Robots are not coming to steal your job: digital technology is coming to make you work like a robot. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Applied Institute for Research in Economics
Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

David Spencer is Professor of Economics at Leeds University Business School. His research interests are in the area of the economics and political economy of work. Xanthe Whittaker is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change. Her research considers digital transformations of work and their effect on the employment relationship, with a particular focus on social, political and ethical aspects of the development of technology in the labour process.

Robot head

Academic research and public commentary on the future of work has fixated on the potential for new digital technologies to replace human jobs. As these technologies are adopted across the economy, we may see some job losses particularly in low-paid, low-skill jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and retail. We may also see some jobs undergo partial automation, as tasks within them are replaced with smart technologies.  

New digital technologies will also create jobs – there will be more data scientists and content moderators in the future. Whether technological change will add to, or subtract from, the total volume of employment will depend on the relative strength of these job displacement and creation effects.  

In a new report, we shift the focus of discussion from the quantitative effect of digital automation on jobs to a consideration of its effect on job quality. Most workers are likely to see technology impact on the content of their work. But the effect of digital technologies will also be highly mediated, with their use and application influenced by power relations at work and prevailing organisational forms and structures. In practice, the future of work under digital automation remains highly uncertain.  

But there are clear warning signs. For example, the rise of new forms of platform labour shows how digital technologies can be used to create more insecure, low-waged work. Across all forms of work, digital technologies, from email to smartphones, have tended to extend the length of working time and blur the divide between work and life, eroding workers’ free time and creating an 'always on’ culture. There is also evidence of digital technologies being used to intensify work and increase monitoring at work. Workers, in short, may not be replaced by robots, but may face having to work as if they are robots

The good news is that none of these trends is inevitable – much rests on decisions that are made about how digital technologies are designed and implemented in the workplace and on the broader policy environment in which technological change occurs. The effects of digital technologies are not determined by technological capabilities alone, but rather are influenced by the organisational, economic and social context in which they are used. Digital technologies need to be managed in ways that maximise societal well-being. Our report emphasises the great potential for digital automation to be harnessed for the collective good, under reformed conditions. 

We offer five policy recommendations for securing a digital future that works for all: 

  1. Skills and training provision – industry and sectoral skills alliances that focus on facilitating transitions for workers in ‘at risk’ jobs and reskilling for workers in transformed jobs.  

  1. Digital work-life balance  

    a. Establish a European ‘right to disconnect’ – a new EU-wide 'right to disconnect' that would grant the right to employees not to answer or send emails or other work-related messages outside normal office hours. 

    b. Lower the EU Working Time Directive (WTD) – a reduction of the WTD to a maximum of 38 hours per week and the removal of the ‘opt-out’ clause. Productivity gains from technology should result in reductions in working time, improving the balance between work and life. Consistent with this goal, the EU should set a target of an average 30-hour workweek by 2050.  
  2. Governance – reforms to worker representation, company reward schemes and workplace governance. The goal would be to embed an approach to technological change in industrial democracy by involving workers, whether through trade unions or other representation, in the development, introduction and operation of new technologies in the workplace.  

  3. A duty to report directive – a new directive for the regulation of technology at work, requiring firms to report on the effects of digital technologies on workers and a mechanism to make employers accountable for choices around technology, work organisation and job design. 

  4. Mission-oriented industrial policy – direct EU involvement in the design and diffusion of digital technologies to ensure decent work objectives are achieved. EU Member States should define and lead the innovation process through the adoption of a strategic, mission-oriented approach to digital automation, including developing provisions that ensure that, where digital technologies are introduced into production and business processes, they contribute towards well-being through the creation of higher quality work and shorter work hours. 

Taken together, the policy options aim to move beyond the skills and training agenda that is the standard response to structural change in capitalist economies. Instead, they aim to establish a new Digital Social Contract around the development, management and use of digital technologies.

A social protection floor at a European level for all workers, regardless of their contractual status, is an essential part of this contract. The social protection floor is guided by the Human-Centred Agenda (HCA) set out by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which recommends that EU Member States guarantee universal entitlement to life-long learning, support individuals subject to technological transitions at work, implement a programme for gender equality, strengthen social protections at work, and expand time sovereignty. 

Society must aim for a digital future where the greatest number of people thrive within work and beyond it. The policy recommendations in our report show how such a future can be realised. 

This blog post is based on the study - ‘Digital Automation and the Future of Work’ - written by David Spencer, Matt Cole, Simon Joyce, Xanthe Whittaker and Digit Co-Director, Mark Stuart.  It was produced at the request of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), managed by the Scientific Foresight Unit, within the Directorate-General for Parliamentary Research Services (EPRS) of the Secretariat of the European Parliament.   

The full report can be downloaded from the European Parliament website.    

Read the STOA Options Brief, based on the policy recommendations in the report.    

Read a blog discussing the report findings on the European Parliamentary Research Service Blog.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.