What will the future of work be?

André Kertész (1894–1985), Poughkeepsie, 1937.


In a context of enormous capital crisis from the Pandemic by the new coronavirus, the importance of the working class has never been so evident

With technological development, what can we expect from the future of work? Will workers lose their jobs? Will some professions become obsolete? Will workers leave factories because they will be replaced by robots? Does this really make sense or is there an interest of capital in the dissemination of these ideas?

All these questions revolve around a possible elimination of living work – that performed by human labor power, by the dead work – that performed by machines, with the replacement of workers by machinic technology. Or, on the other hand, machines demanding work that is also machinic from the living, in a kind of “de-anthropomorphization of work” that gradually makes the possibility of resistance, organization and confrontation to this vigorous process of structural precariousness of work die out. technological insertion in the capitalist mode of production.

Despite the meaning end of the work with the technological insertion in the capitalist mode of production, the theme about work and its derivations are pressing. In fact, what we see today, instead of the end of work, is an expansion of precarious work based on new technologies. Especially if we consider the vigorous process of productive restructuring underway with the development of the so-called Fourth Technological Revolution, a recent phenomenon that began in 2011 in Germany, with the initial purpose of generating a profound and significant technological leap in production processes from of new ICTs (ANTUNES, 2020). In addition, it is necessary to consider, according to Ricardo Antunes, the emblematic emergence of a new proletariat in the service sector that ascends in the new work morphology.

With the technological developments, combined with robotization, task automation, internet of things, 3D printing, etc., arising from Industry 4.0, a scenario of great transformation in the world of work at a global level, in which the productive world passes operating under a new logic of digital integration of all processes: design, manufacturing and administration and, thus, showing gains in productivity, reliability, adaptation to customer needs and speed (industriAll, 2015, apoud DEGRYSE, 2016). All these resources applied from artificial intelligence, together with the internet, with all the machinery connected to each other and interconnected, in a more robotic and automated way throughout the value chain, with all business logistics digitally controlled through artificial intelligence with the various productive sectors, at a speed never before experienced in the world of labor, transforms not only work, but society as a whole (ANTUNES, 2020).

All this is accompanied by the increase in internet speed (which is related to the new 5G technologies) and its dissemination, as it enables better interaction on the internet and more speed in a series of processes in the world of work. The technological revolution leaves the industrial sphere and begins to influence the service sector and the labor market on a global scale.

However, as demonstrated by DEGRYSE (2019), technological expansion presents some ambivalences or contradictions: while it allows work to be less heavy, to be more efficient and to increase production, at the same time, it tends to increase the intensity and deteriorate the quality of work, creating “liquid” jobs, reducing skilled work and increasing its intensity, without regulation of the workplace, hours, or collective organization.

A huge international contingent of workers are included in these transformations. That doesn't mean that some areas aren't transforming. In fact, there is a process of structural transformation, with changes in several jobs. Even so, this does not mean the loss of strength for the working class, quite the contrary. The working class has never been as expressive in capitalist societies as it is in contemporary times. According to the ILO[I], there are 3,3 billion workers in the world, with 2 billion in the informal economy, representing the most vulnerable part of the labor market.

In a context of enormous capital crisis from the Pandemic by the new coronavirus, the importance of the working class has never been so evident. Many jobs considered essential are performed by human workforce. And even if we think about mobile devices, technological resources, robots, etc., they are all a product of the development of human work, “even if it is immaterial, intellectual and scientific” (TONELO, 2021). Currently, according to Iuri Tonelo, we can consider that the factory workforce is smaller than at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, but even so, it still maintains an undeniable force, while the technological revolution and productive restructuring were combined with transformations in the international division of work, creating niches for robotization and work automation, but also keeping huge industrial centers concentrated in some countries, so that capital continues to need immense living work, intensively, especially on the periphery of capital.

If we think about the recent transformations in the world of work, what we see is a growing process of overexploitation and job precariousness based on new technologies. Therefore, in addition to bringing benefits to society in several aspects, technological development has served capitalist interests insofar as it boosts and accelerates the process of exploitation of the working class, especially through control (of processes and work). Ricardo Antunes points out that the main characteristics of the new world of work (digitized and inserted in the service sector) are total precariousness, total flexibility, total availability and concealment of the work modality by providing services. The novelty, therefore, is the precariousness through the uberization of work, insofar as it camouflages the capital-work relationship based on the ideological discourse of entrepreneurship.

In the new dynamics of capital-work relations that arise from this productive restructuring and reconfiguration of work in contemporary times, having a job in a situation of overexploitation can be considered a kind of privilege. This reflects, in a way, the new spirit of capitalism in progress, in which a mass of workers submit to the new “normal” in capitalist societies: outsourced work, the “freelancer fixed", informalization, uberization, etc. and the total abandonment of protective labor laws. All this, taking into account an immense mass of surplus workforce on a global scale that, now with the internet, digital platforms and mobile devices, can access workers from any part of the globe. The concept of immigrant work seems to take on new contours based on this work context.

In this sense, what is the future of work? What can we expect in the face of this extremely sad scenario based on technological insertion with intensified labor exploitation in its rhythms, times and movements, with a reduction in the welfare state and an intensification of neoliberal ideas and pragmatics in the labor market? It seems that the new trends will become irreversible if there is no confrontation and intense mobilization on the part of the working class. This is because the excessive ambition and capitalist greed for more profits directs capital to intensify the extraction of surplus value and, for this to become feasible, only through the overexploitation of the workforce.

In capitalist societies, the distance is abysmal between employer and employee, capitalist and proletarian, rich and poor. Their interests are diametrically opposed, therefore, it is necessary for resistance movements on the part of the working class (collectively, with or without union representation) so that the corrosion of labor rights can fade away or, can prevent legal aberrations, under the mantle of meeting workers' demands, are implemented in line with business interests. To exemplify, there is the recent “Uber Law” in Portugal that dismantles the existing triangular relationship (digital platform, driver or courier and customer), creating a fourth element that, in reality, is the worker himself transformed into an entrepreneur. In this way, it removes responsibility from those who actually operate the business, who have power and exercise it over workers with various forms of control (including algorithmic): digital platform organizations, such as Uber, Glovo and others.

In any case, it is crucial to emphasize that the transformation of work based on technological development can be positive, insofar as it brings some comforts and benefits to societies and to workers themselves, improving some aspects related to work. The new technologies are not exactly the problem, but the instrumentalization that is made of these technologies in the sense of guiding agendas of precarious work. Furthermore, technological development and its respective insertion in the productive world structurally transform capitalism and work itself. Thus, the wave of technological innovations and automation, accompanied by artificial intelligence and various other technological resources, while creating new jobs – aimed at workers with certain skills and resources necessary to keep up with the demands of the new jobs -, on the other hand, it exterminates several others, namely those of less qualified workers, pushing them towards the marginality of capital, that is, towards unemployment or, at best, for the informalization, flexibility and total precariousness of work.

Thus, resistance on the part of workers and unions is crucial, being the only obstacle to the generalization of precariousness and the destruction of social labor rights so hard won through social struggles.

*Nirsan Grillo Gomes Dambrós is a Master's student in Sociology of Organizations and Work at the Higher Institute of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Lisbon.


Antunes, R. (2018). The privilege of serfdom: the new service proletariat in the digital age. Sao Paulo, Boitempo.

Antunes, R. (2020). Uberization, digital work and Industry 4.0. Sao Paulo, Boitempo.

Degryse, C. (2016). Digitalization of the economy and its impact on labor markets. ETUI research paper-working paper.

Degryse, C. (2019). Technological disruption, social abandonment?. The economic quartermonkey, 86 https://doi.org/10.20430/ete.v86i344.995

Tonelo, I. (2021). However, it moves: the 2008 crisis and the new dynamics of capitalism. Sao Paulo, Boitempo.

UN News. Global Perspective Human Reporting. Nearly half of global workforce at risk from pandemic-driven rise in unemployment. Available at: https://news.un.org/pt/story/2020/04/1711972, accessed on: June 29, 2021


[I] For more information. Available in:  https://news.un.org/pt/story/2020/04/1711972 accessed on: June 29, 2021.

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