The future of work, a formidable challenge

Marco Bentivogli

The future of work, a formidable challenge

1. Introduction

Today, we are in the moment in which two great revolutions are going to meet: first, everything that is happening through what biotechnology and neuroscience are telling us; on the other hand the one linked to ICT technologies. This convergence will produce epochal changes for humanity. We are therefore not in any moment of history, but in the face of the greatest challenge that our species has ever faced, after the Neolithic revolution and the industrial one, which in a little over two hundred years has led us from steam to atomic energy.

If in the first industrial revolution first steam engines and railways, and then electricity let humanity take a great leap forward, partially freeing it from the yoke of physical labor, nowadays, thanks to the combination of ICT technologies and biotechnology, homo sapiens is on the threshold of making humanity take a further leap forward. For the first time since its appearance on Earth, in fact, a revolutionary cognitive evolution is within the reach of man, in which technology is the catalyst for change.

The knowledge and the ability and speed of calculation achieved are offering to mankind the possibility of “closing” the circle of technological revolution, opening up new spaces in which to experience an emancipation from fatigue and from repetitive and dehumanizing works, allowing to release the best human abilities. However, the change also generates feelings of fear and anxiety for what we do not know: it has always been like this, but these feelings must be brought back into a rational dimension that allows us to seize the opportunities of change.

We must therefore manage the present situation better than we did with the industrial revolution, because we cannot afford mistakes or leave anyone behind. It is necessary to anticipate the change following the motto attributed by the Latin historian Gaius Svetonius to the emperor Augustus: festina lente, a famous oxymoron in which two opposite concepts are united, speed and slowness, to indicate a resolute but at the same time cautious way of acting. Both the post-Luddist hysteria, which in my latest book Contrordine Compagni I call technophobia, and the hyper-optimistic exaltation, which sees before itself only a wonderful and problem-free future, in their symmetrical ideological extremism do not help maintain the necessary lucidity to understand and face what is happening. Pitfalls and threats are possible, but the future is still that formidable field of challenge in which nothing is predetermined. It is therefore important to grasp some trends already in place, and above all to decide what and how to do so that the person remains the end of every human project, be it economic, industrial, technological or social.

Everything will change, and it is already happening. Even our perception of the variables of space and time changes as a result of the changes that technology brings to our lives. The use we make of it is conditioned by the speed and the possibilities, not infinite but certainly increased, that innovation offers. Two different approaches are possible: we can call the first “the passive” one, characterised as individualistic and pessimistic; it involves being overwhelmed, guided, replaced. The second, instead, tends to govern the processes, to fill them with contents and objectives that overcome the narrow space of our worries and trace a future in which people live the dimension of “us”, the experience of a human progress, characterised by solidarity.

“Time is greater than space. This principle makes it possible to work long-term, without the obsession with immediate results” writes Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. “One of the sins that are sometimes found in socio-political activity consists in privileging the spaces of power in place of the time of the processes. Giving priority to space leads to madness to solve everything in the present moment, to try to take possession of all the spaces of power and self-assertion, privileging actions that generate new dynamisms in society and involve other people and groups that will carry them forward, until they bear fruit in important historical events.”

It is an extraordinary lesson that the Holy Father would take up again in 2015 with Laudato si’: in starting and managing the process, looking beyond himself, the human being lays the foundations for building a better society. And it is an invitation to action, to move to interpret in advance, with industrious serenity, the powerful changes that the fourth industrial revolution brings with it.


2. The future is up to us

Technology is never deterministic in itself, and if something can be done, it does not necessarily mean that it has to be done. The choice of the direction to be given to the technology depends exclusively on us. Algorithms have neither emotions nor instincts, but they are all designed by a human, with a brain and a heart: this is why they contain the values and ethics of those who design them, but their use can be distorted with respect to the intentions of those who have them designed. For this we need an approach to design that points to “mutual good”, as Ugo Morelli defines it. Here is the real challenge: the future is and will be the consequence of the choices we will make today. If intelligence represents the human capacity to solve problems, man, compared to machines, also has a consciousness that makes him capable of feeling emotions and feelings like fear, anger, joy, love, empathy, etc. These are emotions and feelings that come into play in ethical and moral choices and mark the difference between man and machine.

Human creativity provides the possible way out of the constraints and imbalances of the present. As a species we are able to generate the unprecedented, breaking conformism, in every field of our experience, and we do it both in conditions of necessity and by choice and desire. Environmental crises, resource constraints, present conflicts, prejudices and human destructiveness can find possible emancipatory ways in our creativity within what we can call “4.0 ecosystem”.

Cultural pluralism, irony, humor, curiosity, anxiety and above all beauty are all “human devices” suitable for extending our capacities, for enhancing our brains by giving us access to an imaginative livability of tomorrow that puts man in its entirety at the center within the social and environmental sustainability of technology.

Today, in fact, we run the risk of investing too much in strengthening artificial intelligence and machines, and too little in enhancing human intelligence, with the risk of amplifying some weaknesses of our kind, starting from the primary instincts that make us closer to monkeys than to the “Renaissance man”.

Man has both need and desire. Building a future means above all investing in education and training: we ourselves are a project and an invention, not a destiny. We are called to respond to the creation of our lives in the choices we make day after day. There is no “I” without a “we”, we are all involved in the ways we are in “we”. In this sense technology, if on one hand it can be an exclusive instrument of control and power, on the other it must act as a mutual good, which places man at the center of change in its double, inseparable dimension of the “I” and of “us”. We therefore have the opportunity to make a change thanks to developments in scientific knowledge and technology. Education and training, in addition to technology, are the main tools on which to invest in the design of the 4.0 ecosystem.

On the one hand this will allow us to anticipate change, limiting its negative effects; on the other it will produce in humanity an empowerment that will allow the homo sapiens species to make an evolutionary leap never seen since it first appeared on Earth about three hundred thousand years ago.

3. The speed of change

Electricity and the electric motor took over forty years to spread, for many reasons, including the poor reliability of the first applications. Today, thanks to algorithms, data accumulation and computing power, innovation spreads very rapidly, with transformative results largely – at least today – unpredictable. Industry 4.0, combined with blockchain technology and artificial intelligence, is configured in this sense as the second leap forward of humanity. World demographic data up to the nineteenth century are more or less regular. The first leap forward occurred with the spread of the steam engine: this invention and its subsequent improvements allowed the overcoming of human and animal muscle power limits. Today the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution expand and increase the cognitive abilities of our species. This, with respect to production, will give life to a world that we are unable to fully imagine and which implies discontinuity with respect to the past. So, there is a paradigm shift: productions, work, new ecosystems will change everyone’s life; therefore, the first operation to accomplish is to understand what lies ahead and understand that it is a more demanding transformation than simple robotization. Even the 1978 Ritmo model, by Fiat, which few remember, was completely automated and was entirely produced by robots at the Cassino plant, in the province of Frosinone; but industry 4.0 is something completely different: it is interconnected with a high level of interdependence within an intelligent ecosystem, in a system of dialogue between machine and machine and between machines and man. The real turning point is the constant connection with external material and an immaterial ecosystem through data clouds.

In Italy, in fact, nothing of the kind yet exists. The first small experiences in our country are niches, construction sites that do not even resemble a 4.0 factory. The latter is completely integrated into eleven enabling technologies. Among these: advanced production systems, additive manufacturing, augmented reality, simulations, horizontal and vertical integration of information systems, internet of things, cloud manufacturing, cyber security, use and analysis of big data.

Siemens and Bosch factories were the first to really try their hand at 4.0. This mutation implies the need to rethink production and the work of the people involved in it, but also to regenerate the area around a smart factory. A factory works if there are employees with adequate professionalism, but above all if there is an intelligent ecosystem around which evolves an efficient and digitalised public administration, smart energy supply systems and networks, an efficient banking system close to the territory and to businesses, but also a reliable and functioning judicial system, a regenerated and sustainable territory on an environmental and social level. This is the context that allows us to bring manufacturing back to the center, and Industry 4.0 is the occasion – the last – to reach the goal.

4. Industry 4.0

Many do not remember the terrible crisis that hit Germany in the early 2000s. To cope with this, in 2006 a multi-year plan called High-Tech Strategy was adopted and initiated by the government, renewed and extended in 2010. Industrie 4.0 is one of the ten projects identified in this area to pursue innovation objectives in 10-15 years later.

The expression Industry 4.0 originates in Germany in 2011, when Henning Kagermann (physicist), Wolf-Dieter Lukas (artificial intelligence expert) and Wolfgang Wahlster (physicist and official of the Ministry of Education and Research) used it for the first time in a report presented at the Hannover Fair. With that text they announced that the Zukunftsprojekt Industrie 4.0 had been submitted to the authorities, as a “project for the future” born from the need to revive the competitiveness of German industry after the 2008 crisis, proactively responding to digital transformation. The cyber-physical systems and the Internet of things inaugurated the “fourth industrial revolution” in the factories.

Since then, European governments have undertaken initiatives to support the adoption of digital technologies and intensified national strategies for the digitalisation of the entrepreneurial system. Italy launched its National Industry 4.0 Plan in 2016, later renamed “Impresa 4.0” (Industry 4.0) – also called “Piano Calenda” – presented as a “set of organic and complementary measures capable of fostering investment for innovation and competitiveness”. Industry 4.0 integrates the eleven fundamental technologies, almost all already implemented individually in the production processes, in a single system.

Italy is very strong in each of them, but unfortunately very weak in creating a valid model of industrial integration. When they work together in a cohesive system, these technologies have the power to actually transform production and change the nature of the relationships between suppliers, producers and customers. At the same time they also have a significant impact on the relationship between man and machine, increasingly integrated through bioengineering. For this reason we speak of cyber physical system: thanks to the Internet of industrial things, for example, machines are able to communicate with each other and, at the same time, to “learn” working together with human beings – which, of course, makes them much more efficient than in the past.

5. Thinking about megatrends

To succeed in this field, technological investments are not enough: a cultural change and a level of political and social planning that takes into account the techno-industrial and human megatrends are needed, and it should be developed over the very long period and not inhibited by the immediate blackmail.

We must look at a horizon of at least 20 or 30 years, considering, for example, that with the current growth rates in 2100 Africa will have 4 billion inhabitants, 3 more than the current billion; and we must also consider that in Italy the over-80s will double and within a few decades we will have many more over-65s than young people.

Both phenomena should make us reflect on the global demographic and migratory dynamics, and push us to totally rethink the interpretation, models, priorities and management policies. Project skills are therefore needed: to write together on a blank sheet, moving in the open sea, on completely new maps. Seriousness and participation will be fundamental.

The digital revolution is delivering to the archives the Fordist idea that work should be organized in factories and assembly lines, following a hierarchical chain of command. The combined use of Industry 4.0, blockchain infrastructures and artificial intelligence will deeply change the organization of work.

Sociologist Federico Butera explains that the race against machines is a logical nonsense. The machines can be designed to produce positive results for everyone, provided that the design is a team effort, which frees the workers from job cages allowing them to play a creative role.

Participation must also be extended to training courses, schools and universities. It is the path of “industrial democracy” that has been successfully followed by Germany and the Scandinavian countries. The protagonism of people, of course, must also be promoted outside the factories. Authentic participation is also achieved on the consumption side, pushing companies to make sustainability the compass that guides their decisions. The so-called “vote with one’s wallet”, that is, consumer choices that reward companies that produce based ob sustainability protocols, promoted by the economist Leonardo Becchetti, can concretely help people to become subjects and not objects of the market, and, as we will see, it is also a tool for trade union struggle.

If twentieth-century factory work is attributed a collective dimension, today this dynamic is weakened. So the key to finding a high dimension of work is knowledge and participation at every level. We need to value new experiences and genuine common sense against those who preach disintermediation and prophesy a world in which 90% of people will be on the sidelines living on subsidies, while 10% will work.

This technophobic view, that those who support innovation will simply cancel occupation, opposes a model in which man is freed from work, supports fatigue and limits repetitive and alienating tasks, widening the spaces in which to place his own intelligence and imagination.

6. Work will not disappear, it will transform

Shortly, machines will not exclusively destroy but will improve work by creating new jobs. The defence of the status quo from a bitter end therefore has no meaning: the future is decided and political planning is imprisoned.

At the same time we must not delude ourselves: work as we know it will undergo profound changes and a part of it will simply disappear. Every creative act first of all implies an act of destruction, but after an interval of time new job opportunities will be created.

Repetitive tasks that require a low rate of professionalization and competence will disappear. I am talking about tasks not necessarily related to industry, but also about many repetitive and routine jobs which will be replaced by artificial intelligence and algorithms.

Their disappearance will have to be managed with far-sightedness on a social level: nobody should be left behind. The theme is the ability to have a 4.0 ecosystem capable of reducing the duration of the interval between the newborn and the old man who dies. Early adopters are more likely to achieve both goals. For example, if we think that at the beginning of the 21st century the figure of the social media manager, the specialist in managing Facebook or Instagram pages, or the influencer were “jobs” that simply did not exist, we better understand the dimension of the change. Those who ten years ago invested in training courses and experimented with the language of social networks today can be called professionals in this field.

Was all this conceivable in 2000? The answer is no. If things are in these terms and the labour market in 2050 follows the trends that studies give us, the work of the future will be increasingly characterized by a cooperation between man and machines, which already happens in many companies with robots and with artificial intelligence systems. The skills in this scenario will make the difference between having a quality job and not having it. Faced with this, creating new jobs could prove easier than training staff to fill those positions.

Already today we have a skill mismatch, that is a misalignment between workers’ skills and competences demanded by employers: around 40% of the skills demanded are not available on the market. So it is not technology that hurts work: it is its absence. Few have the courage to say that in our country we have lost, especially in the “traditional” sectors, thousands of jobs due to lack of investment in technology.

In all the disputes I dealt with in the crisis years (and they were many: the metalworking sector ranges from the steel industry to household appliances, from automotive to electronics with incursions into TLC) the loss of jobs – over 600 thousand – was determined by lack of investments in technology by companies.

Only thanks to innovative agreements that included enabling technologies, training and a new organization of work were we able to trigger the reshoring of productions that had disappeared from our country.

Unfortunately, this resistance to innovation is also found in many of the policies put in place over the last 20 years by various governments, which have done little or nothing to manage change. An exception was the Industry 4.0 plan of the former Minister of Economic Development, Carlo Calenda, and the provisions on school-work alternation, made mandatory with the reform of the last few governments. Despite all the gaps and implementation difficulties that time has shown, they remain among the few interventions that are bringing concrete results to growth and employment. The recent rankings of the “FDI Confidence Index”[1] by A.T. Kearney say that in the last two years Italy has climbed 6 positions (going from 16th to 10th position) due to its attractiveness to foreign investors. The result was obtained thanks to initiatives such as Industry 4.0.

Unfortunately, only a minority of companies have accepted the digital challenge. 52% of Italian exports in 2017 is engineering and is largely composed of those companies that have used innovation to get out of the crisis. On the contrary, the industrial system that struggles, the one that does not invest and dismisses, is precisely the one farthest from innovation. Infocamere tells us that out of 5 million Italian companies, 3 out of 4 are not on the web and 4 entrepreneurs out of 10 consider the internet useless.

7. Training as a right to the future

Technological progress and cultural evolution, according to what has just been said, are two processes that must be inseparably connected. According to the much cited study of the World Economic Forum, 65% of the boys who attend primary school today will do jobs that do not even exist today; this is why investment in education and training should be among the first and substantial spending chapters of governments and businesses.

The OECD claims that from now to 2020, i.e. tomorrow, more than a third of the required skills will be social skills and process skills, in which the boundary between technical and humanistic disciplines disappears. An educational and training dimension is being reconfigured in a way that is new to the “Fordist” age.

It is therefore not a question of replacing didactic paths, but of enriching them, as Massagli reminds us, taking advantage of the cultural and educational field of work, and the alternation between school and work – if it is implemented involving the employment services as a matrix, trade unions, schools, businesses and families – can be a very profitable model.

We are no longer on the eve of the next big thing, the big digital revolution: we are already in with both feet. We need to get out of the short-term blackmail and take a holistic view of change and reason within a common project on how to face the challenges we face.

But the vulgate throws the ball into the technophobia side of the playing field, as a spectre of a future and more devastating wave of unemployment, which instead can only be stemmed through interventions that involve investments in technology and training. In the fourth revolution, in fact, training and skills represent the “right to the future”.

As metalworkers, we have made an important contribution in this sense, inserting the subjective right to training in our contract: eight hours are still few, but we have opened a cultural and methodological gap, because it is precisely on this front that the game of work will be played of the future.

Unfortunately we are still far from European standards: Italy spends, badly, 1% less than the EU average and half of Germany. The truth is that massive investments should be made that also intervene on the school system, which must be of a dual type.

The German government launched a new digital pact in March this year, a 5 billion euro plan that should transform the 40,000 schools in the country into a forge capable of equipping the new generations with the skills necessary to face the future market of digital work. An ambitious plan, which required the agreement between the two chambers of the Parliament, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, to smooth out differences in competences (scholastic divisions are the prerogative of the Länder in Germany) and division of investments. This intervention required the amendment of the Constitution.

Italy would need it very much, since we have just 58 thousand apprentices and 8000 students in the higher technical institutes, while Germany has 800 thousand. A new approach to knowledge will be needed. Those who in my time, in the 90s of the last century, attended the university, knew that half of the things learned through academic training would change over the next 15 years. Today this period of time is already reduced to 3-4 years and is increasingly misaligned with respect to emerging jobs. We need to reflect on whether a “just in time” approach to knowledge is better, also changing the teaching method.

Technology has the potential to teach individuals in a personalized and adaptable way, even if I remain a convinced supporter of the fact that widespread humanistic knowledge is still needed to train people towards an integrated, open vision, which can then be followed by personalized and continuous training plans. Just in time.

On this front there is also a new perspective linked to training certification methods in the digital age, an important theme in a lifelong learning dimension: as Franco Amicucci writes, thanks to tools such as the open badge and blockchain technologies, skills and training become intellectual money.

8. Person and community

Technology is neither an objective nor a mere tool, but a context. It redefines ties, reconfigures relationships. It breaks down and reassembles what we call “society”. It is therefore a matter of recovering energy and intelligence to rebuild a community in which we find meaning and hope for the human condition. The degradation of being in relationship arose well before the advent of digital. Hope can now only be reborn from the construction of a new dimension, made up of plural communities, brought together and made vital by conscious individual choices.

Poverty is fought, it is not abolished by decree; the hope of a new human condition rests entirely on the reconstruction of strong and conscious bonds, in which everyone can perceive their own strength in reciprocity.

We need to detoxify ourselves from old and new dependencies, inflation and the de-legitimization of words; we must fight the unhinging of the border between true and false. The goal of populists, reduced to the bone, is to create individuals who have their own nose as their only horizon. In these conditions, you either remain still or you crash. We must react to all of this: we need a choice, an act of will. Of course, the digital promotes great processes of heterodirection, but makes them visible.

It is possible, therefore, indeed necessary, to rediscover an inner tension towards the other, towards what happens. It is essential to recover those spaces of solitude in which we detach ourselves from improvisation, from randomness and superficiality. Returning more often to thought, to reflection, to reason, to the critique of the common place and the current opinion. For this reason there is a need for politics and civil commitment, in order to be able to create people, communities and leadership groups capable of building a trajectory towards an “increased humanity”.

9. The meaning and the future

We live in years of fear. Fear of differences, fear of what and who we don’t know, of anyone or anything that can threaten our serenity. Fear alters the perception of reality; the ability to discern false from truth obscures us. It immerses us in insecurity.

Yet building a context of serenity – building peace – presupposes the knowledge of others, the desire for contact with those who are different from us, precisely because as such they are able to make us richer, better.

It is therefore essential, urgent to break the chain of fear and hatred, fuelled by all populist movements. To humanize the economy, work, society means regenerating meeting places to transform haters into human beings who are prone to fraternity, understood as a liberating relationship from insecurity and fear.

In all this, work has a central role, as a crossroads between the realization of each person, the sustainability (industrial, financial, social and environmental) of companies and the regeneration of reciprocal relations, through the care of common goods.

In reorganizing the community we could take as an example the best history of organized labour offered by metalworkers: create an organization that brings together everyone, those who have experience and newcomers; to teach to respect the hardships of work and study of those who have attended school only up to the fifth grade and those who have graduated.

This is how the differences become fruitful and generative, on condition that we also safeguard and enhance our own secularism, considering dialectic and pluralism as fundamental values.

What about the future? The future has disappeared from the monitors. To find a future full of meaning, a future “of increased humanity”, the compass is one: always love people more than ideas. We must fill our actions and our lives with meaning: this differentiates us from machines. We must transform anger at injustices into positive energy, which never allows despair to become resignation. Precisely in the most difficult moment, it is the generative vision of tomorrow that gives meaning to our existence and foundation for a coexistence of solidarity.