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The digital economy and the changing workplace

Italian talent abroad
Rome, 10/06/2018 - 11/06/2018, National Interest

Innovations ranging from robotics to artificial intelligence, digital platforms to blockchains, is having a growing impact on the work world. The transformations under way concern not only professional and corporate spheres, but also everyday life. Due to the ageing of the population on the one hand, and millennial lifestyle choices on the other, robotics are going to be used more and more for household chores. At the same time, the “gig economy” is shattering market and business models: the value-added features of products and services are changing, while labor relations are evolving rapidly, and in ways that are difficult to predict.

While it is true that, even in the past, new technological paradigms have led to economic, labor and social disruptions, it is also true that the speed and breadth of the changes currently under way have no precedent. Indeed, it is probable that today’s digital dimension is changing not only jobs but also existence itself.

There are three levels on which to analyze the current transformations in the work world: amount of work, quality of work and rules and governance. From the quantitative standpoint, even though the balance between the gradual disappearance of jobs and the simultaneous creation of others is the subject of constant and lively debate, it can be said that there will probably be less work in the future (at least work of the traditional sort), with most of it polarized at the extremes of the professional spectrum. That means more high- and low-skilled jobs, with significant erosion in the middle.

As for quality, not only will work’s “computational” complexity increase but also, and more importantly, its “emotional/social” complexity. This is going to require the radical redesign of STEM discipline education, as well as the ethical and value-related preparation needed to comprehend and interpret the dilemmas posed by the digital paradigm.

The appearance of new modes of interaction and interdependence carries considerable implications in terms of rules and governance. Taking the theme of responsibility as an example, if ten years ago industrial robots were there to assist workers, today instead it is workers who are assisting robots. Thus, in the era of the gig economy, the traditional rules paradigm has been turned on its head; the traditional job has been “rebranded” as a micro-enterprise to be sold (and remunerated) as technology.

To summarize, the problems are many and complex and there are no simple solutions. There is no doubt that skills development needs rethinking, and that job market dynamism and occupational mobility management need improving. The means by which to support worker income and transition management must be also ensured and founded on solid principles of social dialogue.

More than anything else, however, digital technology needs to be understood and cultivated so that it can spread and have a positive impact on people’s lives and on business – jobs are not being lost to digital technologies but rather to far too limited investments in them –, and all this in the spirit of an open and honest dialectic between worker safeguards and technological innovation aimed at an equitable and inclusive social and economic growth capable, if necessary, of rewriting the social contract.