Re-thinking work in the 4th industrial revolution

The increase in automation and artificial intelligence releases human capacity into innovation and tasks related to development and quality assurance. Increasingly algorithms can take over some of the duties formerly carried out by human beings. We are in the middle of something called the 4th industrial revolution and it can have tremendous implications on how we perceive and organize work in the future.

As work is organized and distributed through different types of platforms where the work force is taking the role of contractor rather than employee, the traditional roles of employee and employer dissolve. The platform economy implies more efficient utilization of talent, creating new jobs, job opportunities and bringing new products to new markets. It reorganizes and challenges the way we organize the whole labor market. We are at the beginning of many new developments and there is still almost no hard data on this. The only data we have is anecdotal from which some scenarios can be drawn.

There seems to be two competing narratives on the change that is going on. On one hand there is the positive narrative of a revolution happening where freedom is the driving force. The change fosters entrepreneurship, flexibility, more work, more income, more jobs, innovation and the creating of new things at a lower cost. On the other hand there lies a fear of returning to slavery, back to medieval exploitation, insecurity, the algorithmic boss and an ancient business model with powerful intermediaries. There seems to be truth in both accounts.

Some argue that the technology is new, but the challenges are not. There is a vast heterogeneity in self-employment, a wide variety in the types of jobs that are performed and the development serves different types of work better than others. However, work is still work. There might be some need for revision in the tax-legislation and the social partners seem to think that new regulation is needed. One thing is for sure, the concern for the work environment of the crowd workers is big. Who will be responsible for the work environment and worker’s rights? The protection of sound and decent working conditions is a core value in the Nordic way of thinking and organizing work. This is the result of a long tradition in the Nordics and something valuable to hold on to no matter which cycle of revolution we are facing.

Birgitta Forsström
Director, NIVA