Opinions - 12.09.2017 - 00:00 

2017 Bundestag elections: the revenge of the future digital precariat

The Union parties (CDU/CSU) promise full employment in the German election campaign. So do the Social Democrats. They are all ignoring the work revolution. The consequences are foreseeable. By Miriam Meckel.

12 September 2017. There used to be a biblical glimmer of hope: "the last shall be first, and the first last", it says in the New Testament. We are unaware of whether Matthew would also have found this sentence suitable for election programmes.

Unfortunately, the programme finally presented by CDU/CSU after a long period of waiting did not contain any surprises and unusual ideas. It is the epitome of sound craftsmanship demonstrated by someone who carves old wood. Even though the mountain was in labour for a very long time, it still only brought forth a mouse.

Of course, things look very much the same in the other political parties and would therefore not have to be accorded separate mention if the programme of the Union parties did not rely on a well-known notion in one of its three focal points: full employment.

Full employment as a sure-fire political success?

According to the usual polls, we are already quite close to it in Germany with an unemployment rate of 5.5 per cent. Full employment is a sure-fire political success, then, provided that the economic situation remains as it is? Dream on. According to a study recently published by the McKinsey Global Institute, half of all the work paid with a total of USD 16bn in the global economy can be replaced by technologies which are available now. Most jobs as we know them now will disappear in the next few years. Instead, many new and different ones will emerge.

The transitional stage between the labour markets of today and tomorrow, however, will be tough. Not every taxi driver can become a programmer and not every insurance employee a designer of new computer games. Half of the working population, whose jobs can be done more cheaply and better by machines and software, will be transformed into a digital precariat – "economically superfluous people" as the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari calls them. They will not only be unemployed but also no longer compatible with the requirements of the digital economy.

Global labour market revolution
This will be the biggest global labour market revolution since the industrial revolution. We will then be pleased to be able to work half time. You do not need a great deal of imagination to picture the consequences that this will have. Not being part of it all will make people lonely and aggressive, and also susceptible to the preachers of simple truths and solutions. What should these people do when there is no work left for them? And where will they get their self-esteem from, which in our society is very essentially nourished by our own work?

The two former people’s parties should focus on how this transition can be mastered and socially cushioned: for instance, through a company tax reform which radically de-bureaucratises and disencumbers companies, and all the measures that are invested in the basic and advanced training of employees. Instead they are dancing around the golden calf of full employment. This will return to haunt them. The reversal of Matthew’s sentence runs: "and the last shall be last".

This text was first published in WirtschaftsWoche on 7 July 2017.

Miriam Meckel is the publisher of WirtschaftsWoche and Professor of Corporate Communication at the University of St.Gallen (HSG).

photo: photocase / zettberlin


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