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News blog1 May 2024Joint Research Centre4 min read

The Future of Work: more evidence, less drama

By Bernard Magenhann, JRC Acting Director-General

© 2024

Profound transformations have swept through our workplaces in recent years. Digital tools, automation and algorithmic management are increasingly widespread across various economic sectors. Algorithmically-driven automation tools, initially used for task allocation and workers’ monitoring in digital labour platforms, are increasingly adopted in traditional workplaces as well, and for a wider range of tasks.

Labour Day is a fitting moment to consider how this new wave of technological change is reshaping our labour markets.  What impact will it have on the composition of the labour force, and what are the potential risks and opportunities for workers and businesses? Most importantly, how can we be best prepared for these changes?

Amid rapid technological advancement, concerns about the future of work are natural.  Understanding how automation, digitalisation and algorithmic management are reshaping employment dynamics in the digital age is crucial. The research agenda on the changing nature of work carried out by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in collaboration with the Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion helps us better understand how we can anticipate challenges and seize opportunities, while still protecting the wellbeing of workers and ensuring the best possible working environments.

So, what is the expected impact on work and workers of these technological advancements?

Don't panic!

Contrary to apocalyptic narratives, the future of work is not a doomsday scenario that will render human labour obsolete. From the research conducted so far, automation has been and will likely continue to be a gradual, incremental process. We are witnessing the integration of digital technologies to complement existing automation technologies, improving workflows and processes. For example, in manufacturing, robots equipped with AI-driven sensors enhance precision and efficiency, leading to more productive and efficient production lines.

Indeed, the advent of automation is not synonymous with large-scale job destruction. Any employment reduction linked to technological upgrading is often mitigated by increases in productivity, volumes produced, and the emergence of new types of jobs. Instead of replacing workers ‘en masse’, automation often alters the nature of tasks and quality of jobs overall, with the tasks reassigned and workers redeployed to new roles. The share of maintenance staff and engineers, for example, is likely to increase in a more automated world. Investing in education and training and embracing life-long learning is crucial for workers and employers to adapt to these shifts.

Lending a (metallic) hand

Automation of repetitive and arduous tasks can reduce physical strain, fatigue and stress levels resulting in safer, more comfortable working environments and allowing some workers to focus on more fulfilling tasks. For example, in the healthcare sector digital technologies could improve work coordination processes, freeing up time for caregiving activities.

From ergonomics to mental health

Nevertheless, our research also suggests increased pressure and pace due to automation and algorithmic management, which can offset the positive impacts and take a toll on mental health and job quality. This underscores the need for proactive measures to safeguard worker wellbeing.

Additionally, concerns about digital monitoring and surveillance of workers must be addressed. The rise of algorithmic management, characterised by algorithms organising, monitoring and optimising work processes, is transforming traditional employment dynamics. While research conducted so far suggests that the current institutional and regulatory frameworks still seem to mitigate major impacts, concerns about workers’ rights and privacy remain valid.

The reduction of workers’ autonomy is another concern, as tasks become more standardised, potentially leading to workers losing agency. There is also a risk of increased discrimination, as the algorithms dictating work assignments and schedules could replicate biases and inequalities. However, human decisions can also be discriminatory, and automation can be used to reduce human biases. The dynamics in this evolving landscape need to be closely monitored so that EU institutions and European governments have robust evidence to support future policy decisions to grasp the benefits of these technologies and protect workers. 

Losing the middle?

Contrary to fears of a disappearing middle, research indicates that there is no universal pattern of job polarisation as a result of technical change. Instead, we observe continuous occupational upgrading, with a growing demand for high-skilled occupations. However, in some countries and periods, workers with middle and particularly low levels of skills face increasing difficulties in the labour market. Recent research suggests that advanced tools, such as generative AI, may decrease disparities within occupations, increasing productivity, particularly among less-experienced and lower-skilled workers.

Keeping up with change: the real challenge?

Adapting to change remains the real challenge. As digitalisation, automation and algorithmic management become a reality across all workplaces, leaders in both the public and private sectors must stay alert to their human impact.

Ultimately, it is about understanding the direction of future changes, boosting productivity and fostering innovation, while protecting workers' rights and ensuring a fair and inclusive labour market for all. We hope our research contributes to this objective.

Happy Labour Day!



Publication date
1 May 2024
Joint Research Centre