the substitution for the good life’ (p. 10) with reference to regulating capital’ (p. 349) and a guaranteed income’ (p. 353). Aronowitz and Difazio went beyond dehumanizing job culture concepts that defined existence only in terms of current or past employment to pro- pose social changes based on justice’ in which human pursuits of the good life will be shared by all. China tech guru Kai-Fu Lee (2018) also says a jobless future is coming, and we must prepare now.11 His book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order Kai-Fu Lee (2018) indicates that there are two separate techno-ecosystems – American and Chinese – and they operate in different but parallell universes. In the interview he suggests: Its not just a language issue. Its about research patterns, payments. Its about your affinity for the brand, your belief in the company and all these other things combined. So these two universes arent bound to col- lide any time soon. This underlines the difference that history and culture make: the European experience and the development of welfare states in the West (followed by neoliberalism) is very different from the experience of China. Perhaps we can also talk of differences within the West between USA and Europe. This historical difference that determines modern employment culture will make a huge difference to proposed solutions. What is clear is that in terms of techno-sys- tems there are two distinct systems dominated by giant digital players that do not mesh. When questioned on automation and its effects he suggests that in 15 years 4050% of current jobs will disappear but the problem is considered to be that of the CCP rather than business. Yet in terms of jobs he suggests creativity’ and compassion, that is, students should be able to follow their talents from an early age and others in human services and interaction to care for others.

What this brief discussion indicates is that there will be no universal solutions to job losses. It highlights that the rate of job loss will differ over time, that history and culture also play a role in imagining acceptable solutions, so that, for instance, welfare state regimes in the West will approach solutions in terms of the history of the commitment to workers’ rights and to employ- ment security. Yet even within these historical confines much will be determined by the emerg- ing techno-systems that are controlled by the nine big tech companies – six American, and three Chinese – that are overwhelmingly responsible for the future of artificial intelligence: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, IBM and Facebook (in the US) and Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (in China). The geopolitical development of two separate systems will also have a strong impact on both job losses and alternative societal visions.


  3. social-exclusion/
  6. and
  7. Re-Imagining Work: Green Paper Work 4.0 (2012), greenpaper-work-4-0.html
  8. blob publicationFile&v 3
  9. See, for example, Jan Lucassens (2013) Outlines of a History of Labour, files/docs/publications/respap51.pdf; Keith Fletts (2008) Labour History, makinghistory/resources/articles/labour_history.html.
  11. tech-guru-kai-fu


Michael A. Peters image


Anderson, E. (2006). The epistemology of democracy. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology(2-1). https://

Aronowitz, S., & Difazio, W. (1994). The jobless future: Sci-tech and the dogma of work. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Gorz, A. (1980). Farewell to the working class. London: Pluto Press.

Keynes, J. M. (1930). Economic possibilities for our children. Retrieved from econ116a/keynes1.pdf

Lee, K.-F. (2018). AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The World Bank (2019). The changing nature of work. Retrieved from wdr2019

Vos, M. D. (2018). Work 4.0 and the future of labour law. Retrieved from cfm?abstract_id¼3217834

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Full Citation Information:
Michael A. Peters (2019): Beyond technological unemployment: the future of work, Educational Philosophy and Theory, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2019.1608625

Michael A. Peters

Michael A. Peters (FRSNZ)  is a New Zealander and is currently Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University, and Emeritus Professor University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has Honorary Doctorates from Aalborg University, Denmark and SUNY, New York. Michael is Editor-in Chief of Educational Philosophy and Theory and Beijing International Review of Education (Brill). He is founding editor of Policy Futures in Education (Sage); E-Learning & Digital Media (Sage); Knowledge Cultures (Addleton); Open Review of Educational Research (Taylor & Francis); Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy (Brill) and on the board of many other journals and book series. Michael has written over 100 books and many journal articles on a wide range of topics and has worked with and mentored many younger scholars.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash