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A Day in Brussels at the EU: Can we shape the future world of work, in an increasingly digital techn

As a teenager I remember humming along to the one hit wonder song, from the group Buggles (aka the music producer Trevor Horn, the composer Hans Zimmer, and supporting singers), ‘Video killed the Radio Star’ (with a line ‘we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far..’; I later learnt that it had in large part become a hit from infamously being the first ever pop video shown on the then new dedicated music channel MTV. So Video, and its digital ways of the world, in a sense, did kill the more traditional ways of making music and money from the Radio? To me this exemplifies how technological change impacts an industry (in this case the music industry), and culture (the song references how children, the next generation, of an ageing 1950’s Radio star might promote themselves). Ironically I now read that MTV is struggling due to the popularity of You Tube music videos, and other digital platforms, and has had to digitally adapt. So the question of adapting to technological change comes before us in every generation.

This struck me while attending a day conference in Brussels, hosted by the EU’s Economic and Social Committee, but actually organised by the (European) Churches Action on Life and Labour (CALL, part of the Conference of European Churches (CEC)) and the Catholic Church’s European Conference Social Affairs Commission at the end of November. 300 representatives (many of them from Catholic social justice networks, and Trade Unions) from across Europe gathered to consider how we might positively shape the future of work, given the digital and technological revolution happening. How can the changes brought about be a good thing for the world of work?

In a short space here, it is hard to summarize the 20 speakers, over three panels that addressed us. Also behind this for many in the light of Brexit issues is the relevance of any European issue to the UK. But that was not why we were there in Brussels that November day. The topic before us was the implications of the digital age for work and the ministry Churches have with workers and society in general.

With reporting back in mind it struck me that there are relevant issues for the IBEX network, even if we might not formally adopt the suggested solutions floated at the conference. There is overall a great fear of what technology might do: the question being asked of us as to what it is to be human, and is humanity being squeezed out of the world of work and industry with robotics and automation. Is this a new question though, if we consider the history of the luddites and attempts to resist technology in each generation? How can we be enabled to adapt to change and maintain human dignity and meaning in this age? Speed of change can also amplify fear. Would MTV 30 odd years ago have considered that due to worldwide web, Facebook, Google and Youtube, that it would be considered irrelevant in such a short time?

In particular the conference repeated the call to promote what they call ‘Decent Work’, and not allow a growing divide to open up between high end jobs, which technology supports, enables and even liberates people; and the lower end of the market in work opportunities. Do we want to see more Amazons, Ubers with ‘zero hour’ contract working (the so-called Gig economy), with the uncertainty and poor pay they can bring, amid its supposed flexibility which many argue is in fact a façade covering up exploitation and inequality. What definition of work is needed with such developments (very much a live issue before the UK Parliament and employment panels)?

Then there is the idea debated for several decades now (read Charles Handy’s writing on this in the 1990’s) that a young person entering work today, is going to have several careers, and not one, in their lifetime. Ideas floated from Europe on that at the conference positively referenced the development in France of a personalized Social training and education Fund, akin to our Social security National Insurance system, which a person can draw upon to regularly retrain as work evolves. Also presented that day in Brussels, was the concept of promoting an Artisanal approach to work, so the skills of a person are fully utilized in creative and life enhancing ways. One question to this, in my mind, remembering the example of William Morris and the Arts and Craft movement, was whether this can be for everyone? How idealistic v. realistic this is?

Either way it would require financial investment from Government and/or Employers (like with the UK’s Apprenticeship Levy). There would be debate as to how this investment is resourced, and structured? Given the reception by employers to the Apprenticeship Levy, it would be debatable as to how open UK Companies were to this idea from Europe?

The challenge of connectivity was also raised, and positive mention was made about a French law giving the right to disconnect, and be able to refuse to read emails and texts from your work outside of work hours. This has some attraction I must admit, but as a sometimes Church minister needing to be in touch ‘out of hours’, one wonders how welcomed it would be if embraced in the UK. However whether pro ‘European’ or not, many have commented on the negative mental health impacts of always ‘being on’ and digitally connected. So are they are onto something there? Could we, perish the thought, learn from the French?

To conclude some European answers presented that day in Brussels was firstly in all this digital and technological change to promote Decent Work for all (just working conditions and opportunities, space for family life and society). Secondly for it to be sustainable promoting well-being for us and the planet we live on; could we call it fruitfulness? Thirdly, for it to be participative, to bring people and society together, and not to atomize us. So are there ways for technology to promote interaction, and ‘works councils’ of various types? Is there a future for a collective community approach and/or Unionization in a digital age?

And throughout how can those of Faith shape all this?

Much else could be said, and indeed debated. I hope in this short space to have highlighted some trends of thought and action, from a day in Brussels. If anyone is interested further do drop us a line at IBEX, and we can carry on the conversation. Possibly digitally online, on our Facebook page, or via the Website, something SHIM might not have anticipated in the days before IBEX, Berners-Lee and Zuckerburg and all their works?

Oh, did Video kill the Radio Star, or will the digital revolution enable us (like Trevor Horn) to go onto a lucrative music producing career, or similar in

unexpected Artisanal ways?

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