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Technology will radically change the future of employment - it's time for a new dialogue on workers' rights


27 Apr 2017


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The future of work and the workplace is a theme that has been explored recently by many prominent organisations and initiatives, including the World Economic Forum, the McKinsey Global Institute, and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.  Many current and future changes in the world of work will be powered by technological advancements; this includes the potential automation of many jobs, as examined by the Oxford Martin School’s programme on technology and employment, as well as innovation in energy systems, as explored by our programme on integrating renewable energy.

This theme encompasses, too, the implications of demographic shifts for our working lives, and also raises broader questions of how we find meaning, and, indeed, what constitutes a good life in the 21st Century. A theme, therefore, that is ripe for exploring, but how can we ensure that such discussions go beyond meandering Aristotelian debate? Why, by locking groups of leading Oxford academics in a room with a delegation of international trade union leaders for five hours.  So this is just what we did last week.

The day provided the opportunity to convene an array of researchers from several University departments (including the Oxford Internet Institute, the Blavatnik School of Government, the Faculty of History, and the Department of Economics), and the discussions with our trade union guests did not disappoint. Subjects covered ranged from the business model of the future, to the paucity of accurate labour market statistics that reflect online platforms, to the issues facing countries without reliable digital infrastructure, to reconceptualising how unions perceive their purpose, to the role of education policy in preventing income inequality.

The conversations were underpinned on both sides by an enormous breadth and depth of knowledge, but also by the appreciation that there are too few opportunities for exchange between those immersed in researching these topics and those (historically quite literally) at the coalface of issues of workers, their rights, and their futures.

If sticking to popular caricatures of both labour leaders and Oxford academics, it would be easy to imagine such interactions could be quite fraught, but these discussions were good-humoured, informal and frank.  Most of all, they were timely: as voters go to the polls in the UK, France, Iran, South Korea and elsewhere in the next few weeks, it is vitally important that the real challenges and opportunities facing the global workforce are recognised, and that ensuing debate is underpinned by research findings of the highest quality. I am confident that last week’s visit signals the beginning of an ongoing dialogue, and look forward to it continuing.


This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.