Watch Out for Neo-Luddism

Robots and globalization are putting pressure on some traditional jobs (both high and low skilled). The solution for those workers losing their jobs is not neo-luddism (revolting against the robots), but to acquire the demanded skills and competences in the robotized and globalized world we live in.

Luddites were violent protesting workers in the English industrial revolution that destroyed machines because they took their livelihood. They were violently suppressed too by the authorities of the time. Whereas there are considerable misunderstandings around them, the historical episode of the luddites shows with all clarity the social costs of technological progress – the loss of traditional jobs.

There are at least three types of innovation: product, process and organizational innovation. The latter two are those with most effects in terms of job destruction – yet, they are those creating new types of jobs too.

There is currently a hype around the rapid raise of robots and the technologies behind them – digitalization and artificial intelligence. “Robots are coming!” have we heard time and again recently. In fact, the robotization of our societies and economies begun some decades ago. And even if robotization will not be as rapid as predicted, artificial intelligence and the ubiquitous digitalization is already transforming our societies deeply. We see robots everywhere, and more and more, we will also see them taking our jobs (skilled and unskilled). For this reason we must look at the social problems this generates. But we must also look at the new opportunities it offers too – new types of jobs.

With newspaper headlines like “Technological growth creates more problems that it loses” some opinion leaders seem to be looking only at the negative side of job loses, without looking at the positive side of new job types and new opportunities. This negative view links robotization and the lack of self-reflexive societies, to problems like political populism or loss of democratic values.

While self-reflexive societies are always important, we must however watch out for falling into neo-luddism approaches. Neo-luddism is not a viable approach because it forgets that there are other complex factors at play explaining rapid job losses and the unfortunate raise of populisms and disenchantment with liberal democracies.

These other fundamental factors are: the largely indebted private and public economies as the outcome of the financial crisis of 2008; the reduced competitive position in a mega-globalized context where countries like China and India have rapidly acquired advanced knowledge skills as well as accumulated capital; and the demographic imbalances with inverted demographic pyramids, lack of highly-demanded specialized technical skills, and the dramatic pressure of low skilled immigration (fruit of political and economic instability).

The solution to these problems is not neo-luddism. Turning against technology (robots and similar) will not give a better life, a better job, or a better democracy. The same about globalization. Turning against it with nationalisms and populisms will not solve the problems. The solution instead is to create possibilities and jobs for those who have lost them, particularly the wide middle classes. And this happens through new forms of education and skills, new types of jobs, and new types of organizations and firms; as well as by rebalancing the deep structural financial, geopolitical, social and economic imbalances in a robotized and globalized world that has come to stay.



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