The Changing Landscape of Work

July 04, 2018

The Changing Landscape of Work

Andrew Sloane


For most adult Australians, whatever their faith or none, work occupies a large portion of their waking hours. Despite this, we spend surprisingly little time giving it the kind of focused attention it deserves. It deserves such attention wherever we find ourselves in cultural history, but the rate and magnitude of change in technology in this emerging post-information age and its impact on patterns and possibilities of work raise these questions in particularly acute ways. Over the next year or so, Dan Anderson and I plan to spend some time thinking about work, the role/s it plays in a flourishing human life, and how we can navigate the changing landscape of work. From time to time we’ll explore our response to these phenomena. We’ll examine what resources we have for navigating this changing landscape, and the critical norms we ought to use when we think about work. We’ll seek to assess the terrain, identifying what’s liberative and what’s oppressive about the future of work, what paths we should—and shouldn’t—take. We’ll think about the goal of the journey, the final end point of human community in the fullness of flourishing that is God’s new creation, and what elements of our work might survive the searching scrutiny of the judge of all the earth and contribute to the consummation of God’s plans for the world. But before we do all that, we need to know something about what we’re facing. So, let me give you a brief sketch of the changing landscape of work. [1] 

The development and rapid implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has dominated much of the discussion of workplace disruption so far.[2] A great deal of that attention has been focused on the development of autonomous vehicles and its impact on transport—both of people and commodities. The predictions for other sectors are also rather sobering, suggesting that a number of routine manual labouring jobs could easily be replaced by machines—but so, too, could a number of information oriented ‘white collar’ jobs.[3] Searchable databases and high volume information processing allow software ’bots to gather and analyse sophisticated data sets, replacing routine human tasks in law (identifying relevant statutes, precedents and the like), journalism (gathering data and writing simple news reports), medicine (screening out normal results and identifying aberrant results that need human scrutiny), administration, accounting, the academy—and the list goes on.

Such predictions have implications, not only for people currently in those ‘professional’ roles, but also for traditional career paths. If a machine can more accurately and efficiently identify precedents (or do a literature review for an academic), then entry-level positions such as para-legals (or research assistants) become redundant, with significant impact on both the numbers of people required to work in the professions, and the pathways they might take to gain professional competence. Given the relative value we place on ‘white collar work’ (inside jobs with no heavy lifting), it is ironic that some ‘menial’ manual labour is less susceptible to automation (say, cleaning in a complex environment such as a school or office or park, where both the terrain and the kind of mess that might be encountered are easy for humans to navigate, but difficult for machines—at least at the moment). It is also interesting that ‘high touch’ jobs—such as nursing or personal care—seem to be relatively immune from the encroaching of AI, despite their low prestige in the labour market. But that is all supposition, of course. And all futurists ought to be glad that they, unlike Old Testament prophets, aren’t likely to be stoned if their predictions don’t eventuate.

But it’s important not to get fixated on the futuristic flashing lights of AI, for disruption in the workplace is a current reality, not just a future prospect. What’s become known as the ‘gig economy’ is presented as allowing for a more flexible, nimble workforce. This gives workers greater freedom to manage their work-life balance, and employers the opportunity to ‘buy in’ the expertise they need for particular projects. Tech and other large companies are moving towards using temporary project teams for particular tasks, rather than having established departments with particular employees in established positions. Such moves have benefits for industry and some workers—generally those with (currently) desirable skills and a good deal of personal and employee agency.

Unfortunately, there’s a dark cloud to the silver lining of the gig economy—what’s come to be called the precariat—the growing number of people who are forced to juggle multiple part-time and casual jobs. Underemployment is becoming more of a problem for many workers than is unemployment—something that job statistics tend to hide. Such patterns of work have a significant impact on the security, stability and sustainability of households.[4] In the USA, this raises serious problems for many of the new ‘working poor’, especially in relation to access to affordable health care/insurance. While health care is less of an issue in Australia given our mixed socialised/private health care economy, housing affordability becomes a major problem (especially for those who want to buy into the market), and the prospect of frequent relocation raises issues for schooling of children (where relevant), involvement in local (geographical) communities, and the like.[5] Much of that disruption is independent of the ‘rise of the machines’, being the product of globalised economies and (now well-established) communications and information technologies. And it’s impacting previously highly desirable careers such as in the academy (a growing number of universities are reducing the ‘tenure track’ in favour of short-term teaching contracts). For many, the old dream of a stable job, even a career, is fading. What for some is the gig economy, for others is the precariat.

Many of us might hanker after the good old days; but this, or something like it, seems to be the future of work. Sectors of the landscape seem bathed in sunlight; over others, dark clouds loom. Our task is to navigate it with wisdom and justice and fidelity and compassion for those who struggle to find their way through it to they know not what goal. But addressing those questions is a job for the future.



[1] In October 2017 Morling College hosted a symposium on humanising work. The aim was to identify the issues we need to address in the changing landscape of work, especially in relation to AI, the ‘gig economy’ and the emerging precariat in the western world. Present were: Dr Lindsay McMillan, Managing Director of Reventure; Rich Hirst, Director, International CEO Forum; Rev Dr Gordon Preece, Director of ETHOS; Dr Peter Docherty, Ass. Prof. Economics UTS; Kara Martin, author of Workship; Dr Jon Clarke, Fellow of ISCAST and President of Australian Mars Society; John Bottomley, Consultant Transforming Work; and Rev Dr Andrew Sloane, Senior Lecturer in Old Testament and Christian Thought, Morling College. I would like to thank the participants for the generous gift of their time and expertise. Much of what follows in this piece draws on the work of that symposium.

[2] See, for instance, the recent series on the ABC news website (; research by McKinsey (; and the almost daily reports of the development—and limitations—of autonomous vehicles.

[3] See

[4] See Guy Standing’s brief treatment:; or his TEDx talk: Whatever you might think of his prescription, his diagnosis is insightful. 

[5] See

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