Technologically induced unemployment is a perennial problem of capitalist economies. In the optimistic scenario, technological change produces new needs and, therefore, new forms of employment—eventually. In the pessimistic scenario, technological change creates long-term and chronic problems of unemployment and underemployment. Bent Greve not only attempts to provide insight into how new forms of technological change are likely to impact labour markets, but also, how these changes may interact with existing welfare regimes in the advanced capitalist zone, particularly in Europe.
Specifically Greve attempts to hazard some guesses about how big data, advanced analytical algorithms and the so-called sharing and platform economies will likely impact on employment growth, taxes and thus the resources available to governments in their quest to maintain existing welfare arrangements. There is also an interesting discussion on how these technologies may even be undermining our ability to calculate employment levels and the already notoriously blunt calculation of economic activity via measures of GDP.
Methodologically, I found the book thin on history, underwhelming in the use of time series data—running peak to trough for example—and demonstrating a rather eclectic use of economic theory. On the first and last of these limitations, I found the book the most frustrating. The use of historical time series data would have allowed for a better sense of how economies have adjusted to technological change in the past. On the last, the mix of neoclassical economic concepts and ideas with those of the varieties of capitalism paradigm, I found equally frustrating.
Ultimately, the ceteris paribus quality of the analysis—that economic social relations are fixed, that the dynamics of income redistribution and job creation are the two major policy levers—limits the political imagination contained inter alia. Initially, I was optimistic on this score when Greve quoted Keynes: “for the first time since creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well” (p.13). However, Greve leaves the problem subsumed under the optimistic view. Had he bothered to ask what changes in our socio-economic relations would be required to achieve Keynes’ optimistic vision, some very different policy conclusions and futures could have been drawn.
Keynes argued, in Chapter 24 of The General Theory, that: “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes” (emphasis is mine). Had Greve’s done this, the second half of the book would have been more creative and interesting.
If Greve’s basic scenario plays out for the Future of Technology and Work and the existing constraints on the welfare state persist then more political imagination will be required. That said, this is a well-written and interesting enough book to start a necessary conversation about new technologies and employment, but not a place to finish that conversation.