Challenge of Future Work in 21st Century

Published on Wed 13 September 2017 7:30pm

This government’s sins of omission include a failure to invest in productive infrastructure and a failure to invest in education. The highest year of infrastructure spending by this government sits underneath the lowest year of the former Labor government.

Mr Wilson (7:30pm) — We are living in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, and we will absorb the changes that come with robotics, quantum computing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. As a result, jobs will change. Some occupations will reduce in number or cease to exist. New and different jobs will be created. It’s topical at the moment to produce commentary around the scope of that impact in terms of which sectors will be affected and how many jobs might disappear. When you consider the change we’ve adapted to in the last 100 years, there’s no particular reason to take an apocalyptic view of this further transformation. At the same time, there’s no natural law that says everything has to work out in the end. There’s no equilibrium that guarantees there will be a new job created for every job made obsolete. On the available evidence it’s entirely reasonable to expect that in many areas the need for human labour will decline. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel those changes have already begun.

Right now we are experiencing comparatively high unemployment, record underemployment and falling real wages. The wage share of the Australian economy is at an all-time low. Since 2013, when our employment rate put us seventh in the OECD, we have fallen to 16th, and that’s another all-time low. The old assumptions about the relationship between investment and jobs or company profit and jobs simply no longer apply. Here in Australia, there’s no doubt that booming profits are not leading to more jobs, nor are they being shared through higher wages. And there’s no prospect of this changing courtesy of a one-track neoliberal agenda that’s decorated with all the old economic policy chestnuts of deregulation, privatisation, big business tax cuts, unfettered labour market flexibility and unending and relentless attacks on Australian unions.

By this government’s own PR, the Australian people were promised jobs and growth, yet Australia has experienced a steady deterioration of employment conditions since 2013. As Alan Austin noted last month in his article, ‘Remember ‘Jobs and Growth’? Neither does our workforce’, when you examine the 10 principle measures of employment in a developed economy:

… eight have deteriorated in Australia since the 2013 election. Five have collapsed quite disastrously. Two have barely moved.

Some of the most salient measures include the total number of people who are unemployed, which was 689,000 in 2013, but is now 730,000; and the number of people who are underemployed, which, four years ago was 911,000, but is now 1,129,000, an increase of 24 per cent. Within this overall picture of weak and declining employment conditions there are some particularly bleak details. There has been, for example, a 21 per cent increase in people suffering long-term unemployment. We’ve seen an 18 per cent increase in the number of jobless young people, and the workforce participation of Indigenous Australians is well off our closing-the-gap target, and that gap is widening.

There is no great mystery as to how we got here. Contrary to the repeated slogan or promise, the Abbott-Turnbull government has followed a program that is utterly unsuited to creating jobs, both in its action and inaction. The government hangs its hat on settling preferential trade agreements, with no acknowledgment that such agreements don’t tend to produce jobs in a developed country like Australia. Work done by Tufts University shows the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement would have had a net loss of 39,000 jobs within the first decade. Yet this government continues to remove labour market testing for overseas contractual service providers in all new trade agreements.

This government’s sins of omission include a failure to invest in productive infrastructure and a failure to invest in education. The highest year of infrastructure spending by this government sits underneath the lowest year of the former Labor government. This week the government introduced its higher education changes which cut funding to universities, increased fees for students, lowered the student debt repayment thresholds and defunded the enabling courses that are critical if people facing disadvantage are to have the opportunity to attend university. In all these areas the failure of the government to bear down on the deep and wide malaise of unemployment has wider ramifications for Australian households and for our economy. It feeds into lower wages. It feeds into a lack of consumer confidence and spending.

I want to finish by recognising the members on this side who are engaging on the question of jobs and our work future, not least the shadow minister for finance, whose new book is titled Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age. Navigating the fourth industrial revolution in a way that delivers fairness and reduces inequality will need thoughtful, active and creative government.

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