AI and the Labour Market: A Conversation with Elisabeth Reynolds

 

Within the framework of the 2021 International conference on AI in Work, Innovation, Productivity and Skills organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Stefano Scarpetta, Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD, spoke to Elisabeth Reynolds, Executive Director of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, about her recent report “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines” and how she sees the impact of AI play out in the labour market.  

 

In the age of AI, imaginings of our future often take on a rather dystopian vision of machines replacing humans, mass unemployment and technology taking-over in a dramatic, cyberpunk-esque fashion. Elisabeth Reynolds’s outlook on our future is not quite so dire. She started off the discussion clarifying that while technology is often eliminating and increased automation is being introduced to work, technological progress and innovation are also creating a large number of new jobs. A vast percentage of today’s jobs did not exist 80 years ago, and similarly, a vast number of new jobs will emerge in the upcoming years.  

When we are inventing the future, we are also inventing the future of work and jobs. Technological advancement impacts people and the labour market, and has had significant impact on levels of productivity and efficiency. Yet, as Reynolds noted, these productivity gains have not translated into increasing incomes for a vast majority of workers. Rather, we have witnessed a stagnation of wages, specifically for the median worker without a higher education record. This is not an issue of technology: it is a policy issue.  

Policies therefore need to be adapted to suit this progress of technological advancement. Due to the rapid nature of this advancement, technology moves faster than the democratic process can create the right policies to control and limit it. Therefore, Reynolds stressed that policies need to be more flexible and adaptable to respond to this advancement adequately and make up for difference in pace. Keeping up with technology cannot be the primary effort; institutions must instead focus on broad directions and adaptability.  

Technology is not intrinsically exclusionary. The skills needed to work with new technologies are different, but necessarily more difficult. An adequate training and education agenda can introduce a more effective education-progress for transitional workers, who can adapt to the technology-dominated workplace. These workers could be able to receive training for jobs in technology and computer science without first obtaining a 4-year university degree. Technology is a tool for everyone. Reynolds noted that few companies and employers are adopting AI as fast and efficiently as they could, and few firms have succeeded in introducing 4.0 technologies at all. This is an organisational issue rather than a technological issue. Hence firms must continuously invest in technological advancement, while investing in human capital as well, finding the right balance of sustainable progress for the labour market of the future.   

 

by Stina J. Nölken