How does thinking about our future change where we are going?

If, to reference US philosopher John Schaar, the future is not a place we are going but one we are creating, then it holds that there are better ways (as well as unhelpful ways) to build that path into the future.

Narratives about our present situation and future expectations act as analytical bridges that create an imaginable pathway or bridge to the future. These analytical bridges help us navigate into, and create a more desirable future, by allowing us to connect ideas in the present to more distant ideas about the future. This method is used by central banks including the Reserve Bank, for example, to manage the expectations of investors when predicting changes in market conditions.

Critically, our ability to create analytical bridges is stronger if the future is proximate enough to be easily imagined. More distant futures may be too abstract and unimaginable to form a concrete enough basis for an analytical bridge to be built, thereby compromising our ability to create a more desirable future.

Narratives or ‘fictional expectations’ about the future are important because they influence decisions made in the present. In turn, these decisions influence the type of future that eventuates. For example, President Kennedy’s ambitious ‘moonshot’ that the US would land a human on the moon by the end of the 1960s set in motion enormous scientific and government resources that made this science fiction concept achievable.

To explore this idea, we examined the Senate Inquiry on the Future of Work and the Future of Workers, (2017-2018). It was to “inquire and report on the impact of technological and other change in work and workers in Australia” (Senate, 2018). It received 163 submissions including from industry, trade unions, not-for-profit organisations, welfare groups, and academics. It also held eight public hearings. A report with 24 recommendations was released in September 2018. Drawing on these data, we sought to examine how ideas about the future of work contribute to policy-making processes and understand their implications.

Thinking about the future of work

Public discourse tends to predict massive and sustained future job losses as technology takes over many job functions and technologies. According to the most extreme accounts, there will be no future for humans in work. Instead, the robots will do all of the work, pushing humans out of work; resulting in mass unemployment and dire social and political consequences. By contrast, academic discourse is more tempered, remaining cognisant that the ‘dynamics of technological innovation, and its consequences for employment and economic restructuring [are always] mediated through sovereign and discursive power‘. This viewpoint suggests that institutional powers and processes will shape the policies that create our future.

Thinking matters: a case study

Drawing on data from the Inquiry into the future impact of technological and other work changes, we examined how ideas about the future of work contribute to policy-making processes and their implications for employment relations and labour markets.

Somewhat paradoxically, our findings highlight the fragmented and incomplete nature of ideas about both technology and the future of work. We found that ideas were typically constructed around the present and they depicted problems and solutions centred on employment relations.

Rather than the Inquiry being about the future of work and technology, it ultimately tells us more about current ideas regarding the present state of employment relations and reveals a lack of vision regarding the future. Typically, stakeholders focused on problems being experienced in the present. Unions emphasised the failure of existing regulation to protect workers and the need to increase employment regulation, for example, whereas employers and employer associations frequently emphasised the need to decrease employment regulation in order to increase flexibility.

What is missing is a coherent, concrete vision of the future – Australian workers will benefit from more secure, better quality jobs that spur innovation and productivity, for example – from which we can create analytical bridges and the pathways that enable us to navigate into this future.

This lack of future-focused ideas tends to explain the Inquiry’s incremental recommendations. For example, the committee recommended that Australia’s workplace legislation be amended, to strengthen the protections available to workers and their unions (Recommendation 6), broaden the definition of employee to encompass gig workers (Recommendation 10), and introduce a national licensing scheme for temporary work agencies (Recommendation 11). Overall, there appears to be an unwillingness and/or lack of preparedness to make more radical changes, like introducing a universal basic income or limiting casual work and/or incentivising more secure forms of employment.

Thinking to nowhere

Critically, these findings highlight that when there is no sufficiently concrete narrative of the future, the absence of analytical bridges between the present and the future leads to more piecemeal and incremental policy-making. Instead of a bold, aspirational vision of the future, we are left with tinkering around the edges of the present conditions.

It is not that an incomplete vision does not influence policy-making or decisions but rather that they lead policy-makers to prefer incremental adjustments rather than more fundamental change.

In the absence of a coherent vision of the future, we go nowhere. What is needed is a concrete vision, systematically constructed by relevant stakeholders based on research evidence; albeit mediated by sovereign and discursive power. Only then can we build the analytical bridges that will enable us to create that desired future.

This article is based on research published by Angela Knox and Susan Ainsworth: “A bridge too far?” Ideas, employment relations and policy‐making about the future of work

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