Should we Work People to death? The Use of Exoskeleton’s to Increase the Retirement Age.

Group 30

By 2040 it is predicted that 1 in 7 people in the UK will be over 75, placing a significant strain on the economy. Currently the social security and health spending associated with old age accounts for over 40% of their respective budgets. This is likely to increase as the population ages, which is likely to cause other issues including an increase in mental health issues such as loneliness. One solution to mitigate this effect could be the use of an assistive exoskeleton among older workers. Recently, Ford has used exoskeletons to boost worker performance by assisting them in physical tasks. This could enable a more productive and durable workforce. However, such a disruptive use of the technology could cause both positive and negative societal change.

Increase Happiness! Increase Wealth!

Developed, services-based economies exhibit an older average population, leaving labour intensive industries with worker shortages. An aging population would result in increased government spending, particularly on pensions and healthcare. The worker shortages could force these industries to be taken over by developing countries with larger, lower cost human resources, leaving low skilled labourers in developed countries jobless, reducing overall GDP. Exoskeleton suits allow the body to maintain physical performance, thereby increasing the workforce by allowing employees to retire later, leading to greater economic output and thus reducing the strain on the economy caused by the elderly.  This has the potential to increase the overall happiness of individuals within society, which from a utilitarian standpoint can be considered ethical.

The Office for National Statistics shows that older demographics are more susceptible to mental health issues. Advances in medicine, have resulted in individuals living longer albeit with a reduced quality of life. The NHS states that hundreds of thousands of the elderly are cut off from society and experience loneliness. By using an exoskeleton to gain access to working opportunities the elderly population can become more mobile and increase their social interactions thereby improving their quality of life and mental health. Another main benefit of an exoskeleton supported workforce is reducing the risk of employee injury and long-term fatigue on the body caused by manual labour. Exoskeletons applied in manual labour driven industries reduce the strain on the workers’ bodies by encouraging the correct form when lifting heavy objects and reducing loads whilst the body is in compromising positions. This is particularly applicable for the elderly who have reduced physical ability. The technology could also mitigate the risk of injury caused by unscrupulous companies over-exploiting employees, who otherwise could find themselves out of work with little support for chronic issues. The exoskeleton provides a simple clear-cut solution, especially with additional legislation, the suit could act as further layer of protective equipment for employees’ bodies.

Increase Exploitation! Increase Injuries!

While there are clear benefits, there are also negative consequences. When used for the elderly there are many beneficiaries, raising the question of who should pay for the exoskeletons. If employees who directly benefit from working longer are responsible, it can be argued that low-skilled employees have the most to lose, as the technology may be unaffordable. On the other hand, if companies are responsible, then large corporations with greater resources would have a competitive advantage. This could result in SMEs, which local communities often rely on, becoming bankrupt. This would be detrimental to society and the well-being of local populations. The government benefits through raised pension ages and reduced social care costs resulting in conflicts of interest. This could lead to regulatory changes that exploit rather than avoid the potential negative consequences of the introduction of exoskeletons, thus reducing the wellbeing of those who do not qualify for the suits. These changes could be decided at the whims of those in power, particularly in the UK where governments tend to dominate the proceedings of parliament.

History shows that increases in the working age results in a raise in the state pension age. The current proposal by government is for the state pension age to increase to 68 by 2037-2039. The use of exoskeletons, prolonging the working age, is likely to cause more rapid rises in the future as people are physically able to work longer. For the less wealthy, a continuation of work in the later stages of life would be the only method to sustain an income. For the majority of workers, late retirement has been shown to negatively affect mental health, and with exoskeletons prolonging the working age, it is likely to also prove detrimental. So while in some respects happiness can be improved there is potential for a decrease in happiness particularly for lower income groups, who are most affected.

While the use of exoskeletons would reduce the risk of injury by encouraging correct lifting technique, any injuries obtained while wearing the exoskeleton would be much more severe. Ford’s EksoVests can offer load assistance of up to 6.8kg per arm, if these suits fail the injury sustained by the user would be more severe due to abnormal loading conditions. Instead of reducing chronic conditions, exoskeletons could potentially cause more severe injuries. This raises questions as to who is liable for these injuries: the exoskeleton manufacturer, the employers or the employees.

As the technology improves, it is likely that rather than solely allowing workers to work for longer, it would eventually allow for increases in productivity. Particularly in profit-driven companies where the suit’s additional productivity could allow them to exploit low-skilled workers further, particularly if wages are not increased as the additional income from productivity would drive up company profits rather than benefiting workers. From a Labour Theory of Value perspective, increasing the wages could be considered unethical as those who don’t qualify for suits would be at a disadvantage despite expending the same effort. The intentions for the introduction of exoskeletons is also relevant. If it is intended to increase the profits of corporations rather than the well-being of employees, it can be argued to have weak ethical basis.

Initial Decision

We support the use of exoskeletons with caveats including regulations to prevent exploitation.

10 thoughts on “Should we Work People to death? The Use of Exoskeleton’s to Increase the Retirement Age.

  1. Great article!

    I think the exoskeleton sounds great for those nearing retirement age to be able to continue working. Not everyone wants to retire from employment but often physical health issues are a barrier to continuing work, so this would make a good option.

  2. I think the use of exoskeletons is an excited prospect as it may allow workers to complete jobs that were previously not possible. This could really boost advances in technology and increase work capacity, which would probably prove beneficial to the economy.

    However, maybe using exoskeletons with the sole purpose of making people work for longer is a bit questionable – how far could this be pushed? Would using the suits so that the disabled and children can also work in manual labour be implemented after the technology is proven in the elderly? What will stop this technology making its way into the slave markets, where the exoskeletons may literally be used to ‘work people to death’?

    I believe that a lot of safeguarding and long-term testing would need to be looked into before use of these exoskeletons as the long-term effects to human health are not known.

    1. I agree with much of the comment safeguarding would be required for this to be implemented and significant consultation would be required and any legislation changes properly scrutinised. It should also be noted that using the suit for one purpose does not necessarily result in its use for other purposes such as child labour. The black market uses are a risk although it could possibly be mitigated by using tracking systems and legislation enforcing the registering of devices with the government although stopping it completely may be difficult.

  3. Fascinating article, a really interesting read.

    I think the use of exoskeletons to keep the elderly working is a great method to reduce the strain of the elderly on economies. In my opinion i think that the elderly are currently getting away with earlier retirements than necessary and these exoskeletons would extend the working age for all. Pensioners put a massive strain on economies and expect young people to pay for them into old age. Some elderly people retire with ludicrous final salary pensions with half of their lives left and this is not sustainable economic practice.
    I understand that they have paid their fair share of tax throughout their lives but I feel they cannot have the last 30 or so years of their lives off from supporting society. At least with exoskeletons in place, when an elderly person gets on a bus (for free), a young person will not be required to give up their seat for them.

  4. Good read, I agree that with an ageing population something is needed to tackle the associated costs that this will raise. However, I am not sure if this is the solution as it will create a larger split between the people able to retire and those who financially cannot.

    Statistically, those with jobs in their working life not in manual labour have a higher chance of gaining a better pension and therefore will not have to resort to these circumstances. Whereas it would be more likely the people working in manual labour jobs would have to keep working even if their bodies are already tired from 50 plus years in the industry.

  5. Interesting topic, you need to expand the ethical aspects. Ask yourself which of the theories support the use of exoskeletons and which don’t.

    Using exoskeletons to increase the well-being of the elderly has support from a utilitarian point of view. It also has support from others too.
    Virtue ethics can be used as an argument against. As can Care Ethics.

  6. An interesting read…

    I personally feel that from an ethical point of view this article takes the utilitarian a bit far. And would like to question the assumption that it is purely economic growth which makes people happy – more likely that this is a convenient conclusion to be drawn from those in favour of exploiting the elderly for economic gain.

    Individuals whose debilitation constrains them to their homes – predominantly the cause of loneliness and of poor mental health – are unlikely to find their problems solved in this way. If they are immobile or require caring for, how can they be expected to simply pop on an exo-skeleton and return to a manual labour position. I would also argue that just returning to work does not provide an easy solution to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

    Whilst I can clearly see the pragmatic approach taken by the authors of this article in considering the economic benefits of the exo-skeleton, I believe investment would be best placed in increasing productivity of younger workers rather than pinning the responsibility on the elderly under the guise of utilitarianism.

    1. I think with any technology which can have the ramifications of exoskeletons there are nuances that were difficult to cover in the 1000 word limit. Although the assumption of increased wealth leading to increased happiness is not universal it may be an argument of the proponents of the stakeholders who wish exoskeletons to be implemented. The exploitation of the elderly is a real possibility as mentioned in the second part of the article which influenced the conclusion that this use of the technology can only be used with appropriate safeguards. In addition, this argument does not suggest prohibiting the use of the technology for younger people, and only discusses the use for the elderly.

  7. Having read this article I can see that exoskeletons will be used in the workforce. This will enable an ageing workforce to stay in the workplace. As the pension age rises more and more employees particularly the lower paid, with no private pension provision, will need to be employed, Exoskeletons will enable this. Not necessarily keen to use exoskeletons myself however I am sure there will be a place for them in the not too distant future.

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