Technologization und Inequality

erhui1979 Getty Images DigitalVision Vectors

Recent technological innovations might fundamentally change the size and nature of social inequalities. Success in labor markets and society will likely be driven by other skills than in the past, and traditional predictors of social mobility (e.g. class or educational credentials) are likely to be affected by these technological innovations. The new research project TECHNEQUALITY at the WZB investigates the consequences of technological change for society, focusing on the issue of inequality – in cooperation with a consortium of European universities.

Kerstin Schneider interviewed Martin Ehlert, one of the project’s heads.

Together with a large European team, you're investigating topics of inequality and technological change. What exactly do you have in mind?

We know that technological change will massively change the world of work. It will also impact on how the labor market distributes income. Thereby, it will affect the structure of social inequality. The most prominent feature of our project is that we want to explore the influence of institutions on the relationship between technologies on the one hand and inequality on the other. Which countries are better prepared for technological change? Who might be worse off? Obviously, education plays a key part here.

Which institutions are you referring to?

We use a very broad definition: Institutions include school systems, welfare states as well as instruments of workplace regulation like legislation or professional regulations. But they also include more informal regulatory systems that influence the functioning of the economy and the labor market.

Are you primarily concerned with adult education?

We consider education as a lifelong process. In other words, we want to find out how education is related to different phases in life, be it childhood, adolescence or adulthood. This includes the following questions: How do children acquire skills in early education? What role does inequality play in the acquisition of skills, for example between families? Certain technical developments seem to make early education redundant. Therefore, we ask how adults can gain new competences they might need in the labor market of the future.

In the title of your project, you refer to “technologization” rather than “digitization”. What are the reasons for this choice?

We explore these trends in a broader context. Technological change is nothing new - it has accompanied human history and has always changed society. We cannot see into the future and determine how digitization will actually change the labor market. What we can do however, is to investigate what happened in the past when certain technologies replaced  some jobs. This enables us to make forecasts of the future.

Do you also consider fears associated with technological change?

Obviously this is one of the main motivations for our research. However, the main aim of the project is to underpin current debates with empirical facts. First of all, it is about quantitative analysis and measurable inequalities in terms of income and life chances. We aim to get an objective account on how many jobs are going to be lost. Which occupations are particularly at risk? Who will become unemployed? What kinds of skill sets will be needed in the future, and who has access to appropriate further training? From there, we can start deducing which fears are justified and which ones are not.

What kinds of jobs are affected?

Through the use of large data sets, machine-learning and sheer processing power, computers are getting better and better at recognizing patterns and taking on complex tasks. This will hugely improve existing technologies, for example in the field of industrial robotics. This will mean that in the future, it's not only the repetitive, “routine” kind of tasks that become replaceable, but also cognitively complex ones. Customer services, for example, might be replaced by chatbots. These are text-based communication systems that enable us to talk with a computer. Nevertheless, it is important to stay skeptical. Whether all developments in, say, artificial intelligence are really practicable, that is, whether they work properly, are economically feasible and have societal impact, remains to be seen.

How will education and inequality affect each other in the future?

This relates to the question of whether traditional educational qualifications will lose their worth because other skills gained importance. We are already witnessing this for some freelancers, think of programers for example. In their case, a mere diploma is increasingly seen as less important than what a person can actually do. There are many potential inequalities arising from here. If it's no longer the degree that actually counts, educational policy will have to adapt accordingly. In that case, equal opportunities can no longer be created exclusively by offering the possibilities for obtaining a certificate. We aim to find out whether the pathways through which we attain a higher status in society are changing.

So, if “soft” skills such as networked thinking or the ability to work in a team gain importance, perhaps education as a whole will have to change too. Jobs previously considered as "safe" might cease to exist. Education and knowledge that used suffice for a good standard of living may no longer be enough. Some groups in society might move up, while others plummet. This could happen on a very large scale.

Martin Ehlert, Foto: David Ausserhofer
Martin Ehlert, Foto: David Ausserhofer

Martin Ehlert is a researcher at the Department of Skill Formation and Labor Markets and one of the project leaders of Technological inequality - understanding the relation between recent technological innovations and social inequalities (TECHNEQUALITY).

In addition to the project team at the WZB, the TECHNEQUALITY consortium consists of sociologists and economists from the Universities of Maastricht and Tilburg (Netherlands), the University of Oxford and Cambridge Econometrics (UK), the University of Stockholm (Sweden), the European University Institute in Florence (Italy) and the University of Tallinn (Estonia).

TECHNEQUALITY is funded by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 program.