Social compensation, retraining, shorter working hours?

Workers' social policy priorities for the age of automation

Robotisation, automation and digitalisation are transforming labour markets around the globe. While workers in Germany and around the world are aware of the potential benefits of technological change, they are also worried about losing their jobs. How concerned are workers and which political measures do they demand from their governments to deal with this transformation?



The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated fast-paced technological change. Based on survey data from 24 OECD-countries, this policy paper shows how workers perceive the coming automation processes and which social policy measures they prioritise to deal with those changes.


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Employees in Germany and worldwide are worried about their jobs


According to the study, 35.7 percent think it is “likely” or “very likely” that they will lose their jobs due to automation within the coming five years. Compared to other countries, Germany is in the lower midfield with 27.5 percent. South Korea is leading the scale with 65.5 percent, while employees in Austria express the least concern with 21.5 percent. Nevertheless, almost 75 percent of Germans support increased investment in digital infrastructure, about 12 percent more than the OECD average. It seems that the majority of Germans see a considerable need for investment in the digital sector.


Workers also see opportunities – especially in strong welfare states


Another important finding: workers in countries with strong welfare states are less concerned about automation. At the same time, more than half of the respondents also see opportunities in digitalisation, such as less physical and dangerous work, a better work-life balance and the elimination of repetitive tasks. 


Investment in education is popular…


A broad majority of 74.2 percent favours investments in the primary education of young people as well as in lifelong learning (78 percent). Similarly, strengthening the social safety net (increased unemployment benefits and similar social transfers) is also widely supported (61 percent). With regard to Germany, it is particularly interesting that more people support the introduction of an unconditional basic income (59.5 percent) than simply increasing traditional social transfer payments (55.3 percent).


…but not if the job is acutely threatened


Employees who are acutely worried about losing their jobs prefer higher social transfers over increased investments in education. This demand is more popular among the less educated than among respondents with higher levels of education. These education-related differences in preferences can potentially lead to political conflicts over social policy priorities.


Recommendations to policy-makers


  1. Take concerns seriously and communicate them openly: Policy-makers should take the multi-faceted nature of concerns about technological change seriously and avoid emphasising only one aspect. Rather, what is needed is a balanced approach that recognises the opportunities of technological change while also respecting the concerns of affected workers.
  2. Safeguard high, long-term investments in education: Policy-makers need to prioritise policy strategies that focus on expanding educational opportunities, in particular in the sector of   lifelong learning. The challenge here is to safeguard educational investment  against potential short-term demands for spending in other policy areas. 
  3. Focus support on those directly affected: While giving priority to educational investment, policy makers need to develop policy instruments that also support affected workers directly, combining new social investment policies with compensatory social policies.

See all Policy Papers

The authors

Marius R. Busemeyer is Professor of Political Science and Political Economy at the University of Konstanz and Speaker of the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality”.

Tobias Tober is a postdoctoral researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz.


If you have any questions about this publication series or would like to contact one of the experts, please do not hesitate to contact:


Florian Ranft | Head of Programme “Innovation & Sustainability”



Background to the cooperation
The studies are part of a large-scale survey programme of the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” an Universität Konstanz. With the help of the surveys, the researchers want to better understand how people in Germany deal with the social and political consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. More information on the background of the cooperation between the cluster and Das Progressive Zentrum, as well as on the other policy papers already published, can be found here.



Marius Busemeyer

Tobias Tober

published on

17 September 2021