Automation and the gig economy will shift our notions of social capital, identity and cohesion.
By Angel Chew and Liana Tang; Research Support by Derrick Cham
HOW MIGHT WORK CHANGE US?
Work is central to the lives of most Singaporeans. Beyond being a source of income, work is tightly bound with a person’s sense of identity and self-worth. It shapes the values and principles one upholds as important in life and is a key source of social capital.1 With technological innovation and a changing economy, the world might well see the emergence of a new work order, fundamentally shifting the social aspects of work. The future of work will be profoundly impacted by automation, the gig economy and platform innovations, all driving forces we have been watching fairly closely.2
Automation and the gig economy are not new phenomena, but both have increased in speed, largely enabled by platform innovations.3 It is now incredibly easy to isolate and codify tasks to be outsourced to gig workers.4 This impacts both the availability of work and how work is done. Workers across a range of qualifications and industries will be affected by these forces, although at this point there is no consensus on the speed and impact of change.5
Policymakers have been quick to consider the impact of gig work on jobs and the economy, as well as on retirement adequacy — if gig work is embraced, it could increase labour force participation, and provide good bridging employment during skills retraining.6
Enhancements to Medisave announced in 2018 granted freelancers better access to medical benefits and insurance.7 But beyond this, there is a need to better understand the social impact of future work arrangements, such as how they may affect social capital, identity and cohesion.
GIGWORLD, SLOWDOWN, SECOND-CLASS SKILLS: THREE FUTURE SCENARIOS
To provide greater texture to the possible ways in which the future of work could play out, three mini-scenarios are presented below, produced by overlapping two uncertainties: (a) whether there would be more or less productive work for people in the future; and (b) whether jobs would remain the dominant paradigm of work or if task-based work will become the new normal:8
Gigworld (less work, mostly tasks)
People have to move fast and deliver fast if they want to survive in this gig-driven economy. Most people piece together their incomes through a series of temporary (and tedious) gigs. The winners are those who can provide an experiential service based on human interaction, activity or skill. The losers either struggle to keep up with the dizzying pace or opt out of the labour market entirely. The latter search for alternative sources of income as well as identity, meaning and social support.
In Gigworld, a homeowner may lease her living room as a co-working space through the AirDesk app, providing freelancers with space and a chance to meet likeminded people. Such co-working spaces continue to attract freelance writers and graphic designers, but also increasingly welcome fulltime cryptocurrency miners, freelance bankers and videogame shoutcasters. Freelancing schools emerge, promising to make gig workers more competitive. The founders of such schools are older gig workers tired of the constant pressure who want to continue earning money because they are unable to retire. These schools operate completely on existing platforms — their classrooms are co-working spaces or the internet, their branding and marketing all done by midcareer freelance advertising personnel. This is widely condemned as exploitative, but demand is sky-high.
Slowdown (less work, mostly jobs)
The gig economy fails to take off and economic life is organised around large institutions and those they employ in jobs. Because jobs are still the ideal arrangement, yet are few and far between, people are reluctant to leave their jobs regardless of how unhappy they are. As tax revenues fall because of lower employment levels, corporate philanthropists step in to take over former state functions. Through a series of job-sharing, workhour reduction and “make-work” measures, most of society remains in a job-centred labour arrangement, albeit at a much slower pace, resulting in time and space for alternative pursuits.
In Slowdown, we are all underemployed due to automation. The typical office worker knocks off at 4pm and regular furloughs, couched as personal development or family time, are commonplace. Younger employees and retirees do gig work in their free time just for fun or to supplement their income, undercutting fulltime freelancers. Due to alarming rates of depression and suicide in gig workers, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and tech giants who benefitted most from automation set up “Free Time Foundations” disbursing welfare and featuring opportunity portals. Desperate low-skilled gig workers sign away all their data to AI companies to aid machine learning in exchange for a monthly stipend. Universal Basic Income experiments in the West fail as taxes are unable to sustain them. Nonetheless, the slower pace of life boosts reported happiness and the fertility rate increases significantly.
Second-Class Skills (more work)
A technologically-driven economy results in a period of strong productivity when there is more work, but only for those at the very high end and very low end. A two-tiered economy emerges — those with the right skills and those without. Despite strong efforts by the government to retrain and reskill workers, the skills required for the upper tiers are far too complex and the divide widens. A large proportion of workers grow frustrated and bored in jobs they feel overqualified for.
In the world of Second-class skills, well-meaning educational reforms have made genetic engineering and AI coding and management skills training available to a wider range of the population than before. Unfortunately, most people are still unable to break into these fields, which are growing rapidly in importance but do not create massive numbers of new jobs. AI and genetic engineering companies regularly under-employ armies of hopeful interns. Those who fail to reskill are left working to manage sunset industries, applying the insights of AI to eventually replace their own jobs and watching people rich enough to possess genetically-enhanced intelligence fill leadership positions. Mass movements powered by the increasing disaffection with the two-tiered economy emerge, with more benign movements to divest from AI gaining traction alongside more violent ones protesting against, and in some cases killing, enhanced humans.
Underlying all three scenarios are three particular areas of social impact, namely mental health and wellbeing, identity and relationships.
A two-tiered work economy and ensuing divide may emerge between those with the “right” skills and those without.
“ZERO DUTY OF CARE”: IMPACT ON MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Work can exact a significant impact on a person’s mental health and wellbeing.10 From the pressure to hold on to one’s job in an uncertain economic environment, to the need to succeed amidst growing competition while maintaining work-life balance — work can be a great source of anxiety and stress. However, the absence of work can be similarly damaging — studies show that the unemployed are more likely to have depression, stress and higher cardiovascular risks. Long-term unemployment is also associated with greater incidence of suicide.11
The insecure nature of gig economy work would hence have a deleterious impact on mental health and wellbeing. As options are limited, people have no choice but to compete for work that has been parcelled out into various tedious tasks, juggling multiple portfolios and working longer hours. In the UK, 42% of gig workers surveyed worry about where their next pay cheque will come from, and one in three gig workers are juggling at least two “jobs”.12 Even for gig workers with a single “job”, the hours can be gruelling, leading to disastrous consequences, including, in some extreme cases, suicide.13
Most companies today are not obligated to care for gig workers — a segment especially susceptible to anxiety, mental health issues and suicide.
In Singapore, many struggle with understanding and discussing mental health issues.14 In a situation where more companies turn to gig workers, and companies have “virtually zero duty of care,” more workers’ mental health and wellbeing may go unaddressed.15 Even groups of workers that appear to be most savvy in taking advantage of the gig economy, such as youth and entrepreneurs, are increasingly seeking help with mental health issues.16
Given the potential for an increase in occurrence of mental health-related disorders and the significant second-order impacts on families and communities, there is a need to look out for signs of mental illness among job seekers and retrenched workers, especially those involved in the gig economy, and ensure that such workers have better access to mental health support.
“SOMETIMES I DON’T FEEL HUMAN”: IMPACT ON IDENTITY
Work and identity are inextricably interwoven and much of our identity comes from the jobs we do and our interactions while on the job. As gig workers might find themselves out of work for prolonged periods, they could experience a decline in self-esteem and loss of identity.17 Self-esteem is also impacted in jobs where people are treated as replaceable commodities. Will Diggle, a Deliveroo rider, had this to say about his work experiences: “[Sometimes] you don’t feel human. You’re just handing a bag over and some people take the bag, don’t look at you and close the door.”18 Rating systems employed by some sharing economy platforms also compel gig workers to behave in a subservient manner.19
The highly digital nature of work interactions in many gig situations could have an outsized impact due to it replacing many traditional workplace interactions. Platforms could depersonalise the relationship between employer and employee (replacing it with communication via automated messaging) and fail to cultivate social capital as the relationships between gig workers also become both transient and transactional.20 Deprived of stable social networks, gig workers could be prone to loneliness and isolation, making it difficult for one to forge a sense of social identity.21
There are, however, opportunities for those who thrive in these circumstances — the flexibility afforded by the gig economy could help many be masters of their own destinies. A McKinsey Global Institute survey
in 2016 revealed that individuals who chose to be part of the gig economy reported greater satisfaction with their work lives — they had more control over working hours and had the freedom to express themselves creatively in their chosen work.22 Another group of winners would be the ones who work just to fulfil aspirations outside of work. Work becomes a source of short-term income to support their passions and the absence of work is then seen as an opportunity to pursue those passions. Supported by other sources of fortune (for example, savings or inheritance), these people are not overwhelmingly bothered by prolonged periods of downtime.
According to a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) survey, 167,000 people in Singapore engaged in freelance work as their primary job in 2016. Including part-time freelancers who hold other jobs, the number increases to about 200,000.23 As the number of gig workers grows, the challenges policy makers may face might include how to ensure all jobs are equally respected, how the definition of success could be broadened beyond family and career, and how people can be helped to plug into other forms of social networks and find other meaning in life that gig work does not offer.24
As work evolves, how can policies help broaden our definition of a successful work life or career?
MORE OR LESS DIVERSE?: IMPACT ON RELATIONSHIPS
The lack of stable social networks in a gig-heavy life could result in a loss of diversity in inter-personal relationships. As fewer social bonds are formed with fewer people, it would be more difficult to form such
bonds with people from different backgrounds. The absence of a rich network could mean greater difficulty in getting people to empathise with others and to think beyond themselves and in collective terms, such as a national identity.25 the loss of organisational loyalty in the gig economy may engender short-term and transactional attitudes, exacerbating social tensions.26 Furthermore, those who enjoy secure and stable employment could become a source of envy and unhappiness, as these groups could be seen as unsympathetic to the plight of gig workers.27
The lack of deep workplace relationships could mean workers seek other forms of ready networks and support, such as in virtual worlds, online games and organised religion. The loss of a significant source of secular social networks and reduction of common space could deepen divides along religious lines and have serious second-order implications, negatively impacting social cohesion and potentially encouraging radicalisation.28 Isolation is also a strong driver of addiction and is often blamed for financially devastating online dating scams.29
Gig workers face higher risks of social isolation that may have serious, far-reaching implications.
The joint IPS-OnePeople.sg study found that network diversity correlates with collective sentiments such as national identity and social cohesion.30 It might therefore be increasingly important to encourage network diversity in a gig-heavy economy to foster social integration. New sources of social capital beyond the workplace should be imagined and investigated. At the same time, gig workers may need additional support for their social needs. The National Arts Council (NAC) plans to establish a national resource centre specially dedicated to supporting freelancers in the arts industry, and this initiative could be extended to other industries as well.31 Finally, the gig economy also offers opportunities to build community bonds and grow social diversity. For example, a gig platform for community work may increase volunteerism and encourage more diverse social interactions among Singaporeans.
TOWARDS A NEW WORK ORDER
How should we work to prepare for the future of work? The issues identified highlight the importance of starting a larger discussion. The social issues facing workers of the future cut across disciplinary and policy fields, and mitigating the risks they may pose — as well as capitalising on the opportunities they may provide — will have to involve a wide range of stakeholders, not least workers themselves.
1. Vincent Chua et al., “A Study on Social Capital in Singapore”, Institute of Policy Studies, 28 December 2017, accessed 3 June 2019, https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/study-of-social-capital-in-Singapore.pdf
2. Three major Driving Forces (DFs) identified as shaping Singapore’s operating environment in the next 20 years were Human Substitution (automation), Innovating Platforms (innovations across services and platforms, for example, Uber) and People as Businesses (for example, freelancers); this Deep Dive explores scenarios that look at these three DFs, given the speed of developments driven by growth in platform innovations
3. Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, how to Respond”, World Economic Forum, 14 January 2016, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrialrevolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond
4. Pete Robertson, “How the Gig Economy Creates Job Insecurity”, BBC News, 18 September 2017, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170918-how-the-gig-economy-creates-job-insecurity
5. Annie Lowrey, “What the Gig Economy Looks Like Around the World”, The Atlantic, 13 April 2017, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/04/gig-economy-global/522954
6. An interagency work group on the Future of Work proposed policy responses to better understand the freelancer landscape and to further study how Singapore’s income security policies can be resilient in a gig economy
7. Kenneth Cheng, “Freelancers to Get New Medisave Model, Insurance Scheme: Josephine Teo”, Today, 5 March 2018, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/freelancers-get-newmedisave-model-insurance-scheme-josephine-teo
8. Adapted from “The Shift Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology”, accessed 31 May 2019, https://shiftcommission.work
9. The “More Work” scenarios were combined due to strong similarities between the two
10. Stephen Stansfield, “Work, Personality and Mental Health”, British Journal of Psychiatry 181 (2002), accessed 3 June 2019, https://researchgate.net/publication/11232058_Work_personality_and_mental_Health
11. Olivera Batic-Mujanovic et al., “Influence of Unemployment on Mental Health of the Working Age Population”, Materia Socio-Medica 29 (2017), accessed 3 June 2019, https://ejmanager.com/fulltextpdf.php?mno=271108
12. Dan Cancian, “One in Three ‘Gig Workers’ Admits to Juggling Two Or More Jobs at One Time”, International Business Times, 19 December 2017, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/one-three-gigworkers-admits-juggling-two-more-jobs-one-time-1652012
13. For gruelling hours, see: Sarah O’Connor, “Driven to Despair — the Hidden Costs of the Gig Economy”, Financial Times, 22 September 2017, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/749cb87e-6ca8-11e7-b9c7-15af748b60d0; for disastrous consequences, see: Ginia Bellafante, “A Driver’s Suicide Reveals the Dark Side of the Gig Economy”, The New York Times, 6 February 2018, accessed 31 May 2029, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/nyregion/livery-driver-taxi-uber.html
14. Laura Elizabeth Philomin, “Considerable Stigma Against Mental Illness: Study”, Today, 6 October 2015, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/considerable-stigma-towards-mentally-illimh-study
15. Hannah Jane Parkinson, “‘Sometimes You Don’t Feel Human’ — How the Gig Economy Chews Up and Spits Out Millennials”, The Guardian, 17 October 2017, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/17/sometimes-you-dont-feel-human-how-the-gig-economy-chews-up-and-spits-outmillennials
16. For mental health issues faced by youth, see: Rahimah Rashith, “Number of Youth Seeking Help at Institute of Mental Health Outreach Unit Up 3 Times to 1,580”, The Straits Times, 9 July 2018, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/number-of-youth-seeking-help-at-institute-ofmental-health-outreach-unit-up-3-times-to; for mental health issues faced by entrepreneurs, see: Megan Bruneau, “7 Reasons Entrepreneurs Are Particularly Vulnerable to Mental Health Challenges”, Forbes, 4 April 2018, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/meganbruneau/2018/04/04/8-reasonsentrepreneurs-are-particularly-vulnerable-to-mental-health-challenges
17. Eveline Gan, “Depression Caused by Job Loss or Changes Warrants Attention”, Channel News Asia, 20 January 2018, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/health/depressioncaused-by-job-loss-or-changes-warrants-attention-9862144
18. Hannah Jane Parkinson, “‘Sometimes You Don’t Feel Human’ — How the Gig Economy Chews Up and Spits Out Millennials”, The Guardian, 17 October 2017, accessed 31 May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/17/sometimes-you-dont-feel-human-how-the-gig-economychews-up-and-spits-out-millennials
19. Josh Dzieza, “The Rating Game”, The Verge, 28 October 2015, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2015/10/28/9625968/rating-system-on-demand-economy-uber-olive-garden
20. CSF Social Futures of Work Exploratory Roundtable, Notes of Roundtable, 20 February 2018
21. For loneliness and isolation, see: Anne Fisher, “There’s a Loneliness Epidemic Among Freelancers”, Fortune, 7 September 2016, accessed 31 May 2019, https://amp.timeinc.net/fortune/2016/09/07/freelancers-gig-economy-happiness-satisfaction; for identity-formation, see: Pete Robertson, “How the Gig Economy Creates Job Insecurity”, BBC, 18 September 2017, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170918-how-the-gig-economy-creates-job-insecurity
22. James Manyika et al., “Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy”, McKinsey Global Institute, October 2016, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/Employment%20and%20Growth/Independent%20work%20Choice%20necessity%20and%20the%20gig%20economy/Independent-Work-Choice-necessity-and-the-gigeconomy-Executive-Summary.ashx
23. Kenneth Cheng and Toh Ee Ming, “The Big Read: The Unstoppable March of the Gig Economy”, Today, 19 May 2017, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/big-read-unstoppablemarch-gig-economy
24. “Singaporeans are Ditching Stable Jobs for Freelance Gigs”, Singapore Business Review, 19 December 2017, accessed 30 May 2019, https://sbr.com.sg/economy/in-focus/singaporeans-are-ditching-stablejobs-freelance-gigs
25. Vincent Chua et al., “A Study on Social Capital in Singapore”, Institute of Policy Studies, 28 December 2017, accessed 3 June 2019, https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/study-of-socialcapital-in-Singapore.pdf
26. For short-term and transactional attitudes in the gig economy, see: Nura Jabagi, “Why Relationships Matter in the Gig Economy”, The Globe and Mail, 17 April 2018, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/commentary/article-why-gig-workers-arent-that-different-fromtraditional-employees
27. CSF Social Futures of Work Exploratory Roundtable, Notes of Roundtable, 20 February 2018
28. Mark Townsend, “Brain Scans Show Social Exclusion Creates Jihadists, Say Researchers”, The Guardian, 6 January 2019, accessed 3 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jan/06/social-exclusion-radicalisation-brain-scans
29. For addiction, see: Shahram Heshmat, “Addiction as a Disease of Isolation”, Psychology Today, 18 November 2014, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sciencechoice/201411/addiction-disease-isolation; for dating scams, see: Corilyn Shorpshire, “Online Dating Scammers Have Bilked Lonely Hearts Out of $1 Billion, BBB says”, Chicago Tribune, 13 February 2018, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-dating-sites-scams-20180213-story.html
30. Vincent Chua et al., “A Study on Social Capital in Singapore”, Institute of Policy Studies, 28 December 2017, accessed 3 June 2019, https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/study-of-socialcapital-in-singapore
31. Toh Ee Ming, “New Resource for Arts Freelancers to be Set Up”, Today, 8 March 2018, accessed 30 May 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/new-resource-centre-arts-freelancers-be-set
Liana Tang is the Deputy Head and Angel Chew is a Senior Strategist at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
Derrick Cham was Strategist at the Centre for Strategic Futures. He is now Assistant Manager, Data Science & Artificial Intelligence Division, GOVTECH.
This article was originally published in Foresight 2019: Tenth Anniversary Issue.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.