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.

24 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.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on our article.

      We too believe that this is a good idea for people nearing the retirement age. We believe that if an elderly person was to have a physical health issue that may be implementing the technology would not be suitable. If something would happen to a person using the suit, who has a medical condition, then this could mean a damaging effect on the technology. Therefore, we advise against using on people with physical health issues using it.

  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.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read through our article and taking the time to leave a comment.

      We believe that the exoskeleton suits would only be appropriate for manual labour jobs and that the users would not take them home. So, unfortunately, your suggestion of removing the need for younger people having to give up their seat would still be applicable if the technology was introduced.

      Additionally, the people that have long retirements statistically come from different jobs to manual labour. Therefore this technology would not see any reduction in this occurring, but the overall strain on the economy could be reduced as you’ve mentioned.

      From your comments, I believe you’ll find this article quite interesting which I read on the BBC the other day.

  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.

    2. Thanks for taking the time to comment on the article.

      Some really valid points have been raised by your counter-arguments however I feel as though you may have misunderstood some of the points raised in the article.

      We are not suggesting that the use of an exoskeleton would be suitable to be used on anyone who already has a serious medical condition (either physical or mentally). Popping on an exoskeleton would clearly not provide any improvement to their condition. What we are suggesting is that say, someone who is currently feeling as though their body is beginning to struggle to keep up the demands of their job, however, they cannot or do not want to retire. The exoskeleton could be used to remove the barriers preventing them to maintain their job.

      Also, the actual act of going to work alone does not, as you say, provide a solution to isolation and loneliness. However, we are suggesting that the interactions made at work and potentially the opportunities for creating new friendships would be the main method which by going to work could reduce the feeling of isolation and loneliness.

      Finally, I am confused by your suggestion of increasing the productivity of younger workers, the technology used on young people would result in the companies who could afford the technology clearly having the upper hand, resulting in the rich getting richer. Or another negative use of this technology could result in companies reducing their workforce as each individual worker is more productive. No matter how you interpret utilitarianism, being made redundant would make most people unhappy.

      Once again thank you for taking the time to read and comment on our article. Some of the views will help with the second assignment.

  7. I think it’s not concerning getting rich to make people happy, but more to prevent economic collapse, which undoubtly woupd cause major suffering

  8. 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.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on our article.

      We believe that not enough is being done to reduce the strain on the economy that the pensions of the ageing population are causing. Currently, the government have decided on the use of an opt-out pension scheme which shifts the responsibility onto the workers and the companies. With the scheme resulting in a contribution of 3% from the employer and 5% from the employee, we believe that it would be of interest for both parties for the inclusion of the elderly in the workforce, by using exoskeletons.

      Whilst the benefits to the elderly are high we believe that other benefits can occur from external factors, such as the loss of the European workforce due to Brexit, creating a void in labour industries. To account for this an increase in the UK’s labour workforce could come from the inclusion of elderly workers using this technology.

  9. It is an interesting thought to imagine the use of exoskeletons in the work place. I personally see them in manual labour jobs where the people working rely on a state pension, so would be forced into working later. I agree these would need to be implemented with regulation to control exploitation and could help prevent another economic downturn.

  10. Interesting topic. I agree with a lot of the points raised within the article; however, I feel as though the main idea behind the article is flawed. Why would companies invest in this technology when they could boost their workforce by automating production? With the use of robots, this eliminated the cost produced by human error as well as the risks created by employing the elderly with exoskeletons.

    Over the long term, the costs associated with robots would be less than the costs of using exoskeletons. In my opinion, there will be an increase in automation in the workplace, with repetitive manual labour jobs likely to be the first affected. With this in mind, how long are exoskeletons expected to be in use before they are redundant?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read our article and leaving a comment.

      Whilst we were discussing the points to be used in the article, the ones you have raised were discussed. However, due to the word count, we could not include it. But thanks for raising a very good argument.

      We believe that a human using an exoskeleton is much more flexible than an automated robot. It cannot be argued that an exoskeleton would be more effective than a robot in a production line, due to efficiency. However, an exoskeleton can be used in a wide range of labour industries such as farming, construction, warehouse work and general physical roles. It could be argued that an employee wearing an exoskeleton would be paid a lower salary than the employee in charge of programming the robot, because of this it could be considered the running costs may be lower as well.

      We believe that exoskeletons will be used in the immediate future before the implementation of robots and the timescale is relatively unknown and depends if companies and governments can use them to their full potential.

  11. Great article.

    I agree that the ageing population is becoming one of the many problems that need tackling in the coming years. However, I cannot agree with the approach that you have taken. I believe that by using this technology to increase the production of elderly workers it would put too much of a physical strain on their bodies. This would result in a dependency on the exoskeleton suits. If an elderly person was to use the suit all day long, when the person took off the suit surely this would have some effect? When using the suit the user would not be using their skeletal muscles, perhaps increasing the risk of injury outside of the workplace.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read our article and to leave us a comment.

      We agree that your argument is very valid to our article and could be an issue with the implementation of the technology. However, like all technology which is used in the workplace, the correct legislation would be needed to ensure that the use of exoskeletons is safe for the users when in work and their lasting effects. Also, it could be incorporated into the exoskeleton design for personalisation to limit the effect depending on the wearer’s muscle strength. To ensure that each user is still using a degree of their skeletal muscles.

  12. Very dangerous concept. I think that the use of exoskeletons would further the divide between classes. The rich upper class already abuse the average working man forcing them to work inhumane hours for little pay and this technology would enable the abuse of the older generation as well. The exoskeleton will enable physical tasks to be performed, but after a certain age reactions are slower and processing mental tasks can result in high stress. This technology will result in many physical injuries and mental health problems.

    will be able to retire at an early age through working

  13. This article has been a very interesting read and raised a number of well developed points concerning the key issue of an ageing population and exoskeleton technology.

    The authors highlight how there has been a big shift in global demand for low-skilled manual labour, with emerging economies replacing developed nations in this area of the production process due to their lower labour costs. Given that the gap in wages across developed and developing nations is very significant, is it reasonable to think that the efficiency gains from exoskeletons will be able to reverse the international trend of low skilled jobs moving to the global south?

    Another interesting question that arises from this article is to do with the more general trends of an ageing population. As this is a key issue for the country, and is affecting all areas of the economy, is the investment in exoskeleton technology the best use of resources as it seems to be sector specific? Are there other technologies that could help ageing workers across a broader range of occupations that will have a bigger impact on this issue?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read our article and to leave us such an interesting reply.

      With the current state of the economy, it is impossible to predict how these changes could be implemented perfectly. However, it is possible to say that no matter what the developing countries can provide, there will always be the need for a UK labour industry. If manufacturing is cheaper for these developing economies, what is to say that farming, construction and other manual industries won’t need a strong workforce. After considering the result to the large European labour workforce after Brexit, there may be a void that the elderly and exoskeletons can fill.

      To answer your other question, one of the main reasons we can see this being effective for the labour industry as appose to other occupations is the lack of skills required. No matter what background or career a person may have had, they will be able to start work in this industry after minimal training. Whereas in other sectors, further training may be needed resulting in a greater cost and as this new change in career is only for the short-term, it would be difficult to persuade companies to pay for the training. Additionally. this technology is already being tried and tested in the workplace (albeit not specifically with elderly) therefore it would take minimal time to implement this.

  14. Thanks for the reply, you raise some really interesting points.

    Whilst your right in stating that there will always be a need for the UK labour industry, the need for manual labour is not so certain. From the 1980’s onward the shift of low skilled manual labour to developing nations has been accompanied by rich countries growth of their service industries. Its important to note that the UK’s service industry accounts for over 80% of the nation’s GDP and the physical demands of working in this sector are significantly lower than other industries. To this extent, is it efficient to focus resources on the development of exoskeletons when the industries they could be used in are shrinking. Furthermore, these industries (especially agriculture) are already highly mechanised and used a considerably smaller proportion of labour compared to the EU.

    In addition to this, as the service industry is driving the UK’s economy and is physically less demanding would it not make more sense to invest in technologies that can keep people in their current line of work. Would the ageing population want to retrain into new industries or prefer to stay in the sector they have built a career in?

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