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Working Hard or Hardly Working: The Internet and the Future of Labour

· April 25, 2016

The internet has already fundamentally changed the way we work. The fact that I’m sitting at home in my pyjamas drinking green tea, at work, is a very basic proof of the concept. But scaled up, it has done everything from create a range of new jobs that simply didn’t exist before to transforming the hours we work and where we put them in. That’s a lot to tackle in one column — and even more for society to manage.

For a start, the office has changed completely. I’ve recently been reading Jilly Cooper’s ‘How to Survive from Nine to Five,’ because as a freelancer finding out what the Queen of bonkbusters has to say about working office life is officially part of my job. Written in 1970, it explains how to slack off in the typing pool, smoke distractingly in meetings and manage multiple affairs.

This is what people did to waste time at work before they had cat videos and Twitter. Although social media may not be the giant time sink your boss thinks it is: according to a Microsoft/Ipsos poll, 53% of 18-24 year-olds think using social tools makes them more productive at work. Microsoft certainly has a long and noble history of providing such toys: for much of my generation, using MSN Messenger while writing university essays taught us to balance old-school pre-internet book-based research and the immediate gratification of using emojis (or smileys, as we called them) in realtime chat.

I digress. The internet has changed the pace of office-based work. It threatens the very existence of jobs based on being a gatekeeper for information. This piece singing the praises of the takedown of real estate agents by the “cartel-busting internet” says it all, so I’ll link to it to avoid duplication of work.

Then there are more creative ways to make money, with platforms like eBay and Etsy providing a shop window for those who make things at home. That’s interesting, because in some ways the internet takes things full circle: making lace shawls and selling them online is literally a cottage industry.

I’m terrible at handicrafts but love writing at home. As ever with the internet, the first disruption is making information available: for those who take the plunge, there’s a range of sites which will tell you how much freelancers get paid — and why it’s not OK to work for free.

If I’d got past “Hello World” I would also be able to program an app. According to a 2014 study commissioned by the EU Commission, the app economy already employs 1 million people and could be worth EUR 63 billion by 2018. Anyone can be a success, with ideas as diverse as tracking menstrual cycles and avian projectiles proving popular. But it’s also a different kind of work: making an app is like writing a novel, a speculative process done at home rather than a steady job with a regular income.

Finally, there’s a host of jobs which revolve around getting existing companies online, particularly smaller ones. Hand-crafted Italian chairs, for example, are just the kind of thing you’d think of as internet-unfriendly. But once Google Italy sent a digital whizzkid to show the Levaggi brothers how to get online, their sales soared. As a journalist, I’ve seen plenty of colleagues change their tune from “Why are we even hiring a social media manager?” to “Thousands of people shared my story, awesome.” The genie is most definitely out of the bottle.

The next step is legislative change. As the internet upsets traditional models worldwide, questions about working hours and workplace protections inevitably arise. At this point people like to mention Uber, but for the sake of variety, let’s have a look at UK-based rival Addison Lee. It has a very clever booking app and optimized routes and its drivers, in my purely anecdotal personal experiences are more clued up than those of rivals. Both firms are competing with traditional London Black Cabs. How do the drivers feel? Time to use the internet’s power information-sharing again and have a look at this blog by a guy who has driven for both. That’s not an option in Brussels, where Uber is banned. Which is certainly one response to the changes wrought by the internet.

Earlier this year, labour ministers, union leaders and economists from across the world gathered at the OECD in Paris to discuss the future of work. They talked about everything from zero-hours contracts (a controversial hiring practice where employers demand that workers be available, but only call them in — and pay them — as needed) to the rapid evolution of the digital economy, all of which all “pose significant challenges for employment and social protection policies.”

In Brussels, the European Commission has opened a consultation on the Written Statements Directive. This gives employees the right to be notified in writing of the essential aspects of their employment relationship when it starts or shortly after. As law firm Eversheds explains, “the consultation asks whether the Directive is fit for purpose given the emergence of new forms of working such as agency, zero hours and atypical working.”

There’s certainly a need for clarity: so many new jobs are “atypical” and within that classification, there’s a huge variation. The freedom that I love in freelancing wouldn’t be freedom if I were churning out pieces at cents a time for content mills. I sat down with an accountant and understand that my social security and pension are my responsibility now — both things my employer always took care of before. Fortunately, there’s an app for that: showing that although the way many of us work is being completely transformed by the internet, we can create the tools and legal framework to keep up. The EU consultation closes next month. In the meantime, I’m my own boss and right now I feel like another green tea.

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.