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Social Policies for the Digital Age

Political scientists at the University of Konstanz investigate citizens’ expectations of their governments in 24 OECD countries in response to increasing automatization and digitalization of their workplace.

Fast-paced technological change in the form of robotization, automation and digitalization is transforming labor markets around the globe. This large-scale change massively impacts employees’ workplaces, transforming the everyday working experience for many and threatening their livelihoods for some.

What can governments do to support workers in the transition? Political Scientists Prof. Dr. Marius R. Busemeyer and Dr. Tobias Tober of the research center “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz have studied people’s policy preferences in 24 OECD countries and now published the results with the Berlin think tank “Das Progressive Zentrum” (The Progressive Center), available here: URL

Based on comparative and novel survey data from over 25,000 respondents, the study shows that there are strong concerns about technology-related job risks, but there are also positive expectations of technological change. Political support is in high demand and may range from facilitated education and training for employees, enabling them to handle new labor market requirements, to social transfers to aid those whose chances in the job market fall behind the technological curve. This is a fine balance to tread, as the subject is a fraught one for those whose jobs are on the line. Based on their findings, the authors recommend a balanced policy approach to avoid further political polarization.

Core results of the Policy Paper:

Workers realize benefits of digitalization, but worry about job security

Respondents across all countries expect automation and digitalization to transform their workplace positively, with 50+ percent majorities expecting a better work-life balance, a lessening of physical demands and dangers, and a less tedious and stressful array of everyday tasks. Many, on the other hand, are fearful about being replaced by machines, robots, or algorithms. Figures vary widely across countries, with Turkish (64.9 percent) and Korean (65.5 percent) workers most often expressing fears that the likelihood of being replaced are “high” or “very high”, while only 21.5 percent of Austrian and 27.5 percent of German workers share these worries.

“We recommend that policy-makers don’t overstate either the positive or negative consequences of automation and digitalization for the labor market”, Tobias Tober sums up this point. “Workers in most countries are very well aware that there are opportunities as well as dangers ahead, so politicians ought to take a balanced stance, while taking their concerns seriously.

Support for training and life-long learning is high…

A progressive approach towards increasing workers’ chances in the present and future labor market would focus on policies that promote education, training, and life-long learning. Investing more in university education and vocational training opportunities for young people is a measure that finds support among 74.2 percent of respondents. At 78 percent, the support for increased investment in retraining opportunities for working age people is even greater. Restrictive measures are far less attractive. A special tax to be imposed on businesses that emphasize robots or other technology, for instance, only finds support among 46.6 percent of respondents.

The authors recommend that policy-makers prioritize the expansion of educational opportunities, in particular in the sector of lifelong learning.

…but social transfers are preferred

Even though support for educational measures is high, those who are worried they might lose their jobs have a different priority. These concerned workers tend to be less supportive of educational investment, instead demanding more direct forms of compensation via social transfers. This trend is independent of personal education and age.

What should governments do to ease the transition?

“We still think priority should be given to educational investment”, says Marius Busemeyer. “But at the same time, policy-makers also need to support affected workers directly – to help them in the short term, of course, but also so political polarization around this topic does not increase further.” Tobias Tober adds: “Some ideas could include schemes that combine more generous unemployment insurance with new tools to promote lifelong learning. We are thinking of learning accounts or even statutory rights for lifelong learning. Also, in our view, it is to a large degree a matter of communication. As said before, it is important that policy-makers emphasize the positive aspects of technological change even while addressing its dangers.”

Facts:

  • New Publication: Marius R. Busemeyer, Tobias Tober (2021): Social compensation, retraining, shorter working hours? Citizen’s social policy priorities for the age of automation. Policy Papers 08: Inequality and the Labour Market 01. 02 September 2021. Editors: Cluster of Excellence „The Politics of Inequality“ at the University of Konstanz & Das Progressive Zentrum, Berlin.
    Download: URL.
  • “Das Progressive Zentrum” is an independent non-profit think tank that aims to promote the interconnection between progressive actors as well as to make policies for economic and social progress that are broadly acceptable. Its headquarters are in Berlin with activities in many European countries (e.g. France, Poland, Great Britain) as well as in the US.
  • Marius R. Busemeyer is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Politics and Public Administration and Speaker of the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz. His research focuses on comparative political economy and welfare state research, education and social policy, public spending, digitalization, and public opinion on the welfare state.
  • Tobias Tober is a postdoctoral researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz. He studies the intersection of markets, institutions, and society.