Historical and gender perspectives in the debate on robotization in employment
Nowadays, there is a strong belief that there won’t be enough work for everyone because robotizing production will increase productivity and generate unemployment, leaving many people jobless. Analysis telling us about work–or rather, jobs–being replaced by robots is increasing and warns that almost half of the jobs we know today, including those linked to non-routine cognitive tasks, will disappear in the next twenty years because of computerization. Likewise, the idea linking robotization with unemployment is one of the central arguments of the defenders of basic income as a way to reduce the levels of poverty that this lack of employment presages. Nevertheless, there are at least two issues that the argument linking robotization and unemployment ignores most of the time and that should be taken into account.
The first is that historically technological change has certainly led to the destruction of many jobs, but also to the creation of others and to the limited reordering of working time. In fact, technological change tends to primarily be a reordering of the labor market, which generates unemployment especially in certain sectors–and therefore in certain regions or workers with certain profiles–but at the same time promotes the creation of new professions or the development of economic sectors that usually cover a demand for previously unfulfilled services. Retraining workers in these new sectors or professions is not automatic and, in many cases, these people do not go back to work or leave the labor market. Hence, technological change has been associated in the collective imagination with generating unemployment.
Nevertheless, technological change has also been historically linked with the reduction of the time devoted to working and, therefore, with an increase in available time and levels of well-being. Consequently, in recent decades we have witnessed a reduction in the total time dedicated to working exemplified in the reduction in statutory working hours. While this progress has slowed down and even reversed in the decades of neoliberal policy-making, time-use surveys continue to show a downward trend in the number of hours worked, even though those same surveys tell us that people are increasingly reporting that they have less time available. This paradox of having more time available and believing that we have less has largely to do with the increasingly unequal position of people in labor markets and also with the different autonomy in the use of our time, with the freedom we enjoy in our jobs–and in relation to unpaid work–and with the effect of technology itself.
The second issue that is not usually taken into account in this story is the role of unpaid care work. In an aging society, as is the case in most rich countries, and where it does not appear that the inclusion of women in the labor market will be drastically reversed in the near future, there is a strong unfulfilled demand for care. Since most care work is performed by women within the household on an unpaid basis, it is not usually given an economic category, it is not considered work because it does not pay monetary remuneration and, therefore, it is excluded from economic analysis. But the fact this is done does not mean that it has to be this way. In fact, it is necessary to include the magnitude, importance and nature of unpaid work if we really want to seriously analyze the impact that robotization can have on the world of work, our levels of well-being and our lives.
This demand for care work can be covered through work performed by family members, or other forms of unpaid work such as community work- but the lack of co-responsibility of men and precisely the changes that are occurring in the labor market make it complicated. We should not forget that the labor market is undergoing an accelerated process of increased precarious work and especially a loss in autonomy of workers regarding their use of time. Working hours are becoming more flexible in response to company or customer needs, and even to the demand for work through zero-hours contracts or temporary contracts with hours that are impossible to predict and that make a basic aspect of what we call conciliation very difficult, which is the organization of times and even micro-times.
This demand may also be partly covered by more public services; however, increasingly regressive tax laws and austerity policies are not exactly in line with guaranteeing care services that offer equal opportunities and grant people the same level of dignity, especially those requiring care. That demand can also be covered through the commodification of that care work which is largely the response that has been given in most rich countries, with the exception of the Nordic countries. Nevertheless, the commodification of work that has historically been performed in a naturalized and free way by women has always been linked with precariousness and even with specific regulations as in the case of Spain with domestic workers, which instead of correcting fosters such precariousness.
Finally, it can also be partially covered by developing robots as is already being tested to care for the elderly in some countries with clear signs of aging, low fertility rates coupled with high gender inequality, very restrictive immigration policies and significant technological development such as Japan. However, it should not be forgotten that care work has a human dimension that robots cannot perform–yet–and may be a significant and satisfying niche in the labor market in an increasingly robotic economy. But for this to happen, the economic dimension of care work can no longer be ignored.
Pablo de Olavide University (Seville)