Why is there so much fear about the future of work?

k rupp/ Flickr/CC by 2.0

In many different surveys year after year we see quite a surprising but consistent picture: the adult population in developed Western countries is increasingly worried about the future for today’s kids. The majority believe that future generations will be worse off financially than the current generation.

In France, for example, only 6% think that life will be easier for their kids while 77% think it will be more difficult. In Belgium, 71% believes it will be more difficult. Just 37% of Americans believe that today’s children will grow up to be better off financially than their parents[1].

How comes that we are so negative about the future?

This always puzzled me. The life in the world but even more so in the developed countries has never been so good. Yes, there are set backs and many problems remain and we have to continue working to improve things further. But nevertheless, if we compare our lives to the past, life is definitely better today.

Or is this fear and negativity not about today but about the future? Will the lives of many people in Western countries be worse off in the future?

I was trying to understand this phenomenon and where these fears are coming from.

On the one hand, what we see is that the economies continue to grow and are forecast to continue growing. Moreover, the tides of new scientific knowledge and technology promise further dramatic improvements to health, mobility and daily life.

On the other hand, when people think about how well today’s kids will be in the future, they most likely think about how likely it is that today’s kids will have well paid and stable jobs in the future and how likely it is that this income will be proportionally higher than that of their parents. And when they start thinking about all this, they become increasingly uncertain about the outcomes.

I came up with four major fears that people have today about the jobs of tomorrow:

1. Fear of robots and future of automation, with its possible implications for the future of jobs. In other words, the opinions range from the fear of no jobs at all to the fears of a lot of badly paid jobs.

2. Fear of globalisation and how it will continue taking jobs in Western countries.

3. Fear of disappearing stable employment and a move to a freelancer or gig economy, where all or many will have to be to some extent entrepreneurs, looking for work, projects, contracts, assignments. This might surely open new opportunities for the best ones but might also reduce the safety net for all.

4. Fear of so-called job market polarisation and growing inequality in society: you are either highly skilled and well paid or together with all the rest in the bottom of the pile, so-called polarisation between ‘’lousy and nice jobs’’, with not much left in the middle.

Are these fears justified or partially justified?

There is indeed probably a justifiable fear that the inequality in the Western economies could continue to grow, if nothing is done, leaving many worse off and behind — whatever are the reasons, be it globalisation, immigration, or the rise robots that will lead to less jobs or worse quality and worse paying jobs.

There is a lot of research available today on the topic of rising inequality. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Poorer than their parents? Flat or falling incomes in advanced economies, found that between 2005 and 2014, the real income of up to 70% of households in advanced economies flattened or fell. In contrast, between 1993 and 2005, 98% of households in 25 advanced economies experienced rising real incomes. And what about the future? The report estimates that the proportion of households with flat or falling incomes could rise to as high as 80% over the next 10 years.

The job polarisation is also a real phenomenon that will most likely accelerate as technology and further automation will be gradually replacing many middle-income jobs.

Will all this be enough to explain this astounding level of negativity and fear about the future?

I think that there are more factors in play.

First of all, it is absolutely clear that people are surrounded by an over-sensationalist media and news environment in which:

· things related to technology in particular are over-sensationalised, both on the negative but also on the positive side. We are surrounded by extreme stories, predicting that technology will make everything worse and everything better and all at the same time.

· This is compounded further by the media environment that displays a strong negativity bias. Research shows that negative news tends to attract more clicks and views, thus creating a vicious circle of propagating the negative view points. This leads to a higher exposure for negative, scary stories, even if they are not fully true, taken out of context or feature rare events. As Professor Hans Rosling showed beautifully in his TedTalks, the appearance of a shark in the waters near Stockholm will receive a lot of news coverage and will increase a fear of sharks and the overall environment of fear, even though overall sharks are not a big issue in the cold waters in Scandinavia.

But media bashing is not a way forward anyway. And, moreover, it is all not only due to this media environment. There is more in the play.

What is it?

The authors of the recently published book ‘’Factfullness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think’’ did quite some research into this question and offer an enlightening insight into what is going on.

Hans Rosling, the author of this book, surveyed various groups of people around the world, asking them different questions about the world. What surprised him is that time after time and irrespective of the audience (highly educated or less educated, young or old), people consistently demonstrated that they see the world much more negatively that it currently is. Crime rates, deaths from natural disasters, corruption, poverty rates — on any of the questions he asked, people always got the answers wrong, seeing the things much more negatively than they really are.

Hans ended up calling it our overdramatic worldview which is based on our dramatic instincts. We of course can not know all the facts about the world from the top of our heads. Therefore, when people reply to the questions about the world, they intuitively refer to their worldview, which is unfortunately wrong and overdramatic.

And this worldview is very stressful.

Rosling identifies 10 instincts that lead us to have this overdramatic worldview. For example, we tend to instinctively think that ‘’Most things get worse[2]’’. Rosling calls this a negativity instinct. Moreover, when we fear something (say, sharks), we will tend to exaggerate the problem and to see it much bigger than it really is — a so-called fear instinct. The size instinct makes us see standalone numbers look more impressive than they really are and the gap instinct makes us to divide things and people into two extremes (us against them falls into this category as well).

Hans Rosling and his colleagues have researched the question of the overdramatic worldview from some perspectives. However, I think we have to pick it up from there and take it further. This overdramatic worldview might be behind many trends and phenomena that we see around us today.

Fear of the future, fear of robots and technology, fear of globalisation and immigration, divided societies, rise of populism, Brexit and much more might be explained by this overdramatic and wrong worldview. And if so, what can be done to tackle this phenomenon?

[1] http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/06/05/2-public-divided-on-prospects-for-the-next-generation/

[2] https://tedsummaries.com/2014/10/01/hans-rosling-and-osa-rosling-how-not-to-be-ignorant-about-the-world/