Working on the robot society; Visions and insights from science concerning the relationship between technology and employment

2015 –The Rathenau Instiuut drew a report for the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament about a scientific research on the effects of technological development on employment.

Research question
The  central research question of the report was: what current scientific knowledge is available on the impact of technological developments on employment? The associated secondary questions of the report, concern the availability of relevant and current scientific knowledge regarding the following aspects:

1. The impact of technological developments (mechanization, automation, etc.) on employment in the past.
2. The potential impact of technological developments on future employment.
3. Scope for responding, through policy, to future effects on employment, for example by means of training.

Approach and aim of study

The study comprises of a review of the literature, media analysis of the policy options, and interviews with scientific experts. The aim of the interviews is to verify whether relevant literature has been included in the review, and to evaluate the literature found in terms of its scientific value and to explore policy options. 

Summary of the report

The report consists of three parts which answer the three questions 

Part 1: Technology in historical and social context

In this chapter the main aim is exploring, what the characteristics of the IT-revolution mean for the organization of labour, production and consumption. Moreover a comparison is made to past technological revolutions. At the current moment we are  in the midst of a second machine age. We have been digitizing physical and cognitive labour (Digital Taylorism) for decades, and we are sharing it across the globe. This means that there is now increased flexibility with work. For example recently there is an emergence of an internet platform than can crowdsource paid and unpaid work.  Historically the changes with steam power and electricity social changes moved slowly in the Netherland, as it was dependent on broader economic, social and political context. New generic technologies provided fertile ground for the emergence of new organizational forms in business. In the Netherlands to date, there have never been structural crisis in the labour market due to new generic technologies. The most important factors have been macroeconomic and cyclical factors. It has nevertheless always created a need to better coordinate the demand and supply of labour. But are those dynamics changing? 

Part 2: Relationship between technology and employment

Historically economic growth in Netherlands is due to labour market participation, however that connection has decreased considerably. The economic growth in Netherlands has slowed down compared to other countries. This observation leads to all sorts of questions. Is the Netherlands actually investing enough in new technology and innovation? Where would more investment be desirable? And what is standing in the way of such necessary change and renewal? Are our institutions, our laws and regulations, and also their application, sufficiently technology-proof? And how can public investments in technology and innovation sustainably contribute to a prosperous Netherlands, in the future?

New technology always destroys jobs, but there have always been other jobs to replace obsolete jobs. However the expectations for the future are now less clear. Various studies demonstrate that that both low and high skilled work can be automated (e.g  driving and accountancy). This new technology is leading to a higher demand on improved skills for workers with the main negative impact on middle class jobs. The question is, how can we limit the negative effects of digitization as much as possible? The future is digital, so the development of digital skills in education and employees is crucial, especially for the lower end of the labour market. Significant investment in education creates a better training for new and improved skills (Goldin and Katz 2008). Regulation is needed for new platforms, such as Uber and AirBnB to prevent monopolies. Moreover there needs to be a stronger support to digital start-ups, and to small scale initiatives by the local government. Many policy options now emphasize the importance of education, retraining, further training, and on the job training.  

Part 3 Summary findings, and conclusion

Nowadays we are being bombarded with all kinds of new technical advances on a unprecedented speed. Things like artificial intelligence, robots in caring for elderly, automated vehicles, sensor networks, 3D printing, virtual reality, and so on will all lead to destruction of jobs. However to create a good debate it is important to discuss not only what jobs automation destroys, but also: 

  • economic, social, ethical, and legal aspects that are factors in how IT influences labour.

  • The role of IT in creating new jobs.

  • The way in which IT changes the organization of labour.

  • The way in which IT helps determine the distribution of prosperity.

What jobs will be created depends on for example new sectors that have not yet been created,  and some jobs might come back due to reshoring. It is hard to predict as job creation is connected to complex macroeconomic dynamics. The historic fact that when technology destroys jobs, it creates new jobs within one or two years via second-order effects, has been crumbling since  2010. see, for example, Miller & Atkinson 2013. 
The report concludes that there is increased need for society to stay on top of these technological changes with investment in: education, regulation that allow socially responsible innovation, and regulation to prevent monopolies. Moreover there has to be increased focus in sharing costs and benefits. To do this the political community needs to take steps to implementing a plan of action, and start preparing the communities for the unavoidable robot future.   


Rinie van Est & Linda Kool .(eds) ‘Working on the robot society.: Visions and insights from science about the relation technology and employment’, 2015 Den Haag, Rahenau Instituut. Authors
Rinie van Est, Ira van Keulen, Linda Kool, Arnoud van Waes and Frans Brom; (Rathenau Instituut)
Frans van der Zee and Govert Gijsbers (TNO)
Jan Korsten, Harry Lintsen and
 Johan Schot (Foundation for the History of Technology) 

Themes: Labour relations, Monotoring & Evaluation
Sector: n.a.
Source Research report