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Youth and new technology

Young people will be disproportionately affected by new technology in the workplace and the economy for the simple reason that they will have more of their working lives exposed to it. Technologies that today are at the experimental stage of their development, may well begin to achieve mass and scale within 10-15 years, meaning that the young workers of today will be mid-career when their impact is felt. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Young workers have the advantage that they are more likely to understand new technologies better than older workers, and they will be more adaptable to new technologies while they remain young. But this isn’t much of an advantage when we consider the overall picture.

Young workers will be heavily exposed to the negative impacts of technology while societies adapt to their use. The technologies that will most affect young workers in transport negatively are likely to be the use of online platforms to organise work, the increasing use of remote control technology to shift work across borders, and the increasing deployment of employee monitoring technology to discipline workers.

Young people will also have more of their lives defined by the economic and political trends that are just beginning today. The shift away from neoliberal economics towards some forms of protectionism, and the fragmentation of the global economy is only just beginning, but it will define working lives over the next decade at least. In politics, the trend towards polarisation, and the development of new international political alliances is another factor that will shape the lives of many young people in the coming years, particularly in the developing world.

So for young workers we are talking about an unstable international environment, an increasingly polarised political environment and workplaces where tech is used to exacerbate poor conditions, not improve them.

In many countries young people are heavily impacted by unemployment or underemployment. Young people, even in Europe, are far more likely to work in the informal sector, or in temporary or part-time work. Young people are also over-represented in developing countries, particularly in Africa, and they are also the most likely group to become migrants. These are ideal conditions for youth to be exploited by online platforms whether in the developing or developed world.

To understand why we have to understand online platforms

Online platforms allow work processes to be reorganised by replacing direct management with an algorithm, which enables the fiction of self-employment. People sign up to these platforms in the hope of getting work, which only works in the context of high unemployment or underemployment. The self-employment fiction falls apart under inspection, which is why many of these platforms are now being categorised as employers in the developed world. However, in developing countries the lack of government capacity means that the capital behind these apps is currently able to delay or prevent such a categorisation. Given the prevalence of informal working practices in much of the developing world, these platforms can make use of a vast pool of desperate labour, particularly in transport, which is why there are so many taxi apps around the world.

Online platforms also allow the ‘digital migration’ of work across borders, digitalising the race to the bottom in wages. They also allow some types of work to be broken up into microtasks that can be allocated to many different individuals. The result is the farming of many types of digital work to people in the developing world, who are being paid sums that are relatively good for the local market, but at the cost of working unsocial hours, having no guarantee of payment or decent treatment, no sick pay or paid holidays, and no right of redress. The impact on the developed world is to force wages for these digital tasks downward and reduce employment there. Some researchers have looked at where these tasks are created in relation to where they are carried out, and it mirrors a map of economic power in the digital economy – tasks are created in the United States, Canada and Western Europe and they are carried out in the English-speaking countries of the developing world. In other words, it is a form of digital imperialism.

So these online platforms, like Uber, Deliveroo, Upwork and so on effectively make use of the lack of regulation to perpetuate exploitative working conditions. So while there are economies that have ‘liberalised’, ‘flexible’ labour markets we will see youth exposed to exploitation by these platforms. In countries where employment increases and where labour regulations begin to cover the digital sphere, these platforms will transform into direct employers, and become more like traditional employers.

But young transport workers will be exposed to other forms of technology too. Young workers will be exposed to the increasing challenge of remote working. Already we are seeing the transfer of some tasks to cheaper labour markets through remote control technology. The port of Oslo is operated from Turkey at night. Some of the operations of the port of Melbourne in Australia have been outsourced to Manila (from high wage to low wage economies). Swedish and Norwegian airfields are operated from remote towers located near big cities. In shipping there is talk of remote operated vessels, and there is clear potential for remote technology to be used in public transport or road freight. Remote control offers some of the advantages of automation at a more reasonable cost, and with the failsafe of having human operators involved. This is why it is likely to become more widespread.

At the moment what holds this process back is lack of familiarity with the technology, the relatively low cost of labour in much of the developed world, and the lack of sufficiently secure and speedy digital communications. For example, not all the operations in Melbourne could be digitally off-shored because of the time lag in communications. But these issues may be overcome, and in the interim we will see increasing efforts by companies to introduce remote control in transport, although perhaps it will be within countries rather than between them.

But no matter where our young workers are, they are all very likely to come into increasing contact with employee monitoring technology that allows their performance to be measured in real-time, and which allows them to be benchmarked against each other or against targets that have been set by an algorithm. This ‘digital Taylorism’ is what is most likely to define the working lives of young people if the current framework of labour relations is allowed to continue. We can already see it in development in Sports Direct and Amazon warehouses, in the use of telematics and AI in truck cabins, in the collection of biometric and physiological data by employers.

As Artificial Intelligence develops there is no doubt that it will be used to help employers control their workforces, by influencing their hiring, or by identifying troublemakers or those vulnerable to ill health at the earliest opportunity. AI that can use facial recognition data to make predictions is developing rapidly. AI that uses social media data and combines it with other data can also be used to build a picture of social networks and could potentially create blacklists of union activists and potential union activists.

So for young workers there is no doubt that new technology is a challenge. In the current framework of regulations, of economic orthodoxy and power relations between workers and employers, technology will not be used to benefit workers. So if young workers want better working conditions and their rights to be respected they have to fight for a broad set of changes which will allow workers to control what technology does and how it can be used.

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