A Tale of Two Futures: The Future of Work Debate in Germany and the U.S.

Ines Wagner

Norwegian Institute for Social Research

Ines Wagner was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow from May to June 2019. She is a Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Social Research in Oslo. She holds a double PhD degree in Political Science and International Management from the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Groningen and an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Wagner was a visiting fellow at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, the European University Institute in Florence and the Institute of Economic and Social Research in Düsseldorf and is an alumna of the Global Young Faculty.

Her research on temporary and circular labor mobility in the European Union has appeared in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, the Journal of Common Market Studies, and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, among other outlets. Her book Workers Without Borders: Posted Work and Precarity in the EU was published with Cornell University Press in November 2018. She has received scholarships from the Norwegian Research Council, the Mercator Foundation, the Røwdes Foundation, and excellent young scholar awards from the Society for Advancement of Socio Economics and from the Society of Advancement of Management Studies.

During her time at AICGS, Dr. Wagner will be working on the topic of technological change and the politics of IT outsourcing from a comparative perspective.

She is a 2018-2019 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

The future of work is, in many respects, now. Digital technologies are driving enormous change processes in the economy and society with impacts reaching far beyond Silicon Valley, stretching even to companies in Ulm, Ludwigsburg, and Unterföhring. Some industries, like retail, have been revolutionized by technological innovation. In other sectors, digitalization is just beginning. Eventually, all economic sectors will undergo a digital transformation process. What remains to be seen is exactly how this digitalization will change work environments. How will we work tomorrow? Academics and policymakers alike grapple with this question, sketching out hypothetical scenarios where future technologies redefine the value of skills and available work.[1] So far, companies, policymakers, trade unions, stakeholders in society, and, of course, workers themselves have difficulty grasping the extent and nature of this transition. That difficulty is exacerbated by the speed with which new technologies are being developed, introduced, tried out, and re-developed or discarded. We are also witnessing the onset of 5G network capability, which is likely to transform not only how we communicate, but also how we will organize work.

These processes and transformations are omnipresent in both the United States and Germany. However, the relationship between digitalization and changes in work environments is being problematized differently in the two countries. In the United States, the focus is more on the nature of technological change, with emphasis on innovation; business insiders, or networks of labor representatives, are the main players, resulting in limited cross-fertilization of viewpoints. In Germany, the debate is centered strongly on Industry 4.0 (in which industry is the main focus) and how it will competitively advantage the German economy. But there is also discussion of Work 4.0 (in which the work environment and employment relations are the main focus), which is driven by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and labor and employer representatives, that approaches problems multilaterally to solve problems that confront employers and employees alike. The distinction in this debate is important because the framing of economic and societal problems conditions policy solutions.

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The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.