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A World Without Work (Daniel Susskind)

Geoff Riley

21st January 2020

The Oxford Martin School was packed for a talk tonight by Balliol College Fellow Daniel Susskind on his new book “A World Without Work”.

"A world without work: technology, automation and how we should respond" with Daniel Susskind

How strong is the threat of technological unemployment? Automation anxiety has existed for decades - described as a state of worry about the impact of new technologies on the number of jobs that will be available.

Susskind argues that machines have substitution (displacement) effects on jobs but also complementary effects e.g. they free up resources by making people more productive (consider the use of CAD for architects) as well as the creation of eco systems around new technologies which generates fresh demand.

There are still limits to the substitution effects but the boundaries seem to be changing. Which human faculties are fundamentally hard to replicate? Perhaps social intelligence - I.e. jobs requiring direct face to face human interaction

Susskind points to what he terms “task encroachment” with machines gradually encroaching on more and more tasks and activities. An example is dermatology - where AI is put to use inside a vast and growing database of past cases running pattern recognition algorithm through those cases to detect skin cancer.

In the second wave of AI - systems and machines using processing power + advanced algorithm will be designed to perform tasks in fundamentally different ways

What does this mean for thinking about the world of work?

Frictional technological unemployment

In demand work will increasingly be out of reach for people who want to take it up largely due to three mis-matches:

  1. Skills mismatch - the conventional cause of structural unemployment where people out of work have skills but they don’t match those required by the new jobs
  2. Place mismatch - where displaced workers do not live in the same place as where the new work is created
  3. Identity mismatch - where displaced workers have an identity rooted in a certain type of work (he gave the example of some manufacturing workers not wanting to take up “pink-collared work”)

Structural technological unemployment

Task encroachment will likely lead to the substitution force starting to outweigh the helpful complementing force

Task encroachment might wear down the complementing force - e.g. sat nav systems make it easy for taxi drivers but this only remains true if humans are better placed than machines to steer a vehicle from A to B


  1. Inequality - the labour market is the main way that we share out our material wealth and prosperity - will it continue to find enough food work for people to do?
  2. Power - growing power of large technology companies is raising huge issues to do with freedom and privacy
  3. Meaning - how do we provide meaning and purpose in people’s lives if we move into a world of less work?

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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