The Revenge of the Precariat
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on often-overlooked essential workers, so should it increase our appreciation for the back-end labor that goes into the digital economy. Most of today's tech giants simply wouldn't exist without the contributions of "low-skilled" workers.
TURIN – Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of low-skilled labor in the economy was assumed to be in decline. In digitally disrupted labor markets, where fancy STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professions enjoy pride of place, only highly qualified professionals can thrive. Those whose jobs are threatened by new technologies are condemned to precariousness, redundancy, downward mobility, and declining standards of living.
The pandemic has partly debunked this narrative, by revealing which workers truly are essential. It turns out that there still are no good technological substitutes for the street cleaners, shopkeepers, utility workers, food deliverers, truckers, or bus drivers who have kept the economy running through the darkest days of the crisis. In many cases, these workers perform tasks that require situational adaptability and physical abilities of a kind that cannot easily be coded into software and replicated by a robot.
The fact that these least-skilled workers are resilient to new technologies should not come as a surprise. Previous industrial revolutions followed a similar pattern. At a minimum, human workers are usually still needed to supervise, maintain, or complement the machines. And in many cases, they play a key role in the new disruptive business models of any given era. The challenge has always been to close the gap between the social value these workers create and the wages they receive.