Globalisation, digitalisation, artificial intelligence—it’s time to stop debating work in a fear-laden way.
Social democracy emerged from the labour movement in the 19th century. Work has always been the focal point of social-democratic politics. In recent years, however, the role of work has become discussed increasingly narrowly and defensively. Whether in the debates about digitalisation or earlier on globalisation, work has always appeared under pressure. We should take this discussion in a different direction.
We think this mantra is false. Although globalisation and digitalisation present us of course with new challenges, the significance of work in society is not diminished. On the contrary. If we are right in shaping the change that lies before us, the work of the future becomes one of the most effective instruments of social policy.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the dominant discourse, in Germany for instance, was that relocation of production and global competition would jeopardise jobs and wages. In the recent debates on digitalisation, some observers have even anticipated a labour-market apocalypse. The fear is that robots and artificial intelligence could make human labour almost completely redundant.
Forecasts of how many jobs will be lost in the future vary widely. The honest answer is that no one knows exactly how digitalisation will work out. What all experts agree on, however, is that the work of the future will lead away from routine and towards more creativity. In consequence, through this shift the socially-transformative potential of work grows rather than diminishing. This opens up new opportunities.
These days in Germany, industrial policy is finally being argued over again. This discussion is long overdue. The role of the state in the economy was for a long time interpreted too defensively. It must not be the role of the state merely to correct market failures. Rather, it is a question of creating markets themselves and shaping the economic process politically. Our society should not be subordinated to the economy; rather, the economy should adapt to the ideals of our society.
From an offensive industrial policy, good jobs, new technologies and social prosperity result—in that order. Those who want to solidify opposition to climate and labour-market policies and stick to the status quo will end up losing the most. Moreover, without adherence to the value of labour, a modern industrial policy is inconceivable. Finally, it is only through skilled jobs that new technologies are created to address the major problems of our time.
This also applies to the area of digitalisation. Data policy and the development of artificial intelligence will be decisive for jobs and growth. The global race has long since opened. For us, it cannot be a question of whether but only of how. The state must put itself in the driving seat and aggressively push for the onset of artificial intelligence in the economy and science and also in politics.
In the services sector, too, we need an offensive concept of work and a political strategy. From childcare to social care, our public services need to be upgraded through more and better work. An ageing society cannot allow itself in the long term a weakening welfare state or an education system worthy of improvement.
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The renewal of the welfare state or the improvement of the education system is not achievable without more and better work. How can the shortage of childcare places be eliminated without more motivated educators? How can we become more attentive to individual needs in schools without more teachers? There is only one answer to this: it cannot be done without more and better work.
The renovation of the social arena benefits from more staff with better social competence. The education system should put the creative and problem-oriented skills of the future more strongly into focus.
Good work will therefore continue to be the foundation of our prosperity and an important indicator of the quality of our life together. If we continue to esteem work and shape it in a well-aimed way, we can make our society a better one. A society in which cohesion and togetherness have a firm place and a new prosperity opens up.
It is therefore time to address more proactively in the public discourse the significance of work in shaping our social future. It is the basis for mastering the great challenges of our time and at the same time a competitive advantage if the change at hand in the world of work is framed correctly.
Lars Klingbeil is since 2017 secretary general of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He has been a member of the Bundestag for Rotenburg I—Heidekreis since 2009. Henning Meyer is a social scientist and member of the SPD's Basic Values Commission.