Inequalities of the Future

The 20th century was an incredible journey of increased equality, in Sweden, in the West, and eventually in the world at large. However, the past few decades have seen the trend turn around in many parts of the world.

Sweden has gone from being the least unequal to the most unequal among the Nordic countries since the beginning of the millennium, according to the World Bank [1]. In the United States, the 1% pull away from the population [2] and in France, the yellow vests protest against an elite that they perceive to have lost touch with the people. Even as people escape poverty across the globe, inequalities are today increasing – between people, but within nations. 

How did we end up here, and more importantly, where are we headed? Does the digital revolution mean dramatic inequalities and political convulsions on the scale of the industrial revolution? Or are we conversely entering an era where technology becomes a useful tool for limiting inequality? Besides the technological development, how do cultural, social and institutional factors influence this development?

The questions are monumental, and impossible to answer in full. We can however conclude that the industrial revolution caused inequalities worldwide which eventually resulted in both democratic and nondemocratic political revolutions. There are strong reasons to assume the revolutionizing movement towards a digitalized and generally autonomous network society will, similarly, cause new forms of inequality. What sort of development might we expect, broadly speaking?

Tied to the procedures of production in themselves – that is to say, how we work and extract economic value – a lot probably depends on how automation, digitalization and AI affect our jobs in practice. Since Frey and Osborne [3] released their report concluding that nearly half of jobs in the United States will be automated by 2030, the matter has been hotly debated. Interpretations differ about the exact scope of automation, but that it will affect everything from agriculture to industry and services seems inevitable.

How “afflicted” different groups and professions will be by the great revolution of our time – the digital revolution – will in turn bring about new grounds for inequality. Those who see relatively little change today have the best opportunities to benefit. We see this already in the form of rising salaries in professions with staff shortages and human-oriented tasks, like preschool teachers and nurses. The same applies to many jobs involving craftsmanship.

Those in a worse position are, according to Kairos Futures’ studies [4], in part industrial workers but primarily those in administrative white collar-professions with many rote tasks. If your job can be converted into ones, zeros, and a set of instructions, you’re probably in trouble.

By all accounts, those who can count on a continued status increase are the people with some sort of architect-like role behind the IT structures being implemented, and those who are empowered by the new technology rather than replaced by it. At the top of the pyramid, it finally boils down to what inequality has always been about throughout human history: Ownership. From owning land in the agrarian society to owning factories in the industrial, it’s now a matter of owning the great digital platforms. If you want to reach the top of the food chain and further improve your position, ownership is the ticket.

Given this, are there then no possibilities the inequality metrics might turn and start to decrease? In the short term, not much seems to indicate it. Parallel powerful trends outside work itself strengthen rather than reduce inequality, trends like urbanization, migration, a lack of integration, and climate change. As a globalized economy continues to grow, the primary equalizer – the nation-state – loses power, and institutions that might otherwise redistribute resources grow weak. 

Perhaps there may be some seeds of change growing in the gigantic new systems emerging, coming from our industrial and now digital infrastructures. Anyone who’s read Orwell and had a glance at the Chinese credit score machinery, can easily glean a global surveillance system being rolled out before our very eyes. But more positively, large and comprehensive infrastructure systems can also be used as equalizers. 

The development today more than a little reminds us of historical times, in which industries and the institutions surrounding them gave rise to narratives of despair and sorrow. But after decades of both inequality and destitution, the industrial society turned in a more equalizing direction. The values that arose spread in the wake of political organization and decision-making, and the result was what can only be considered the historically just societies of the latter half of the 20thcentury. The question to ask about the future is: Do we have enough ambition and ability to carry out the same journey once more?

Are you interested in booking a lecture about the future of inequality? Contact Helena Mella.

[4] Stora jobbstudien, Kairos Future (2017) (in Swedish only)

By Peter Pernemalm