The concept of a “job for life” seems a distant dream for most people in 2019. After all, the gig economy is mushrooming at an astonishing rate; an estimated 57 million people in the US and 1.1 million people in the UK rely on flexible short-term jobs to pay their bills. This is set to increase. By 2035 most of us will be doing jobs without the security of long-term contracts, and our every move will be monitored at work thanks to billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. That’s the bleak vision of a report by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA), designed to highlight the challenges and opportunities our future might hold. And it’s already becoming a reality.
“I had to log in [to software] at the start and finish of my shift and declare any breaks, including going to the toilet,” former employee at an online retailer, Sara McIntosh says. “They would count how many investigations I had done in a day on their system, then divide them by the working hours minus breaks to check I had reached my daily target.” Most UK workers (56%) believe they are currently spied on at work, according to a report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This extends from their internet use, keystrokes and webcams being monitored, to their location and identity being checked using wearable devices and facial recognition technology. The TUC report gives the example of a construction worker named Barry, who has “taken jobs where we don’t use a sign-in sheet. Instead, they take our fingerprint. It skips a process, but I feel like it’s an invasion of privacy.”
The RSA’s report imagines four scenarios in 2035, one of which is called ”precision economy.” The authors chose 2035 as it felt far enough away to stretch people’s imaginations, but close enough to speculate easily about possibilities. “2035 will likely be similarly familiar but different,” says Asheem Singh, Director of Economy at the RSA. He explains the report’s four scenarios are designed to provide tools to see where the future might go and avoid a nightmarish vision of the future. The precision economy scenario isn’t necessarily more likely than the other three scenarios but is the most unsettling.
Gig economy 2035
In the precision economy scenario, companies will be able to use real-time data collected by sensors to efficiently allocate resources. This will allow them to embrace on-demand labour strategies, with gig working patterns becoming the norm across the healthcare and retail sectors by 2035. Furthermore, proliferating sensors will allow firms to analyse their gig workers’ every move. So in retail, in-store sensors will be used to collect information on footfall, while wearables will be used to track staff activity, including time spent inactive and sales conversions. This data will be used by managers to reward or punish workers, who are given star ratings based on data and appraisals. Singh says this chilling scenario is already happening in the form of timesheets and surveillance devices monitoring workers in warehouses and call centres.
Bethia Stone worked at a PR agency that used timesheet software to log activities in 15-minute, 30-minute or hour-long blocks, which led to employees increasingly working overtime and an “anxious and stressful atmosphere.” She also experienced work surveillance as a student when she worked at a supermarket which had productivity measures on the tills. “I had to scan a certain number of items a minute and if you dropped below it you were considered to be underperforming and you could be taken for disciplinary measures,” Singh says that these types of surveillance are increasing. “As work becomes more disparate, and workers move from gig to gig, employers are demanding more of them. It’s not so much clocking on as logging on, and this presents serious issues for privacy, wellbeing, autonomy and a challenge to feeling human in an ever more mechanised world.” Surveillance systems could glean support from workers who believe they will benefit from performance-related pay, enhanced opportunities for progression and a “crackdown on their free-riding co-workers,” the report suggest. “The scenario in the novel 1984 is pretty much the ultimate logical end of the precision economy: a world where the world of work but also the political and personal worlds are calibrated and controlled,” Singh says. He believes that technology could accelerate this process if we allow it.
Winners and losers
The gig economy is designed to allow employers to adjust their workforce based on demand for goods, and for workers to choose which jobs they do on a flexible basis. But while this sounds great in theory, there are downsides. Companies lose employee loyalty while workers may be forced to take on zero-hours gigs with no job security if no other jobs are available, says Keith Bender, Professor of Economics at the University of Aberdeen. While typical zero-hours contracts are currently poorly paid, exclusive platforms will emerge in the future, the report envisions. This would polarise the gig economy into desirable work for people with high performance and empathy ratings, while other, desperate workers would be funnelled into dispiriting work like content moderation on social media. In-demand workers – nurses or doctors – benefit from a better work-life balance, as they will be able to charge more for working unsocial hours. And some workers might take cognitive-enhancing drugs to improve their performance under the constant scrutiny of employers.
In the precision economy scenario, younger workers will find it easier to navigate this environment and to sometimes climb the career ladder quickly. But this will come at the expense of older co-workers and those with less flexibility. Bender questions whether older people will be the ones to lose out. He says, “The stereotype is that older generations don’t keep up with technology as well as young people, but there’s an argument younger people don’t value privacy like older generations, so maybe younger people will also be at risk.” Whether old or young, he believes that more affluent people will be able to guard against a less stable working situation because they have more cash. Singh agrees, saying we risk a two-track system of “surveillance inequality” where those who have the means and the supportive workplaces to argue for better conditions do so, while those who can’t suffer. Thus it’s likely that many workers will be left to battle it out for poorly paid work.
“If we go down the route of a widespread gig economy, we’ll have to have a fundamental rethink,” Bender says. For example, the NHS and other care providers would likely have to direct more resources to help people with mental health issues, as having no job security is stressful. PR worker Stone says that while nobody ever criticised the hours she worked, it was the fact she knew she could be scrutinised that was stressful. “During periods of stress, it was one more thing to worry about. It’s at the back of your mind that your superior might think you’re underperforming.” Surveillance can also break down trust in the workplace. Carly Thompsett’s emails and messages sent to another colleague were read by her employer while she was working as an admin assistant on a sales team. “It put a strain between us and the managers because we felt like we were being treated like children.” The surveillance continued offline too. “If we stood up or spoke to each other we were constantly watched, it felt like we were in prison.”
“There is a disconcerting Orwellian aspect to this type of surveillance since potentially every move of an employee can be monitored and analysed in ways that workers do not control, and they do not know the way that the obtained information can be arbitrarily utilised by the employer,” Theodossiou says. He warns continuous monitoring would stop employees being able to control any aspect of their life within the workplace, and this would cause low grade as well as high-level stress. These working conditions would significantly harm the working population, mentally and physically. “Although there are positive arguments around employee surveillance such as safety and recognition of good performance, it seems that it is often implemented in ways that add to stress whilst reducing the autonomy and dignity of employees,” says Naomi Climer, Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
A social contract
The gig economy is already blamed for making society’s poorest even more vulnerable. With the addition of hyper-surveillance technology, ultimate outcomes will depend on governments, labour organisations and unions putting in place the regulatory framework to protect those at risk. Singh says we need a new social contract, or 21st Century safety net, to enable anyone to prosper and thrive. “And welfare 2.0 will have to big as big and bold as the Beveridge vision that created the welfare state more than seven decades ago.” Much as Winston Smith battles Big Brother in 1984, David Spencer, Head of Economics at Leeds University Business School, believes there will be resistance to hyper-surveillance, limiting its impact. “In the end, we have choices over how technology evolves.” Singh gives some examples of these choices: “We need to say to our employers, collectively, that it’s not okay to tag warehouse workers. We should insist that human rights legislation be rethought in an era of precision surveillance,” he says. “We need to unionise in ever more innovative ways to make sure our voices are heard. We need forums to deliberate on ethical automation and AI, and we need to share and call out bad practice and bring government and business to our side.” So freedom doesn’t have to mean slavery, and we might be able to stop Big Brother watching us too much… if we’re careful.
Credit: Sarah Griffiths for The BBC, 8 July 2019.