Opportunities, conflicts and challenges around the future of work have become one of the core questions of our era. So, it made sense to invite Richard David Precht and Markus Lanz to debate this topic at the OMR Festival: two speakers who have turned relaxed philosophising about anything and everything into the very essence of the radio programme that they jointly host. Watched by 7,000 spectators around the Red Stage, the philosopher from Solingen and the German-Italian presenter produced the “Best of” their podcast. The “future of work” topic had already featured in two editions of this.
In a similar format to the podcast, the two protagonists on the OMR stage argued back and forth about the increasing digitalisation of the working world. Both took up clearly defined positions: Precht, in his book “Jäger, Hirten, Kritiker. Eine Utopie für die digitale Gesellschaft” (2018), declared his support for the introduction of unconditional basic income (UBI) as an instrument for increased security and self-determination in the digital age. Lanz, on the other hand, is sceptical of this measure.
Utopia of the digital working world?
The starting point for Precht’s considerations is the determination that automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will lead to massive upheaval in the labour market in the near future. While past decades have seen traditional assembly-line jobs (“blue-collar jobs”) affected the most by delocalisation and automation, Precht fears that service providers and office staff (“white-collar jobs”) will soon be confronted by increasingly high-performance AI applications, possible leading to the elimination of numerous jobs.
Where many politicians and labour experts see a nightmare scenario, Precht perceives a unique opportunity to give people increased freedom and provide more opportunities to develop inclinations and interests. “In the wealthy Western industrial nations, we are currently living through a caesura of historic proportions,” explains Precht on the stage. Whether we want it to be the case or not, our society is fixated on work. At the same time, there have never been so many people able to question what they actually want from their work, how they want to work, and with whom. This leads to an “enormous transformation in the working society”, initiating a “new age”.
“Today, more people than ever are able to decide what they want to do with their lives.”
Vision of unconditional basic income
The philosopher presents the digitalisation of the working world as a challenge and an opportunity. Conversely, Lanz is somewhat perturbed by the future scenario presented to the audience by Precht: He wants to know which jobs are now most exposed to the threat of automation – and whether the concept of a safe job still even exists? Precht responds by saying that the labour market should anticipate severe disruption, but recognising that a job can be automated does not mean that this will happen. To illustrate this, Precht uses the example of jobs in the education and nursing professions. These could be automated with AI and robotics. However, Precht feels that it is unlikely that this will actually happen. Jobs that focus on interpersonal relationships can only be replaced by machines to a limited extent.
But how will it be possible to find people to work in the nursing sector in the future if there is already a skills shortage? We must lighten the burden on caregivers, says Precht, so that they are no longer forced to work full-time. Which is where unconditional basic income comes into play: This would see all citizens of a state receive a monthly payment that is sufficient to cover their living costs – regardless of occupation or salary. This would enable everyone to pursue their “true” interests and passions. This represents “human nature”, says the philosopher, rather than “going to work from 9 to 5.”
“Work is meaningful in many respects”
Searching for a purpose
Precht now takes up the topic of purpose, whereby questioning the meaning of work itself is the core of the New Work movement. Lanz reacts with scepticism, attempting to guide the discussion towards potential negative effects of UBI: “If I received this basic income, how long would I continue to get up in the morning and perform a meaningful task?”, asks the presenter. Precht disputes the issue: He does not want to “take work away” from people but aims to give them “meaning and perspective” instead.
A large group of interested spectators is following the conversation on the Red Stage. It is clear to see that this is a topic that interests many people. That should come as no surprise when you consider that many are already feeling the real-life effects of the apparently abstract changes being discussed by Lanz and Precht. Digital collaboration already enables a degree of flexibility and autonomy hitherto unseen in the modern working world. Home office and flexible working hours, as well as working from abroad or from picturesque locations where you would normally go on holiday, are now part of everyday life for many people (keyword “workation”).
Beyond New Work
The exciting discussions at the OMR Festival once again revealed that the changes arising from the digitalisation of the working world are definitely to be regarded as an opportunity rather than a threat. A key takeaway for companies: It will only be possible to overcome the transformations ahead if they adapt in time. Effective tools for sustainable, digital collaboration are as irreplaceable as a future-oriented and open working culture. That is why Vodafone Business provides its customers with a comprehensive portfolio of products and applications to support them in their efforts to successfully cope with digital working life – with or without unconditional basic income.
The future of work