AI, men and women at work

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AI, men and women at work

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good work · Thursday 03 Aug 2023
Tags: AIworkfuturessociety
Rei Inamato recently wrote a piece on Medium offering advice for creative workers heading into their forties and beyond.

As a freelance writer for whom 40 was a milestone passed some time ago, I have a direct interest in the question, but there are more important issues lurking behind it, and they go far deeper than the ambitions and hopes of creative workers.

Inamato reasonably deals with the status quo, but there's good reason to think that the status quo can't, and should not hold. He mentions in passing the speed of technology change and that alone begs a critical question about working lives and national wealth. Then we need to consider related issues about working patterns and income distribution, and about how we can achieve proper gender equality in the workplace.
There are many open questions about the social impact of AI, but one thing we can be sure of is that it will displace a huge number of existing work roles. Optimists claim they will simply be replaced by new jobs, as happened to some extent with earlier waves of mechanical automation. This underestimates the impact of AI, and critically ignores other forces at work.

Who benefits?
AI evangelists tout the technology's potential to elevate productivity, as mechanical automation did before. But then there's the hard question about where the benefits of that productivity can flow (while our thoughtless politicians gabble meaninglessly about growth). As things are they will mostly flow into the bank accounts of the technology owners, and the banks that financed them. This we will be told is how the world works and how things have to be.

But it's not even how capitalism has always worked.

For the last forty years we've been pushed to follow a false capitalist ideology, where "markets" allocate costs and resources with maximum efficiency, obviating the need for political decisions or interventions. Its apologists will say that it has worked to raise global living standards, a claim that depends on a highly selective view of the consequences. More obviously it's resulted in a dramatic widening of wealth disparities, with an increasingly large proportion of national wealth flowing to a very small proportion of the population.
Apart from anything else, this disparity is (ironically) economically inefficient and unsustainable. Even Henry Ford recognised that he needed to pay his workers enough to be able to afford the products they were making. It's apparent too that the money flowing to the already-wealthy does not get spent back into the productive economy.

Pressures for change
I'm not pretending that changing this will be simple: the wealthy are good at avoiding tax and in any case you still have to find an effective means of redistribution.

But with sufficient political will it could be made to happen. States are already experimenting with Universal Basic Income. That could be a starting point, but I suspect beyond it we need to rethink working patterns.
There are other useful pressures for change. The pandemic accelerated a shift to home working. Clearly that was never going to suit everyone, but the flexibility it offered has already become embedded in employee expectations, particularly among younger generations.

There are experiments with four day working. Not only have these mostly suggested improved productivity, but have also raised awareness of the fact that the established five day week is not a reflection of some law of nature, but had to be fought for.

What does productivity mean?
These experiments also underline the fact that "productivity" is not a monolithic concept, even if it tends to be used as a broad positive measure to be set against any costs of change. For so called "creatives" like me there's no real correlation between hours worked and the usefulness or quality of an output, but equally reducing the pressure for often irrelevant presence can easily support higher quality work (and useful productivity measures need to incorporate some valuation of quality).

On the other hand productivity for people working behind a supermarket checkout isn’t fully in their hands, and in any case what does it really mean? That customers get to move faster through that checkout? But do the customers want that? The productivity equation quickly becomes complex. Staff engagement and motivation (for instance in a retail environment) will have consequences for customer satisfaction and retention, just as staff retention and its associated costs should really be considered under the productivity equation.

The argument for the productivity boost offered by technology, including AI technology, often hangs on the notion that staff will be freed to work on more useful things. In practice it can easily mean that they will simply be fired, and their “costs” passed as increased profit to the ever gaping maw of the shareholders.

A new feudalism?
Automation detaches value creation from labour. Ironically in a civilised world that should mean people can be paid more for doing less, or at least working fewer hours, but this will only happen if the fruits of that labour are more equitably shared. This depends in turn on a recognition that having some kind of a claim on the ownership of a technology asset is not worth more than that labour. (Among other things it will also mean recognising that far from creating an efficient allocation of reward, the neoliberal concept of a free market has resulted in the colossal overvaluation of senior management and finance roles.)

The idea that work should be rewarded is close to the heart of our sense of fairness. But this notion of reward is complicated by our sense of what ownership should mean. If someone is fortunate enough to own an asset that others are willing to pay to use, for instance a spare house or flat, it can seem obvious that the proceeds should flow to the owner.

But we need to recognise that our ideas about ownership, and the rights that accrue to it, are socially determined. For instance, and perhaps most obviously, we no longer grant the right to own slaves, or for that matter serfs. Although it remains a hotly disputed territory, we have evolved labour laws to restrict the power of businesses to impose overly onerous working conditions in their employment contracts.
In other words when we recognise that other social goods are at stake, or need protecting, we place legal limits on what can be bought and owned.

Patents complicate further our notions of ownership, and what rewards should follow from it. Our ideas about intellectual property are bound to our basic notions of work and commensurate reward, and reflect the obvious truth that not all worthwhile work produces a physical object that can generate reward from being sold or resold. Patents and copyright exist to help ensure that people are justly remunerated for their work, but again there are difficult questions about the idea of “justly”. To Europeans certainly the US Patent Office takes a baffling approach, protecting “ideas” that fall far short of the original concept of invention, and all too willing to grant ownership of software that simply replicates previously analogue functions. It’s significant that the EU does not grant software patents.

AI depends on software. Certainly its developers have invested a lot of time and money, though its use of copyrighted material to build its models only begs further questions about ownership, questions which have not been answered. Legislators currently considering AI harms seem to be mostly focused on questions of accuracy and political manipulation, but ownership is an equally pressing question. AI tool developers reasonably expect just recompense, but if corporately-owned AI tools become pervasive we face the real prospect of a new feudalism.

A more thoughtful age
But let’s look on the bright side. If it’s apparent that these new tools will change productivity, and the tasks we need to perform, we need to take this golden opportunity to rethink our established patterns of work.
Not least here is a chance to rethink our assumptions about age, gender and viable career paths.
We’ve watched the extension of our healthy life expectations into our sixties and seventies, and perhaps fretted about what it means for pension provision, but hardly thought through what it might mean in a wider sense for working lives.

Society needs people to bear children but for all the advances of feminism the burden still falls unfairly on women. Sure, some high fliers can afford to bundle their babies off to the care of nannies or nurseries and carry on with their careers, but that option is barely available to most and arguably both children and parents pay an emotional price for it.

Childcare should be a shared burden for both parents. Inconveniently biology continues to insist that the optimal time for a woman to give birth is between the age of 20 and 35 (with some latitude on either side).

This means that for most people active parenting coincides with what have traditionally been considered the peak years for work performance and advancement (from say 30-50). In consequence, social and economic pressures have tended to mean that the male partner can continue to maintain his career momentum, while the woman’s falters (I’m afraid I don’t know what normally happens with same sex partners, where there won’t be the same pre-determined social expectations, but I can imagine difficult choices still need to be made).

On the other hand biology improvements have extended our healthy lives. For sure someone doing physical work is still not likely to be able to carry on much beyond their mid-sixties, and pension provision needs to reflect this. But it’s a different story for those doing less manual work. If we can dump our ageism along with our sexism, and then reconsider the bigger economics of a productive working life, now supported by myriad AI tools, then it shouldn’t be beyond our imaginations to conceive of a new working pattern where people move to part time roles while parenting, supported by their employers and a kind of “parent pension”, then return to full time work in their late forties or fifties and continue to work through their sixties.

Not only does this open up the possibility of a more equitable distribution of the parenting burden. It means we may learn to appreciate and enjoy the value of older and more experienced heads at work. Being older doesn’t necessarily make you wiser, but the availability of more diverse perspectives is likely to improve the quality of decision-making.

The opportunity to choose
There was a time when the notion of a five day week, or paid holidays, probably seemed fanciful or even morally wrong. Things change, and can change again. It’s been quite a few years since societies or cultures began to recognise that a woman’s place might not be in the home, but we’re still working through what this means in the ways we organise our lives. The changes I’m talking about would follow rationally from this movement.

The sudden irruption of advanced AI tools has forced us to face difficult and urgent questions about how we want to move forward. These tools could be beneficial for our economies and societies, but this depends on the conscious choices we make now. We should be clear that those choices are not just about authenticity and truth-telling on social media, but how we think about the promised boost to productivity, how we think about the changing value of human work, and how we ensure that the economic gains are distributed both fairly and sustainably for the future.

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