Davos and the Future of Work



Currently, the World Economic Forum meeting is taking place in the Swiss alps.  This annual march to Davos brings together individuals across the public and private sectors where these privileged few get to discuss the issues that affect all of us.

According to The Guardian, last year’s delegate list of 3,000 participants was 83% male with 64% coming from North America and Europe, highlighting the demographics of the financial elite.  This lack of diversity in 2016 is beyond disappointing, but predictable.

This year’s Forum agenda has been focused around the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, being the disruptive nature of digital technology.  The founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, writes:

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to empower individuals and communities, as it creates new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development. But it also could lead to the marginalization of some groups, exacerbate inequality, create new security risks, and undermine human relationships.”

Schwab speaks to the inherent tension that disruptive technology provides for humanity – it can both liberate and marginalise our communities.  More jobs will become automated creating more insecurity for more people, yet the technology itself will create more opportunities too.

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This is true in terms of our working lives, but also are tangible daily existence: how we interact with each other, how we shop, how we eat…our lives will change markedly in the next 20 years.  Just thinking about these potential changes in technology is extremely exciting.

The risks, though, are already evident today.  The narrowing of privacy is all too clear as the State becomes empowered by the technology to control information.  This is happening right now, essentially without any public discussion about how much power we actually want governments to have.  The governments are simply taking it, as the technology allows it.

So, the discussion around the Fourth Industrial Revolution is no doubt a critical one, making it even more disappointing to see the lack of diversity at the Forum and its inaccessibility to most of the planet on whose behalf the Forum claims to meet.

Presumably, though, the coffee chats at Davos between the bankers and the politicians will be less about disruption, and more about recent concerns with the global economy.

The global economic news in 2016 is almost all negative.  China’s growth is slowing down with its slowest rate of expansion in 25 years.  Countries and businesses who placed faith in China’s growth must be wobbling at the knees.  The markets are taking a hit, with some even predicting that this could be a repeat of the bad old days in 2008 with the global financial crisis.

It has only been eight years since that ultimate example of the failure of unregulated markets.  Yet, and despite that colossal failure, the economic orthodoxy of neo-liberalism has become even more entrenched with trickle up economics leading to our own gilded age.  Oxfam has just announced that a mere 62 individuals hold as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.  Sixty two individuals holding the same as 3.6 billion.

During that time, conservative parties in the Anglo world have succeeded in selling a vision of conservatives as being better at running the global economy.  The proof is not in the pudding as corporate losses are socialised while public profits are privatised, but the public relations strategy of these conservatives has succeeded over evidence based policy development.  One liners trump considered policy, and this is particularly so in New Zealand.

In part, this dominance of conservatism is also due to the failure of progressive parties across the Anglo world to develop genuine responses to the current economic orthodoxy.

In this country, Labour’s “Future of Work” commission lead by Grant Robertson appears to be an attempt to come up with genuine responses.  Through its lifespan it will seek to address some of the same issues being discussed at Davos around the impact of technology.

This is, after all, the ultimate question for so-called “left” or “progressive” political parties as we head further into the 21st Century.  With employment becoming more and more precarious in our casualised labour market, how can “work” be characterised in a way that empowers rather than oppresses?  The disruptive nature of technology provides both questions and answers in this discussion.

But, talk is affordable and the challenge will be for Labour to turn the Future of Work commission into a clear and accessible vision of an exciting New Zealand.  There needs to be a tangible result from the commission.  That economic and social vision, one of empowerment, inclusiveness and valuing diversity, can begin to challenge the current economic orthodoxy provided it is accessible to and understood by the public.

But, the process itself is a positive one.  These are the crucial discussions that we need to have, and it should not be left to the financial elite to have them.  The rest of us have a role too and the Future of Work commission seems to be an attempt to create that space.

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Michael Timmins
Michael Timmins is an expert in international human rights law. Specialising in refugee rights, Michael has worked in Egypt, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan and his home country of New Zealand across roles in advocacy, academia, and government. He is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group's Management Committee. Michael’s writing covers international human rights, counter-terrorism, international environmental law, rule of law and accountability issues, as well as anything interesting happening in international relations.


  1. And America is crumbling in real time. Yet they refuse to deal with derevitives that are destroying the global economy. Actually every one seems to be emotionless about it.

  2. Thank you Michael for that post, grappling with complex and vast issues confronting …..”the future of work……” From a Workers perspective, and clearly summarising them.
    Of course digital technology has been the major influence in industry, but , as a nurse visiting aged residential care, I see jobs a plenty!
    What I do not see is respect from the wider public for people doing these jobs, and consequently “a modern slave trade”.
    Media only seem hungry for relatives passing on lurid details of something wrong, and workers seem afraid of being blamed, rather than celebrating their kindness and generosity, doing a hard job in difficult conditions, for very little financial remuneration….
    I hope the commission will also look at jobs that will not be replaced by robots, and celebrate opportunities for human beings that do still exist.Corporatising aged care is trying to turn humans into robots which it is not necessary, as we see right wing are not better at “the economy” and focussing on money only, simply takes the soul out

  3. ‘This year’s Forum agenda has been focused around the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”

    There was no second Industrial Revolution or Third Industrial Revolution, and there certainly wont be a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

    The bulk of the present economic system operates on 18th century (original Industrial Revolution) technology -mining, blast furnaces, cement factories, glass works etc., with incorporation of 19th century technology -railways, internal combustion engines, electricity generation using turbines, electrochemistry to produce metals like aluminium, and synthetic resins etc.

    The primary sectors are unsustainable and ‘progressing’ towards collapse (whilst at the same time ruining the habitability of the planet we live on): everything else -all the phony money systems and digital this and that- goes down with the demise of the primary sectors.

    It’s now only a matter of time.

  4. The future of work means there will be ever more insecurity, volatility and financially unrewarding work. Let us just look at the banks, who have first brought in ATMs to let customers do the usual bulk of transactions vial those machines, withdrawing and depositing funds they need. Now we have increasing use of online banking, where customers are expected and incentivised to do all the banking themselves online.

    Banks can then concentrate on the more complex and “big” customer focused business, catering for those who want to “invest”, take out big loans and so forth. They need fewer staff to just do that and sell various other banking products over the counter. Even some of those can be done online now.

    When doing many other things, it is now the consumer doing most of the work, including online shopping, payment for these and whatever else there is. Businesses need fewer people and can just let the technology do the rest.

    Call centres cater for other needs, even government departments now tell people, go online, get this or that form printed, fill it out, or fill it out online, and send it in. Less handling, less processing time, fewer staff to do it all.

    We have social media, supposed to “liberate” and “empower” us, but in reality, more and more people sign up with various providers, including Facebook, Twitter, various other forums and also blogs, but they comminicate among selected few in groups, and this does not necessarily reach all that many people outside of their “friends” and “followers”.

    Once people prided themselves in having a first landline phone, and others envied them, and they got status. Now the same happened with mobile phones, smart phones and so forth, once all have them, or most, it is like with phone lines, you are one among many, just a number, hardly “enabling” and “liberating”.

    And work is now expected to be done almost 24/7, many are expected to be reached outside of ordinary working hours, even during holidays, to answer an important enquiry or whatever else, just done quickly. Uber taxis show us how they work, people can simply work under a set of terms and run a business, but with it you have to be available most times, to make it work.

    The future of work looks even more competitive, expecting even more effort and up front “investment” by the workers in the technology they are meant to use, to supposedly “make things easier”. But it hardly makes life easier, just more insecure, more precarious or volatile, and often less paid, as more and more try to do the same, and competition just reaches a new, technologically advanced level.

    This will all just lead to more powerlessness of the individual, more actual “numbering” of us all, as we will just be numbers operating and communicating. It will not offer better quality of life, it will not be fulfilling, as every one is encouraged to compete, with the best website, profile, forum page and self enhanced image on offer.

    New risks arise, more abuse will happen, and more controls will be brought in to contain these, meaning ever more surveillance, also offering new tools to “manage” us all. We will have a new, more enforced class system, and the ones at the bottom are those using simple second hand cell phones in the bush and jungle in the Congo, for instance.

    Those with no access will be locked out, and remain poor or join the poor and powerless. This is all big talk in Davos, by the big heads and business agenda planners, who just want to use new technology to make ever more profits, nothing else.

    • @AFewKnowTheTruth and Mike in Auckland

      You do the the work of the neoliberals for them by focusing only on the negative side of automation and the internet, and down-playing their anti-capitalist potential. The real problem we face is not the lack of work to do, but that we live in a society where selling oneself into wage-slavery is the only socially-acceptable way to get access to essential resources like housing and food (unless they’re already wealthy). This insane set of social structures means that instead of celebrating the abolition of soul-killing, repetitive work, we actually waste effort finding ways to keep people doing it!

      I’ve got a better idea. How about we decouple economic rights from work, by giving everyone a universal basic income? Or set about getting rid of work altogether, as Bob Black advocates in his classic essay ‘The Abolition of Work’?

      >> That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution… Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act. <<

      • I have long supported the idea of a UBI, but I fear that any government will try and set it so low, it will not solve anything much at all, just replace a deficient and meagre benefit payout system (under conditions) that we have now.

        As for the idea that we gain more freedom through welcoming and working with the new technology, that is also not so easy to implement. We can see already that large corporations based in Silicon Valley and some other places have a kind of dominance on the IT sector and business done with it.

        Governments and states try to regulate and gather metadata and also spy on users. Unless people encrypt everything, and are very careful with using the web, we are already all so transparent, at the same time dependent and virtually enslaved by the technology and systems.

        Most of us will have their user data gathered and sold to advertisers, who target us.

        How would you counter act this, and the massive abuse and manipulation plus chilling effects that come with all this?

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