Jobs free future: Machines v Lawyers

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“As information technology advances, the legal profession faces a great disruption.”
Along with this disruption come serious questions for the future of legal education, legal careers, and the nature of legal business models.

In Machines v. Lawyers Professor John O. McGinnis outlines the five key areas of legal practice that are under threat of disruption by ‘machine intelligence’:

  1. discovery
  2. legal search
  3. legal forms
  4. legal memos or briefs
  5. legal analytics (to displace lawyers’ hunches)

These are the basic areas of work that have built up the skills of young lawyers for generations, and which have provided law firms with a steady income. As these tasks become automated, the real question arises: do we need so many lawyers? And, if we do need them, then how do we build up their legal skills post-law degree? How can a law firm ensure good revenue?

It also raises some interesting questions about legal expertise for computer programmers – lots of changes ahead in the jobs free future.

Certainly it is food for thought for the legal community.

Professor McGinnis ends his article on an optimistic note for layers though:

So long as there is law, however, we will need lawyers to offer interpretations of difficult texts and to smooth legal difficulties in the most important transactions.

 

Professor John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University School of Law

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Turf wars on the frontiers of the sharing economy

it's the future
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The sharing economy is turning into big business now, with companies perceiving a potential advantage: Looking to save money, big business dives into the sharing economy.

And, as this new economy grows, there will be turf wars between the old and the new world. A recent headline on Mashable read “New York Goes to War Against Airbnb for Disrupting Hotel Business“.

I’ve been expecting to see headlines like this for a while, as governments and old economy businesses realise that their revenue models are being disrupted by new businesses in the so-called sharing economy.

Sharing economy?

It is ‘so-called’ because what is termed the sharing economy really seems, for the most part, to consist in increasing the utilisation of existing assets already held in private hands.

Thus Airbnb enables owners to capitalise upon their existing excess housing capacity to earn revenue, while UberX enables car owners to use their existing asset to earn revenue.

This new economic activity is powered by the maturing of mobile technology and the development of clever peer-to-peer applications. This phenomenon builds upon the foundations of social media and the Web 2.0 revolution of the mid-2000s. In the sharing economy we see the unlocking of earning potential from people’s existing assets.

It is interesting that this phenomenon emerged after the global financial crisis, when consumers sought additional revenue sources as traditional work remained scarce for many in the US.

Organisations like Airbnb and Uber are on the frontier of the sharing economy. And this frontier is a place where intermediary businesses are being displaced by the democratisation of economic activity.

Governments are just now beginning to perceive the potential for this kind of economic activity to disrupt their existing revenue collection model. Apart from traditional corporate taxation, the economic activities of these new kinds of businesses do not fall within existing tax raising processes.

Taxation and Government relations

Yet, now that these companies are reaching sufficient scale, they are coming to the attention of various governments around the world. This is requiring these companies to rethink their relation to taxation and local regulation.

For example, Airbnb, which has always resisted hotel taxes being applied to its business, recently indicated a more positive view to hotel taxes being applied to their business: Airbnb Is Suddenly Begging New York City to Tax Its Hosts $21 Million.

Airbnb has even pointed out that New York city is not setup to receive hotel tax payments from Airbnb on behalf of people letting their apartments.

Governments are not really setup for collecting business taxes from the multitudes. This increases the need for governments to explore e-government and electronic delivery of services. It also means that governments need to start rethinking the boundaries of their various constituent groups – since companies, individuals, and collectives now start to have fuzzy boundaries.

The boundaries between personal and business activity are already starting to blur with the emergence of the sharing economy.

Regulation

This highlights some issues for the sharing economy. How do these organisations fit into the social and economic structures of government? How do these sharing economy organisations, which are often loose networks of individuals, comply with things like health and safety standards, insurance, and contribution to taxation systems?

Over many years western society has created a safer lifestyle for people by regulating certain industries to protect health and wellbeing. And, while some might argue that the nanny-state has gone too far, when disaster strikes the populace often seek regulation for their protection. This is why fire codes have made modern buildings so safe in comparison to the past.

Democratisation of economic activity

With the emergence of the sharing economy there is a growing tension between traditional corporate modes of organisation, such as government and large corporations, with new kinds of collectivist modes of organisation that are looser and more fluid.

These new models of organisation provide an umbrella for individuals to participate in economic activity in ways that were previously impossible. It is a kind of democratisation of economic activity for individuals, enabling them to scale their operations using web and API driven solutions.

This unlocking of the excess economic capacity of assets that are in the hands of ordinary private individuals is the next wave of economic activity.

How the tension plays out, between the traditional corporate organisations and the emerging collectivist organisations, will be very interesting.


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Trade unions and the jobs free future

Image: Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856 (Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons).
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Background to the jobs free future and trade unions

Recently I wrote about the jobs free future, where the traditional model of a job for life is dead and industries that were familiar employers during the twentieth century are significantly reducing their need for labour. The jobs free future represents a major structural change to the global economy.

Venture capitalist, Steve Schlafman noted in a recent post that we are seeing the Uberification of the US Service Economy, and the same is likely to occur in Australia. Australian industry is being hollowed out now, with new job losses announced regularly. In recent times we’ve seen the car industry in Australia close down, Qantas reduce local jobs further, BP close their Brisbane refinery, and CSIRO announce job cuts.

And, while Ross Gittins assures that all of these job losses do not mean that we’re all doomed, it does demonstrate the future trajectory of traditional work in this country. The future of low skilled and manual work is not promising, and the new jobs will likely be in services, skilled, and digital work. Callam Pickering reported, in relation to Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens’ speech on Economic Conditions and Prospects, that:

“Our economy will lose some manufacturing jobs but we will gain jobs in mining and services, in health and professional services, and in industries that we do not currently understand or haven’t been invented yet.”

Source: Callam Pickering, Why she’ll be right in the long run

What is not made clear here is that the jobs of the future are not likely to be stable full time jobs. They are more likely to be portmanteau jobs, where lots of little jobs are undertaken. And life in the world of a task based worker is not an easy one, as recounted by Brad Stone in My Life as a Task Rabbit.

Nor can every worker from old industries be retrained and redeployed into the emerging industries, as Michael Bloomberg commented:

“You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code. Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them [people] to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you . . . but no.”

Trade unions as businesses

In this context it is interesting to consider unions as a business. And, like most other businesses, unions face challenges from the jobs free future.

Trade unions have served their members (a.k.a. customers) well to date by providing collective bargaining in relation to workplace terms and conditions . During the past century or so Australian unions have lobbied to achieve key employment and workplace reforms, from which most Australians benefit today, including:

Basic WageAnnual LeaveAward wages
Penalty RatesMaternity leaveSuperannuation
Equal Pay for WomenHealth and Safety and Workers’ CompensationSick leave
Long service leaveRedundancy payMeal Breaks, rest breaks
Unfair Dismissal Protection[Source: Australian Unions]

The benefits of these reforms to workers are undeniable. However, they are predicated upon a world in which work is regular, predictable, and at least semi-permanent. The future of work is not like that; it is more likely to be disjointed, irregular, and impermanent for many workers. Further this model was predicated upon large employers of mass labour within an industry with which to bargain, and it was also reliant upon the notion that threats of labour withdrawal could force change. This is increasingly untrue, and employers have many options with which to respond to threats to withdraw labour.

The question is how unions will shift their business model to support customers who are not part of the regular routine world of work. What kind of collective model can support workers who move away from permanent or semi-permanent work within a single industry to task based and piece work across industry boundaries? And, what will this kind of shift mean for union funding models?

Further, how will unions manage in a world where the government is actively seeking to reduce union access to workplaces, remove the right to boycott, reduce or remove penalty rates and other conditions?

Core business

Historically, the funds held by unions are derived from a broad based union membership among the working population. However, the Australian unions have already experienced a substantial drop in membership over the past few decades, as noted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) late in 2013:

“The proportion of employees who were trade union members in their main job has been steady at 18 per cent for the last three years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). There were 1.8 million people in August 2012 who were trade union members in their main job.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the number of employed persons in Australia as at February 2014 was approximately 11 million. The following ABS chart from 2011 shows the problematic position of unions even before one considers the digital revolution and the jobs free future. Source(s): Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia

Further, the Brotherhood of St Laurence reports that youth unemployment is reaching a crisis point, with Tony Nicholson noting:

“What it means for all these young people is that they’re at risk of never being able to get a foothold in the world of work,” he said. “And in our modern economy that means that they’re really being sentenced to a lifetime of poverty.”

With a declining membership, and consequent reduction in funding, the unions were already facing an uncertain future. Now we can add to their woes the disappearance of traditional industries and jobs. This also means that unions face increased funding constraints for future business growth strategies. The real question for unions is can they survive as the jobs they seek to protect disappear in increasing numbers?

Governance and management

In addition to the decline in membership, trade unions face other challenges. For example, the recent and ongoing scandals of the Health Services Union (HSU) with Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson; and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) bribes scandal that is now widening to other building unions.

The Abbott government recently announced a  Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption and this is likely to further destabilise public faith in the union movement and it close associate the ALP. The stories emerging to date have indicated substantial organisational, management, governance, and cultural issues within the union movement.

Some trade unionists are starting to ponder the future of their business, such as Dustin Halse in 2012: Is there a place for trade unions?

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has released a number of papers exploring the future of unions in Australia, for example,  Urgency & Opportunity: union membership trends and observations 2012.

The chief response seems to be an ACTU campaign called Secure Jobs, Better Future, which fails to address the structural causes of job ‘insecurity’.

“Secure Jobs. Better Future is a national campaign to improve the rights and working lives of the 40% of the Australian workforce employed in insecure work.”

Source: Secure jobs, Better Future campaign – ACTU

However, there appear to be few concrete proposals for halting the decline in union membership. Nor does their appear to be any notion of how to approach the looming structural shift due to the jobs free future.

The future

Considering unions as businesses, the issues they face include a declining customer base, declining revenue, lack of customer focus, and problematic external conditions. The lack of customer focus is especially problematic. It is always fatal for a business to lose sight of the customer. Rarely can a business recover easily from a loss of customer focus – just look at Qantas and its current junk bond status. Further, the governance and management issues that have already come to light in some unions are likely to be reinforced by additional information from the Royal Commission.

Some unions are already seeking to address the skills gap in their management teams by accessing the National Workforce Development Fund to provide management training to their staff, for example Certificate IV in Frontline Management.  However, unions were only required to educate their personnel on union governance practices commencing in 2013:

“Changes to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012 on Financial Governance required all union officers with financial decision-making responsibilities (including elected officials, finance staff and members of management committee) to do FWC Approved training within six months of June 29th, 2013. In some circumstances, Unions now have until mid-2014 to comply. “

This means that the unions are now working to professionalise their management and governance practice in a hostile environment. They are doing so while fighting a rearguard action with the Abbott government about working conditions (for example attempts to roll back penalty rates and conditions), and while a Royal Commission is investigating the union movement.

If ever there was a time that workers needed organisations to represent their interests, that time is now. As Halse notes:

“In a political economy governed increasingly by the market-oriented doctrine of neo-liberalism, trade unions should not so easily be dismissed.”

However, it is hard to see how unions will survive the combined onslaught of poor management and governance, declining membership, and the decline of key industries that they have relied upon for the past century.

If the unions are not up to the challenge, then how will we protect rights and working conditions from deteriorating? How will we ensure that people participating in new forms of work are not exploited?

These are very real challenges that the union movement must ponder. They must step away from their internecine struggles within the unions and the ALP factions to focus on their real business and their real customers. Otherwise the union movement will continue to dwindle into irrelevance, and workers will lose their hard won collective bargaining capability.

Perhaps Alex White is right to think that the real future of unions is crowdfunded and crowdsourced:

“…decentralised, leaderless, temporary movements, empowered by online organising platforms like MoveOn, Change.org, Avaaz, Twitter and Facebook.”

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What is the future of work? Zero hours, surveillance, robots and the jobs free future

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The future of work has been on my mind a lot over the past few years. It seems  that the future of jobs is bleak in a number of ways. For example, zero hours, surveillance, and robots are on the horizon for many workers. This is all part of what I’ve come to call the ‘jobs free future’.

This post about the future of work was originally inspired by Marissa Mayer’s pronouncement in early 2013 banning work from home at Yahoo!. The ever-present drives for efficiency and lower costs mean that businesses are changing the way we work, and they are also changing the way that we are contracted to work.

Digital Panopticon

Increasingly we live in a digital panopticon and technologies like CCTV, drones and the internet of things are emerging and merging to provide mechanisms for better and more omnipresent surveillance of  people in all aspects of their daily life. When we add this growth in surveillance to other factors, such as a shift  to lower economic growth rates and changes in the traditional twentieth century employment contract, for example the introduction of zero hours contracts, then things are really becoming quite different for workers.

Higher Skilled Jobs Disappearing

Headlines like “Cisco to cut 4,000 jobs” have become a regular sight and it is clear that it is no longer only low skilled or manufacturing jobs that are disappearing. The jobs that are going are increasingly higher skilled and middle class roles. Thus while “Robot Serves up 360 Hamburgers per Hour” is an example of the disappearance of low skilled jobs, we can also see automation impacting other industries. The young woman who used to hand back my dry cleaning is gone now, replaced by a large red machine that dispenses my laundry with nary a snide remark, and it gives a 20% discount too.

the future of workLaw is one good example of an industry that is beginning to be disrupted. The first phase is shipping expensive western jobs to lower cost geographic regions, thus legal process work is being outsourced to places like India or the Philippines. This is removing the entry level jobs that law school graduates once used to get a step up on the rungs of their new career. The next phase is automation of other legal processes within law offices, for instance adoption of legal decision support systems. Thus firms will require fewer more senior personnel and hardly any of the para-legal personnel they once required. All of this will be framed as ‘efficiency’ gains for the business. But what it really translates into is a substantial reduction workers required in the legal industry. A consistent pattern across all industries is the implementation of solutions that take human workers out of the business process and replace them with machines.

This automation trend started with the early days of computers and has gathered pace as artificial intelligence technology became a commodity and internet connectivity became ubiquitous. Typically, if a business cannot remove the human workers by means of technology, then they will shift the jobs to the lowest cost region. Thus, at best, we are seeing a downward pressure on wages and salaries, and at worst complete removal of jobs from the global economy.

Casualization of the Workforce

Many new businesses or startups rely upon outsourcing to reduce costs. This means that where once a new business would create a number of jobs at various levels they now use platforms like Air Tasker or Task Rabbit. With the adoption of these tactics by businesses there is increased casualization of the workforce. This casualization of the workforce removes the notion of job security that enables workers to plan effectively for their future by getting a mortgage or affording health insurance. Casualization of the workforce shifts the buying power of workers from the current pattern, where they are good risks for lending by banks due to their regular pay cheques, to poor risks. These shifts in spending power of the workforce will have impact on industries like retail and telecommunications.

In the US the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that “A Jobless Recovery Is a Phony [sic] Recovery. More people have left the workforce than got a new job during the recovery—by a factor of nearly three”. Further WSJ noted that “Long-Term Jobless Left Out of the Recovery. Despite Improving Economy, Prospects Are Bleak for Millions of Unemployed”.

Real Jobs for Real People?

In Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), there are approximately 140,000 job vacancies as at November 2013. And in December 2013 the ABS reported that unemployment increased to 716,000 while the unemployment rate remained steady at 5.8%. Given these numbers it is unlikely that getting the unemployed into education or training is going to help very much unless the job supply is increased substantially. Perhaps they can all become entrepreneurs and start micro-businesses?

If this is where Australia sits regarding unemployment when coming out of a mining boom, with a Triple A credit rating and having successfully negotiated the global financial crisis,  then is does not presage well for the future. The mining boom is winding down and jobs will disappear in that industry anyway due to automation (as reported by the University of Queensland).

Australia is on the cusp of a dilemma. We face an ageing population that is about to put substantial pressure on the welfare budget, reduced traditional employment opportunities for both low and higher skilled workers, and the end of a jobs-rich mining boom. Heavy industrial manufacturing is all but dead in Australia, and the car industry  is dying too. This is clearly demonstrated by the recent exit of Holden leaving Toyota as the last remaining Australian car manufacturer (and even Toyota is likely to exit the market over the next few years). Then there will likely follow the demise of car component manufacturing in Australia too, unless the component manufacturers can find other markets.

Traditionally construction and retail picked up the slack in the Australian economy during lulls in mining booms. However,  the continuing weak performance of Australian retail makes it an unlikely contender for jobs saviour.  And while we are seeing construction increase as the mining boom eases, neither industry is likely to have the capacity to fill the increasingly large gap between the number of available workers and suitable jobs. This issue is reflected by the markets in lower currency rates based on weak jobs data. And a lowering of the currency, while helpful for export driven sectors, reduces consumer purchasing power to support the retail and housing markets.

The Future of Work?

There are no obvious replacement industries to fill the gap left in the traditional jobs market in any of the western countries. We are facing enormous structural change,  and there is an emerging crisis. What is to be done about a post-jobs future? I wonder who in the Government and Opposition is thinking about these issues? It seems kind of important.

Disclosure: For a considerable part of my career I worked on large scale operational efficiency and innovation projects that removed workers from business processes and implemented process automation; where that was not possible work was typically outsourced to lower cost regions.

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