Sessione 7 Contributed on line

When robots mean subjective insecurity: an industry-level study in Europe

(D. Bellani et G. Bosio)


There is a long-standing debate about the consequences of the Digital Revolution on the destiny of work (OECD 2015, 2016). While some experts emphasize the potential benefits of robotics for employment opportunities (Autor and Handel 2013), others argue that technological innovation represents a threat for overall employment (e.g. McAfee and Brynjolfsson 2014).

This paper aims to reframe the debate about the consequences of the process of increasing automation technology on the perceived employment conditions of permanent workers by focusing on the interaction between the industrial robots usage and workers’ perception of job instability at industry level.

So far, the academic debate has emphasized that workers increasingly feel worried about labour market transformation that robot technology creates (Dekker et al 2017). The reasoning is that workers usually identify robots as substitutes of human labor more than factors that complement working tasks. Thus robots are argued to have significantly boosted the percepion of insecurity of workers and are expected to increase the fear of job loss (Fink et al 1992).

However, previous literature on the relationship between robotization and subjective insecurity suffers of crucial theoretical and empirical limitations. One over all is strictly related to the conceptualization of the impact of digital technologies. Most researchers have proposed poor definitions of this phenomenon, identifiyng robotization as the sole use of Internet and other I&C technologies or as the experience with robots at work (Dekker et al 2017). Clearly, it is not easy to propose a universal and uncontested meaning of robotization. Nonetheless, in the last years, economists have explicitly linked the concept of automation technology to the quota of industrial robots, making the notion of robotization more intelligible. In this literature, industrial robots are defined as machines that are automatically controlled, reprogrammable, and multipurpose (IFR, 2014). This definition, even if excludes other types of technological that may also replace labor (software), points out important aspects of robotization, such as the autonomy and the self-sufficiency of industrial robots from human operator, often neglected by previous conceptualization. It has also the advantage to enable internationally and temporally comparable measurement of a class of technologies that are capable of replacing human labor in a range of tasks.

Taking move from this definition of robotization, we aim to analyse the association between robotic technologies and subjective feelings of job insecurity more systematically, thus enriching the debate about the socio-economic factors of subjective job uncertainty. Robotization could represent a crucial contextual aspect of labour market setting that, together with other importat macro factors, such as the incidence of temporary employment (Kalleberg 2009) and the degree of globalization, is likely to shape perceived individuals’ job insecurity. Given the different level of bargaining power across workers, we do expect that the impact of robotization is likely to produce heterogeneous outcomes across social groups. Depending on the labour market position, workers are more or less able to manage the effects of the Digital Revolution.

By taking a comparative perspective and employng data from the European Social Survey for 2008/9 and for 2014/15, we aim to shed insights into the association between robotization and perceived insecurity. Our cross- sectional study includes regions of the European Union for a total of 24 countries. We also employ data provided by the IFR on the stock of robots by industry. Our analytical strategy does distinguish by vertical and horizontal dimensions of labour market structure. As thus, our contribution enriches previous studies about the impact of digitalization across social classes and work logics.

More specifically, we are interested in answering to the following research questions. 1. Does robotization influence the perception of job insecurity?
2. If yes, does this association vary between social classes and across work logics?

Most studies in Economic Sociology dealing with the topic of perceived job insecurity have demonstrated that both macro and micro factors are an important part of the explanation.

We argue that the association in which we are interested in can be understood along the line of subjective expectations related to the consequences of changing labour markets (Goos and Manning 2007). Even if we expect a general positive impact of robotization on workers’ insecurity, subjective perception of job insecurity may be dependent on certain objective characteristics of workers (Erlinghagen 2008). A large body of the literature has shown that workers that are already exposed to objective risks in terms of job loss or income loss (e.j. temporary workers) are those that perceive changing labour market conditions as more dangerous for their life course (Burgoon and Dekker 2010). A thus, these workers are expected to feel more threatened to be replaced by robots, thus perceiving a much lower degree of security in their job.