A justice driven reading guide for the ‘Future of Jobs’ report by the World Economic Forum

And for anyone interested in the future of ‘the fourth industrial revolution’

By: Tessa Boumans

Introduction

On April 30, 2023, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its ‘Future of Jobs’ report, aiming to explore how technology and socio-economic trends will shape the future workplace. However, it is crucial to critically examine the perspectives included in the report and those that are omitted. This blog post aims to provide a justice-driven reading guide, expanding the discourse on the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and making it more inclusive.

The World Economic Forum and its vision of industry 4.0

In their future of jobs report, the WEF describes how jobs will evolve in the context of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (or industry 4.0 or i4.0). To understand a bit better what i4.0 is about, we need to discuss how the concept is being narrated, by both the WEF and others. The WEF, founded by Klaus Schwab, has been influential in promoting the concept of Industry 4.0 through its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Schwab envisions a future with transformative technologies, from intelligent robots to genetic editing, happening at an exponential speed. While Industry 4.0 originated from a German government initiative, Schwab’s work has popularized the concept and highlighted its potential impact on the economy and society.

Sociotechnical imaginaries and criticisms

However, it should be understood that Schwab’s vision of the future is one of many. This is what Jasanoff and Kim (2015) call ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’. Sociotechnical imaginaries are collectively held visions of desirable futures achievable through advances in science and technology. Or in other words: sociotechnical imaginaries are the ideas and stories people have about the future and how technology will shape our lives, and the ways people work together to make those ideas become real. As such, (dominant) ideas about the future manifest into reality.

This is what brings me to the following disclaimer, because the WEF’s deterministic vision of i4.0 is not universally accepted as a desirable or realistic outcome. For example, critical scholars1 claim that it is not so much a ‘revolution’ as it is a continuation of more digitalized capitalist production systems. In any case, the real-life implications of such a ‘revolution’ are more complex and slower than is generally depicted in the WEF i4.0 scenario. And even if the WEF’s discourse holds true for Global North societies, it seems unlikely that Global South societies will be affected equally. In spite of these criticisms, the WEF narrative about i4.0 has gained in popularity over time and is regularly echoed in discussions around AI.

A critical justice-driven reading guide:

To foster a just and inclusive dialogue on the future of work, it is essential to consider alternative perspectives and address key concerns. This reading guide aims to provide a humanitarian perspective to the future of work debate. The following four topics should be kept in mind while reading the Future of Jobs report:

1. The term ‘jobs’ does not equal ‘decent work’

Historically, every industrial revolution has caused significant changes in working lives. Certain jobs were lost, while new ones were created. For example, we are no longer in need of telephone operators to connect calls and provide information. However, we now have User Experience (UX) Designers who focus on creating seamless and engaging experiences for smartphone users. Naturally, we tend to theorize about the future of jobs in the i4.0 transition in a similar fashion. Which jobs will be phased out, and what are possible new jobs that are created?

While discussions on automation, reshoring, and job availability dominate the industry 4.0 debate, the concept of decent work receives less attention. With decent work being a key topic on the global development agenda, this disregard in the context of i4.0 is problematic. A just transition requires policies and practices prioritizing the well-being of workers and society as a whole.

2. Practice what you preach: the capacity for upskilling

Although the need for upskilling is often emphasized in the future of work debate, it is not a process that occurs naturally or simultaneously for everyone. Upskilling requires investments, guidance, and political decisions to ensure equitable access to education opportunities. Discussions should go beyond mentioning upskilling an sich, and instead address questions of accessibility, timing, and fairness in implementing such programs.

3. Representation of (corporate) interests versus contentions of justice

Abstract discussions about jobs and workers overlook the structural inequities faced by marginalized groups, including sexism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, homophobia, and racism. The global COVID-19 pandemic served as an early warning sign, exposing a lot of these structural inequalities as women, ethnic minorities, young workers, old workers, migrant workers, and people with disability were most affected by the pandemic. To achieve a sustainable outcome, the focus should extend beyond (corporate) interests and include a grounded discussion on justice. Analyses should evaluate fairness and propose actions for a more just outcome.

4) Transparency in methods

Economics, like any social science, is subjective. As research is subjective to bias, researchers are required to be explicit about possible bias and assumptions. It becomes problematic when research methods lack transparency or fail to address possible bias. For the WEF, this is especially important as the institution is a (paid) membership-based organization that includes many of the world’s largest corporations. In turn, the Future of Jobs report is based primarily on employer surveys and thus may favor business interests and overlook perspectives of workers and other stakeholders. Transparency is vital, including reflection on potential conflicts of interest and the role of researchers in shaping the results.

Shaping a just and inclusive future of work:

Ultimately, to ensure a more inclusive and just discussion on the future of work, it is crucial to consider alternative perspectives and address key considerations. This includes shifting the focus from ‘jobs’ to promoting decent work and worker well-being, recognizing the need for equitable access to upskilling opportunities, challenging structural inequalities faced by marginalized groups, and advocating for transparency in research methods. By prioritizing the well-being of workers and society as a whole, we can navigate the complexities of technological advancements and their potential impact on decent work. By embracing a critical and justice-driven approach, we can shape a future of work that is inclusive, equitable, and supportive of the well-being of all individuals. Our imaginaries and narratives matter, as they shape our societies’ futures. So let our imaginaries prioritize justice.

Hopefully, this justice-driven reading guide helps the reader gain new perspectives and tools to form their judgment about the WEF Future of Jobs report.

[1] Avis, J. (2018). Socio-technical Imaginary of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Implications for Vocational Education and Training: A Literature Review. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 70(3), 337–363. https://doi.org/10.1080/13636820.2018.1498907

Kaisara, G., Mare, A., & Peel, C. (2021). Haven’t We Been Here Before? A Critical Analysis of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 2021 Conference on Information Communications Technology and Society, ICTAS 2021 — Proceedings, April, 67–72. https://doi.org/10.1109/ICTAS50802.2021.9395028

Moll, I. (2021). The Myth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Theoria, 68(167), 1–38. https://doi.org/10.3167/th.2021.6816701

Morgan, J. (2019). Will We Work in Twenty-first Century Capitalism? A Critique of the Fourth Industrial Revolution Literature. Economy and Society, 48(3), 371–398. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2019.1620027

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