by Andreas Kornelakis and Dimitra Petrakaki
It is a commonplace that we live in the age of disruption. The latest trend towards digitalisation is set to accelerate changes in the workplace and transform the labour market perhaps irreversibly. Current debates on the digitalisation of work concern the extent and degree to which advanced technology such as robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithmic decision-making could substitute for manual labour. More worryingly, this is considered to be a potentiality that affects not only the manufacturing industry but also the services sectors and impact on knowledge-intensive jobs.
But technological innovations do not only lead to the displacement of jobs, they also change the nature of jobs. This transpired in research that we carried out, which examined the complex interplay between work autonomy, technology and routinisation. We examined the cases of two healthcare organisations in England that implemented a new technology (Electronic Patient Record system). We found that the introduction of new technology standardises the work to a degree and constrains the autonomy of high-skill professionals (such as doctors and nurses), but also reallocates task discretion between occupational groups. More broadly, digitalisation may increase work autonomy for some occupational groups, but also standardise work and lead to monotonous and repetitive tasks for other groups.
Some commentators emphasise the perspective of digitalisation as a ‘blessing’. It is seen as one of the key drivers to boost competitiveness and productivity, allowing businesses to operate with minimum costs, whilst ensuring high performance and minimal product defects and human errors. A recent publication from Nesta also highlights that digitalisation and automation should not be demonised given their potential to lead to job creation and to a re-focusing on skills that are more humane such as emotional intelligence and inter-personal skills. Proponents of digitalisation often paint an optimistic view of new digital technologies, ignoring the potential negative disruption on working conditions and societal outcomes.
However, a recent paper by Frey and Osborne finds that technological change drives jobs and skills polarisation in the labour market; with growing inequality between high-income cognitive jobs and low-income manual occupations. Furthermore, the OECD acknowledges that the growing digitalisation of the labour market through the ‘platform economy’ raises questions about wages, labour rights and access to social protections for the workers involved, while it also creates problems of unemployment due to the inherent potential of technology to substitute work. This may also reinvigorate fears of social risks for a ‘race to bottom’ in wages and working conditions and a growing ‘precariat’ as an emerging global class with no financial security, job stability or prospect of career progression.
Sociological studies of work have long ventured overseas to understand the conditions of employment and global networks that produce goods consumed in the global north. Scarce are studies that take a look at globalization and work at the other end of the supply chain: consumer services. This is important because in recent years retailers and hoteliers have traveled from the global north to the global south nearly as fast as manufactured goods have journeyed the opposite direction. This is also critical because the sociology of service work has rarely ventured beyond contexts in which customers and workers largely share in a single culture (with all its etiquettes, manners, symbols and rules), even as class, race and gender differences may be present. As a result, sociologists tend to focus on how workers use familiar habits of behavior in workplaces that require interaction with customers. For example the word “emotion work” is used to describe the psychological effort expended when workers are asked to treat strangers with the warmth they might reserve for family members or friends. Another term “aesthetic labor” describes the ways in which workers’ manner of dress, style, grooming and speech must conform to the meet the expectations of posh or hip clientele. Employers hire workers of the appropriate class backgrounds to perform such labor. Overlooked by these two terms is the effort workers make to learn new ways of expressing emotions, novel styles of presenting themselves and unfamiliar modes of interacting when their customers originate from different nations and cultures.
Photo is the author’s work.
The migrant crisis, the seemingly unstoppable rise of terrorism and urban violence, the more secretive rise of multinational companies’ power on a global scale, the growing job precariousness, with workers laboring long hours under hazardous conditions for low pay, all these phenomena picture a world of extreme disequilibrium and powerlessness.
So one should accept one’s fate, be it someone being expelled from the Calais jungle, an exploited worker, an evicted Spaniard, or one of the victims of deadly shots or of a crazy truck in the middle of a street…Is this an excessively somber picture, describing late modern people as alone, cut off from their roots, indifferent or ignorant?
The question is important because sometimes people win over big powers. When they decide not to renounce their rights, the dignity of the worker, insisting that the integrity of social life be defended against the vandalism of corporate rationality, when they radicalize their resistance, certain things are possible. This is what we learn from a three-year online ethnographic study conducted on a group of bloggers, former insurance sellers fired by their company for having refused to change crucial aspects of how they do their job, and how they are paid for a job well done.
Mothers have been shown to receive lower pay than childless women across industrial countries. In the United States, research based on women born in the 1960s or earlier indicates that mothers earn 4-5% less per child, compared to childless women with similar education, length of work experience, and frequency of employment interruptions.
The pay gap between mothers and non-mothers who are otherwise similar—the so-called “motherhood wage penalty”—has been shown to differ in size for women with different marital status, skill level, and age. We know relatively little, however, about how the characteristics of occupations shape the degree to which women are penalized for having children. Occupations, by design, differ in their required training, schedules, and activities. The different work conditions and requirements across occupations may empower or hinder mothers, thereby narrowing or widening the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers.
How exactly should occupational characteristics affect the extent of the motherhood wage penalty? The answer to this question depends on why mothers receive lower wages than childless women in the first place. Because mothers face greater family obligations and time constraints, they may not be able to meet job demands the way childless women can—e.g., being very flexible in making work-related plans—resulting in mothers’ worse job performance and lower pay. If work-family conflict largely accounts for the motherhood wage penalty, then this penalty should be greater in occupations that enable workers less autonomy and more teamwork, as the job performance for such occupations depends more on workers’ ability to perform a certain task at a certain time. Because more autonomous occupations enable greater decision-making latitude, which is thought to lessen job strain, they may also decrease the work-family conflict mothers frequently face, thereby reducing mothers’ wage disadvantage. Likewise, because occupations that require workers to compete intensely with peers tend to be more stressful and time-demanding, mothers in more competitive occupations should be especially likely to suffer from job strain and work-family conflict, resulting in a greater motherhood penalty.