Evolution of world concepts, trends and challenges in the internationalization of higher education
Between work and technological unemployment
Associate Professor, Director of the Research Center Digital Technologies, Education & Society, Link Campus University; AIDR member and Head of the Digital Education Observatory
This paper focuses on the organisational transformations introduced by new technology.
This reflection is driven, essentially, by the following two issues.
- How can we design a long-term sustainable socio-economic model?
- How can we guarantee the valorisation of and the mediation between technology and the ‘human factor’?
It also reflects on work and technological unemployment in order to study possible future scenarios, propose (and possibly adopt) all the means capable of translating vision into reality and building the best possible future.
To speak about the future means dealing with a number of epochal challenges:
- the dramatic and growing inequalities produced by the contemporary world;
- the countless crises that have emerged following unbridled globalisation;
- the demographic boom;
- the ‘end of work’ (Rifkin, 1995);
- the ‘normalisation’ of the inequalities deriving from the abdication of social justice;
- the crisis of intermediate bodies (Bassanini, 2019) and the relative breakdown of the inter-generational and inter-community social pact.
To reply to the 1st question (How can we design a long-term sustainable socio-economic model?)we are going to focus on possible future scenarios illustrated by different studies, to reflect on an idea of welfare capable of combining work, community and care.
- The first scenario is outlined by the analysis of the Millennium Group which starts from a global perspective. Their latest contribution is a summary of the global challenges sustainable development programmes need to address. Among the most interesting issues the Report (2050 Global Work/Technology Scenario) emphasises regards the complex interaction and mutual co-evolution involving all the challenges represented.
- Improvement cannot be achieved by acting according to Fordist and mechanistic ‘watertight-compartment’ logic. We need to embrace the logic of ‘complex systems’, a set of variable, strongly interconnected elements, including their temporal evolution.
Work underlines the centrality of the ethical dimension (Challenge 15).
The results of this forecast provide three possible scenarios in terms of policy.
- The first envisages an acceleration of change under pressure from business driven by the digital revolution; the absence of foresight and long-term strategies, which produce high rates of unemployment.
- The second imagines an exacerbation of economic and political unrest due to unemployment and an explosion of social polarisation, a situation where a breakdown of law and order powerful local and global tension.
- The third envisages an economy of self-realisation as the outcome of a policy capable of anticipating the impact of Artificial Intelligence and technology, promoting cultural change, establishing a new social pact grounded in the principle of a universal basic income, and a new socio-economic model able to cater for people and communities.
Following the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), it is possible to sum up the main macro-economic forecasts for the period up to 2050 which are:
- the hegemony of China in terms of a nominal growth of GDP by 2026;
- the loss of global-ranking positions by some western nations and the exit of Italy from the world’s Top 10 economies;
- the continued growth of Asian countries;
- the worldwide dominance of the three top economies (China, USA and India) which will acquire the power to define global-agenda priorities;
- a demographic contraction with a negative impact on active-population percentages;
- a demographic explosion in Africa;
- a crisis of the economic-growth model associated with the demographic increase that feeds consumption;
- an increase in poverty and social inequality in the face of an accumulation of poorly distributed wealth.
Another study, that of the World Economic Forum (2019), shifts the emphasis from the political and economic spheres and outline three possible alternatives.
a. The Automation as a channel of optimisation. Khanna (2019).
In this perspective “Automation and artificial intelligence should benefit companies, their customers and work force” by improving:
- job conditions and opportunities;
- how companies act on the market;
- data-use enhancement without violating privacy
- adding customer value.
b. The cooperation with machines, not automation.
- that means the integration of the workforce with technology instead of recourse to replacement, involving workers in the adaptation of automation processes, avoiding alienation from them.
- The achievement of this goal would have an impact upon policies that go beyond the logic of mere redistribution and welfare;
- The organisational aim would be to highlight the responsibility of the leadership and managerial systems;
- industrial agreements would need to promote different models of protection and so on.
c. The digital transformation and transformation of the workforce
This could be achieved by creating digital work designed to promote employment standards suited to the digital economy and avoid the explosion of social inequalities capable of destroying the already fragile social fabric.
The latest contributions made by the McKinsey Global Institute (2017) move along the same lines, sustaining that about half of the world’s current jobs will disappear soon. Several scholars agree with the assumption that over the next 20 years, an estimated 47% the USA’s workforce will risk replacement due to the so-called skill-biased technical change (SBTC).
Technological development is never neutral because every time it appears it causes a radical change.
Each season of progress has radically changed the work chain, shattering consolidated balances between workers, entrepreneurs, unions and communities.
Technological unemployment problems that accompany the fourth industrial revolution maybe identified at both endogenous and exogenous levels.
As to the endogenous sphere, a series of risks and critical issues imposed by sophisticated connective technologies means that:
- the increasingly frequent obsolescence of roles and tasks performed by advanced technology (Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, algorithms, 3D) causes increasing quotas of expulsion from employment of low-skilled workers;
- an increase in the power of a sort of “technological totalitarianism”
- the polarisation of organisational systems for the benefit of large multinational businesses which tend to pulverise and impoverish the supply chains.
On an exogenous level, we recall the convergence of a series of systemic threats which impact directly and indirectly on the unemployment issue demanding serious and urgent political-institutional intervention, as in the case of:
- the failure to redistribute wealth which fed by the global free market and led to an increase in poverty and socio-economic inequality across the globe;
- the flaws in the labour-market protection system at national and global level;
- the crisis of the traditional welfare system on which the development of all modernity was based;
- the attempts made to reduce the inefficiencies of the public administration by reducing the white-collar labour component and investing in technology;
- the inversion of migratory flows (out versus in);
- the crisis of the eco-system environment with its disastrous impact on global balances.
Among the main difficulties in progress we can remember:
- the lack of skills and vision (e-leadership);
- the discontinuity of industrial policies on this front;
- the mismatch characterising the demand-supply of ICT profiles;
- the lack of training courses capable of responding to the demand;
- the effort made by small and medium enterprises to build integrated digital nodes/supply chains to drive and support their territories.
Despite all this, the digital sector, today more than ever, continues to grow and demand skilled labour.
The vision of Technological unemployment changes according to theoretical point of departure.
Many studies have tried to describe the evolution of employment during the different stages of technological development, outlining the gradual shift of an increasing number of the workforce from one sector to another:
- the transition from traditional agriculture to intensive agriculture,
- followed later by a move towards secondary manufacturing,
- and then towards the tertiary and services fields.
- Today, the world is facing a new transition phase labelled industry 4.0, based on digital revolution.
For this reason, it is useful to reflect on the tools that accompanied processes of reabsorption of workforce surpluses expelled from the market during the various stages of the evolution of labour.
Regarding this we can recall, for example, that:
- the development of the free market, with the birth of new sectors of the economy, caused masses of workers to move from one sector to another;
- the presence of public social and industrial policies helped reconcile growing tensions thanks to the redistribution of wealth and the achievements of the trade union (working time, retirement and disability pensions, paid holidays, paid sick leave etc.);
- the expansion of the modern welfare state, through all its central and peripheral tributaries, often guaranteed the maintenance of minimum employment quotas in the most deprived areas;
- increases in migratory trends saw, for decades, many fellow citizens seek a better future in countries deemed rich in opportunities.
We may also add to this list the presence (and example) of some great visionary entrepreneurs capable of interpreting and implementing the idea that (Article 41 of the Italian constitution)
“Private economic initiative is free. It cannot act in contrast to social utility or in such a way as to cause harm to security, freedom, human dignity“.
There can be no innovation, no social justice, no progress, no improvement of the quality of life if one loses sight of the human being.
The aim of technology can only be a better humanity-community, if one is to avoid the technological, social, economic and political drifts summarised briefly here.
Too often we come up against a predatory attitude towards the environment-community to the detriment of the collectivity (local and global), obliged to pay for the costly upkeep of managers and leaders. The example of environmental crimes or investments in technology that turn out to be harmful to people, the territory and communities, are merely the tip of the iceberg the rest of which is often very difficult to discern.
This is why it is important to insist on the idea of sustainable work-organisation and development.
These elements should not be alien to the present generation’s ability to satisfy its own needs without compromising the possibility that the future generations be in a position to satisfy theirs.
The concept of sustainable development goes beyond protection of the environment and the ability of companies to blend social, environmental and ethical human rights as well as consumer needs into their development strategies.
So, moving on to the second issue how can we guarantee the valorisation of and the mediation between technology and the ‘human factor’?
We shall to focus on the prospects opened up by the so-called fourth industrial revolution.
Technology does not automatically generate innovation and/or improvement. Computing is nothing without a system of cognition capable of interpreting and directing processes.
Artificial Intelligence is a dangerous oxymoron in the absence of the specificities of human intelligence (Gardner, 2007) which comprises, among other things, synthesis, creativity, ethics and empathy.
The alternatives that appear on the horizon are the following.
- Technological unemployment might find a solution in a revision of weekly working hours informed by Keynes’s forward-looking intuition, supported by the fact that the countries where the best quality of life is registered are those which succeed in guaranteeing a balance between life-time and work-time.
- The technological impoverishment which characterises low investment-factor jobs where returns on technological investments are not convenient and people are often trapped in “blocked biographies”, unable to enhance their employability profiles.
- The risk of a kind of technological neo-Taylorism profiled in highly automated work processes which tend to place productive, decision-making and managerial intelligence inside the machine, reducing the worker to a mere extension of the machine itself.
- The change in the configuration of the risks associated with increasingly digitalised work
To conclude positively, several interesting experiments show that a different future is possible, like that which orients productive investment towards the quality of production, towards a positive organisational atmosphere and a society-based type of corporate responsibility.
A socially responsible company is one which calculates the impact of its activities upon society and adopts business practices aimed at containing negative externalities.
The so-called B Corporations act along these lines. B Corporations are companies belonging to a global movement that aims visibility on the market by spreading a more advanced business paradigm, leveraging their capacity for innovation, their speed and their growth potential. They do not aim at the mere creation of profit but also seek to help build healthier communities.
“The letter B stands for” benefit “and, as a community, B Corps aim to build a new economic system in which competition for primacy is not equal to being better in the world, but better for the world” (Honeyman, 2016, p.25). The attention of B the Corps towards the 3 Ps people, planet and.
This means that a systemic approach is required to guide the current phase of development towards an idea of a Welfare Community capable of co-fostering communities sharing an interest in:
- creating the conditions for an improvement in the life quality of citizens, workers and families, also with a view to a better (and sustainable) use of the resources and skills present within a territory;
- rebuilding liveable and recognisable communities based on an idea of proximity capable of integrating the real and the digital to encourage the creation of virtuous circles of exchange, communication and sharing;
- promoting community empowerment to enable people to make informed, responsible choices, not only on a personal level but also, and above all, with regard to possible repercussions on the community and the future.
To design a kind of welfare oriented towards the concept of community, means founding individual and collective action on the idea of social co-responsibility.
This implies the need for a paradigmatic change capable of restoring dignity to work and overcoming mere production-bound market perspectives in favour of a global vision capable of recovering and enhancing a more care-oriented “new humanism”.