This report from Barclays analyses the wide-ranging impacts of technological advancement on how people work today, and possibly will work in the future.

Over the centuries, technological progress has evoked both fear and fascination, especially in terms of the impact on labour. Even as the Industrial Revolution forever changed the trajectory of human progress, leading voices of the 19th century remained divided on how it could affect workers. One of the most influential economists of all time, David Ricardo, flip-flopped on the issue. In 1821, he stated that while he had previously felt that using machinery in production was a general good, he was now more worried about the substitution effect on labour. And the discussion was not always academic – the Luddite movement was an early example of workers resorting to violence to protest the use of technology in textile factories.

As the decades passed, the Industrial Revolution led to a visible, massive improvement in living standards. But the debate – on how technology affects work and whether it is an unequivocal positive – continued to wax and wane. It reared its head again in the 1960s, when US President Lyndon Johnson set up a commission to study the impact of automation on jobs. The commission noted that “technology eliminates jobs, not work.” But it did acknowledge that the pace of technology on the workforce was severe enough that the government considered radical measures such as “guaranteed minimum income” and “government as the employer of last resort.”

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