WAGES may be stagnant, conditions may be lousy, job security may be a thing of the past, but the one economic problem we seemingly don’t have right now is unemployment. Indeed, last year it was announced that Britain had its highest proportion of people in work since 1975. Nonetheless, one of the prevailing themes of our time is that the robots are coming for our jobs and that vast swathes of the population are about to be declared redundant.

There is more plausibility to this than the superficial unemployment figures might suggest. Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University claim the “real” rate is closer to three and a half million, almost a million more than even the highest official estimates.

However, this number in turn depends on assumptions that many will contest: specifically, that thousands of people on incapacity benefits are really “disguised unemployment”. With these caveats, I would venture, cautiously, that unemployment right now is not high enough to justify the hype about robots taking our jobs. But the fear persists.

The automation debate is as old as capitalism, and it tends to produce two panicked responses from the left. One is to fight unwinnable fights to maintain technologically redundant jobs, clinging on to menial tasks that could be done easier by machines. This was caustically satirised in an episode of South Park where whining blue collar workers (it’s funny, but it’s a right-wing show) demand a ban on Amazon’s Alexa so they can have gainful employment sitting in the corner of living rooms making shopping lists, telling the time and putting on playlists.

A second response is to declare the end of work and the coming irrelevance of unions, and to encourage the left to campaign for the “right to be lazy”. This has been a theme in socialist thinking since the 19th century. Generally, its grand predictions of techno-utopia turn out to look exceptionally embarrassing a few years on.

Will this era turn out different, and if so, how? Getting this answer right is one of the left’s central challenges. Since the 1980s, the decline of trade unionism has coincided with the retreat of radicalism to privileged metropolitan zones. Understanding the likely evolution of the labour market, and thus of trade unions, is the most important part of reviving a truly democratic politics.

At the weekend I heard a presentation by Edinburgh University sociologist Dr Karen Gregory. It was addressed specifically to young trade unionists and I found it exceptionally illuminating, helping me give form to vague ideas I’d had and also giving me new insights I’d never thought of before.

Her point is that automation, in the robotic sense, is important, and yes, it does change things. However, the most publicised claims about the subject are getting it wrong. The likely trend isn’t towards the rise of the robots and mass unemployment. Instead, it’s about data. Automated data services are likely to drive a new managerialism, geared not to replacing workers but towards quantitative assessment of their performance.

In essence, we aren’t moving towards a lazy future of (utopian or dystopian) unemployment. Instead, automated data services will drive us to work harder and faster, giving us new benchmarks for improvement to wring every last drop of profit from our time at our desk, claiming “flexibility” and “productivity”.

The likely trend isn’t robot replacement, but robot “assistance”. One example is wearable tech. This will provide automated feedback on how to plan our work and our performance, down to how often we’re moving our limbs, how much we’re sweating and how many times we visit the bathroom.

The modern science of management was invented by Frederick Taylor. He was famously responsible for time-and-motion studies in factories that sought to itemise tasks and to make the movements of production as efficient as possible.

The factories are gone. But the likes of Deliveroo and Uber are combining entrepreneurialism and self-reliance with a degree of surveillance of the worker that Taylor could only have dreamed of.

Delivery firms are pioneering the new data-driven capitalism. It’s often assumed that Deliveroo’s main influence will be to generalise the “gig economy” model, which is allegedly going to take over in coming decades. Strangely, the number of “gig” jobs in the American economy has started to decline. If this continues, Deliveroo’s historical importance may lie in another direction: its data-driven surveillance over the workforce may move beyond the new “flexible”, app-driven workforces to transform full-time, unionised jobs.

If so, what should the union movement do? Dr Gregory rightly said that it’s not enough just to defend the privacy and dignity of the worker. If the unions want to be effective, we need a collective response.

The key word here is monopoly. The tech sector like to present themselves as rough-and-ready start-ups. In reality, technology industries tend to move towards the control of a handful of mega corporations faster than any sector in history. The robber barons of early capitalism have nothing on the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses, whose data streams give them global power that the industrial captains couldn’t have dreamed of. In the 20th century, rival imperial powers competed in the space race. Today, it’s rival tech barons.

Many people say the 21st century is about who owns and controls the robots. Maybe the real question is who owns and controls the data.

Historically, when private monopolies gain unaccountable public power, the answer has been obvious. Let’s demand control over the means of production. Let’s demand control of our data. That’s particularly important when data is driving not just new forms of consumerism but also new forms of control over the workforce.

Unemployment is always a worry. But the left shouldn’t run scared from it. Automation is going to transform everything, but in old fashioned ways: rather than replace workers, it will bring new forms of surveillance and managerial control over our working day. That’s the real crisis, and nobody’s talking about it. It’s another reason why we need unions more than ever.