The best way to prepare for the future of work? Join a union.

New technologies will entrench inequality rather than solve it, unless the power between workers and employers is equalised. Tim Dunlop, author of The Future of Work and writter for The Conversation and The Guardian, explores the role unions must play in the future of work.

Since my book on the future of work was published last year, I’ve been lucky enough to speak with various organisations and industry groups. I’ve spent time with law firms and tech firms – including Uber and Deep Mind – with journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, economists, consultants and think tanks, and in all sorts of public forums speaking with ordinary people who are trying to get their head around whether or not a robot will take their job.

In all these discussions, the single most common question I am asked is some variation on this: what is the best thing my kids can do to ensure they will be able to have a good job? 

My answer is unequivocal: join a union. 

Sure, a degree in a STEM-related field is likely to be handy, as is an education that teaches you to solve problems and to deal with uncertainty. But simply getting a job, any job, is not enough – not if you believe in a fair and democratic society. Only a strong union movement can ensure that whatever job you – or your kids – do will offer fair pay and good conditions.

This is why I have come to the view the whole notion of the “future of work” has become something of a distraction. The category has reduced a complex socio-political debate to the level of a hashtag. It has had the net effect of shifting our focus from the material conditions under which work and employment function in society, to futuristic pronouncements about the likely effects of sexy tech things like driverless cars, or 3D printers, or speculation on whether the robots will rise up and kill us all.

Understanding what is happening with the technology is important, not to mention fascinating, and it is really worth getting your head around just how advanced some forms of robotics and artificial intelligence are becoming. It is also important to understand that not only will these technologies take jobs – making whole areas of human work redundant – but that they have the potential to make our lives better.

Pattern-recognition software, for instance, is going to be much more skilful at diagnosing some diseases than human doctors. Deep learning programs are going to help with complex engineering and decision-making processes, helping us do everything from integrating renewable energy systems into national grids to helping us farm in more environmentally ways.

Technologies like 3D printers are going to make everything from replacement body parts to car parts cheaper and more easily available.

But here’s the thing: you can have the most brilliant tools in the history of mankind, but if they are operating within a social and political order that is fundamentally unfair, that leaves everything up to so-called “market forces” and consolidates wealth in the hands of the few rather than distributing it equitability across society as a whole, then the world we are likely heading for is a dystopia, not a utopia.

And this is where unions come in. Unless we equalise the power between workers and employees, between the rich and the poor, the politically connected and the marginal, then the new technologies are simply going to entrench inequality rather do anything about solving it. Historically the only organisation that has ever been able to do this, to give workers a voice in the way employment and society more broadly are organised, is the union movement.

This is why when asked how Australia had maintained a fairer society than the United States, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, gave a one-word answer: “Unions.”

Of course, unions themselves need to change too. 

They need to be more diverse in their membership and leadership ranks, and they need to accept that there are likely to be structural changes in the economy that will change the nature of how people work. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t continue to fight for good pay and conditions – quite the opposite – but it does mean recognising, for instance, that work can no longer be thought of only in terms of forty-hour weeks, four weeks annual leave and other such traditional forms.

“Flexibility” has become a joke term in political discussion, as it typically means a top-down process by which employers strip workers of pay and conditions. Nonetheless we all need to recognise that shorter working hours, gig work, short-term contracts and other forms of contingent work are not, by definition, evil. In fact, genuine bottom-up flexibility is something valued by many workers themselves, and unions need to be more willing to acknowledge, and shape, such outcomes.

Some unions are already doing this. The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (my union), which represents artists and journalists, has a category of membership called Freelance Pro that offers various benefits to members while recognising that a lot of the work that they do is, as the name suggests, freelance, involving multiple employers and short-term contracts.

It is a model other unions need to look at.

I am of the view that the nature of work is changing, that there are likely to be fewer jobs as technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning advance, and that we are therefore on the verge of massive alteration in the way in which the economy works and society is organised. Even if new jobs are created – which they will be – there is going to be a long period of transition as the economy and society adjust.

But we can’t just presume that the technology by itself is going to create a better world. In fact, the thought of leaving the future up to a bunch of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – who seem more interested in working out how to get us living on Mars than how to solve more mundane problems here on earth – is something that should scare the life out of us.

The point is this: the future of work is what we do now. If you want to ensure that future is one of opportunities for the many and not just the few, and to make sure your kids have a reasonable shot at a decent life, then the technology you should be embracing is unionism.

Read more from Tim Dunlop on The Guardian.