Worker Perceptions of Risk in an Age of Technological and Industrial Transition: A Project in Bristol

What is the relationship between workers’ subjective perceptions of risk from technological and industrial shifts and the objective threat these pose to good work? And how are these perceptions of risk expressed politically?

In two earlier publications - 'Automation, Politics & the Future of Work' and ‘The 2019 General Election and the Future of Work’ - the Institute for the Future of Work found evidence to suggest that many areas that strongly voted for Brexit in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2019 also tended to be home to a high concentration of people in occupations the Office for National Statistics classify as being at a high risk of automation.

IFoW suggested that this might be explained by ‘insider/outsider’ theory, which suggests that those already ‘included’ in labour markets express preferences which erect barriers to exclude ‘outsiders’ from entry. Rather than a simple binary, however, IFoW proposed that we consider these issues through a continuum of inclusion and exclusion mediated by automation and other contemporary technological and industrial disruptions to the world of work such as green transition.

The looming horizon presented by these shifts, it was argued, may expose a much wider section of the workforce, including many current ‘insiders’, to the perception that their work is at risk of displacement, degradation or devaluation. In particular, forms of professional work previously considered immune to these threats are increasingly recognised as being on the frontline of the technological transformation of work.

This may generate a much broader perception of economic and social insecurity, with some three-quarters of people already believing that workers face greater anxiety and uncertainty about job prospects than the generation before. Significantly, there is evidence that one’s status as a labour market ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ bears some determination on electoral preferences expressed at the ballot box - a relationship given new importance by the political and technological upheavals of our time.

A crucial question today is the extent to which anticipation of automation and other perceived technological and industrial threats mediate this contingent and unpredictable relationship between insider/outsider status and political preferences and anxieties. Insider/outsider approaches tend to focus on the distinction between employment and unemployment, good jobs and bad jobs, and unionised workers and non-unionised workers. But the implications of technological and industrial shifts like automation and green transition for a diverse array of workers’ demands go beyond these binaries.

Insider/outsider models imply some assessment of the political manifestations of workers’ risk perceptions. But, owing to an underlying assumption of economic rationality, they often have no convincing explanation for the contingent ways in which people express themselves politically in relation to their ‘objective’ material interests. Hence it is also necessary to critically complement the rational choice behavioural economics and quantitative methods that underpin much insider/outsider theory with more qualitative perspectives on worker worldviews and political behaviour.

Adopting such a standpoint, together we are commencing a new project investigating how workers perceive and anticipate the risks and threats to their jobs posed by automation and other industrial shifts like green transition. Funded by Research England as part of the Bristol Model programme, the project is a partnership between IFoW and researchers at University of Bristol School of Management.

The project explores how workers practically and politically make sense of the possibility that their work will be threatened by new technology and industries and the consequences that follow for their lives, communities and the country as a whole. The project will gather data from interviews and focus groups with workers in three industrial clusters in Bristol, encompassing transportation, warehousing and logistics; high-value manufacturing, aerospace and defence; and small manufacturers, engineering firms and mechanics.

The interviews and focus groups will explore how subjective perceptions of risk relate to different measures of underlying objective risk posed by technological and industrial transitions; how the objective risk inherent in applications of new technology is mediated and mitigated in the workplace; the complex range of outcomes workers experience from technological shifts in the workplace e.g. task and job substitution, augmentation, intensification; workers’ appraisal of who stands best-placed to benefit from these foregoing and future shifts; their assessment of the capacity of the local and national state to capture and mitigate threats and anxieties; and how their feelings about the future of work manifest politically.

Outputs from the project will include blogs, articles, a report, and a ‘shelf’ for the IFoW Knowledge Hub on politics and work futures.

Contact the researchers

Dr Harry Pitts
Lecturer in Management
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