Since 2010, the effects of Industry 4.0, a shorthand name for the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution, has been apparent in almost all sectors of German industry. Automation, digitalisation and other information technologies are boosting productivity and disrupting existing value chains. The rapid pace of advance in the technologies themselves, coupled with all sorts of cross-sector innovations, is generating growing concern about potentially adverse societal consequences, such as widening inequality, and the disappearance of jobs. Although we cannot really be certain about impacts and the kinds of society that will emerge from profound changes to the work of work, we can discuss some relevant trends.
Historically, policy makers and scholars have seen a connection between the age composition of a workforce and economic competitiveness. An ageing workforce confronts employers with the prospect of a very substantial proportion of their workforce being close to retirement and it highlights concerns about the relevance of age-related declines in physical and mental capacities to productivity. In the digital world, however, this link seems to be weakened. On the other hand, technology advantages seem to widen competitiveness gaps and act as a driver of social inequality. This is why we see an intensification of the race for an edge in new technologies among nation states as well as individual companies. The geopolitical tension associated with this will likely persist, and the current trade war between the USA and China has a lot to do with new technologies. There is a continuing pressure for new kinds of regulation, and it is not easy for policy makers to keep up with the latest technology landscapes and ecosystems. The champions of globalisation and protectionism are becoming more polarised. And in the meantime, technical innovations show little sign of slowing down.
We cannot have a truly prosperous society if we forget to place the human world at the centre of our attention. Some business contacts in the automotive industry and the smart cities sectors sometimes joke that new technologies (e.g. self-drive cars, drones) are ready to run clean, sustainable and productive urban infrastructures: the problems come from the ways in which humans can mess up these apparently well-designed systems (e.g. children running around on the street). For decades, fiction films have pictured future scenarios in which machines take over the world. Stephen Hawking famously saw AI as a major threat to humanity. Society 5.0, an idea that been developed mainly in Japan, is an example of an attempt to bring human concerns back into the details of how we think about technologically-advanced environments. As well as promoting user-friendly technologies for the daily living, the initiative has also tried to address the challenges of productivity in an ageing society. With better and better human-machine interfaces, we can significantly boost our own capabilities. Wearable devices provide workers with digital tools to operate fluently in smart factories. Smart textiles bring electronics functions to the working environment and help to protect ageing workers. Human controlled robots enable individuals with declining physical strength to work with super-human power. The better we get at the seamless integration of human and machine, the better able we are to keep an ageing workforce active, safe and highly productive. To adapt these technical innovations, policy makers can encourage companies to provide more training for next-generation manufacturing technicians to make a smooth transformation from one technology to another. Consequently, ageing workers can stay both safe and productive in factories.
Throughout history, innovations have enhanced productivity and improved human well-being. If the trend continues, we face a growing debate; do we need to have so many people employed if technologies and machines take over more and more works from human? We have to recognise, however, that for many generations now what we do as individuals in our working lives is fundamentally important to a sense of identity and engagement in meaningful activity. The challenge is becoming more significant now that we have a fast ageing population, with more and more people staying healthy for longer, and yet spending a larger proportion of their life outside the labour force. How do people find fulfilment when they do not actually need to be ‘gainfully’ employed? Recently, Finland published some mixed results of the 2-year basic income experiment. The study found some association between participation in the scheme and healthier and less stressful lives. If we can address the inequality challenge, we might be able to see people enjoying more free time, leisure and fulfilment in ageing societies. Nevertheless, we are still in the early stages of what looks set to be a major revolution in the place of work in our social lives, and it will take a long time for our societies to understand, let alone embrace, the new meanings that will emerge from future social realities.
About the Author:
Luc Yao is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Luc is based in Darmstadt, Germany and is active in the display industry, related start-ups, and the Open Innovation networks. His research at the Institute focuses on the adjacent domains of population ageing, digital health and developing countries.
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