The future of work we want

The concept of work has evolved over time, from a philosophical, sociological, historical and juridical perspective. Work has not always been viewed in a positive light: in ancient Greece it was associated with slavery, and freedom meant not having to work.

Work became sacrosanct as a consequence of the Protestant Church’s espousal of the “Protestant work ethic”, based on the idea that work and its associated effort are central to the fulfilment of the individual and a way to integration into society.

With industrialisation, the concept of work gained more influence in society. Sociologists in the 1990s predicted the “end of work”, but, since the 2000s, the trend has reverted to underlining the essential role of work for societies and individuals: people want to work for the psychological stability, social integration and autonomy that it affords.

This Western idea of work is often epitomised by relatively secure jobs, high levels of income and social protections linked to employment. In developing and emerging countries, work is characterised by vulnerable and informal employment, long hours of paid and unpaid work and rudimentary social protection.

Globally, countries are at different levels of development and have different capacities. Some are at the forefront of innovation and technology, whereas others are trying desperately to catch up.


Those who are at the cutting edge or close to it lead the discussion about the “future of work”, but it is imperative to take the different levels of development into account. From the African perspective, catching up to the technological standards of the developed world will involve a high level of learning and will be cost-intensive. It seems paradoxical that Western societies should start to question technology when they have demonstrated an aptitude for creating and controlling it successfully.

The importance of the Western model remains undisputed, but labour from developing countries can no longer be extracted for Western purposes.

Wage labour, especially casual day labour, has existed throughout history. The standard employment relationship, which is a full-time, lifelong job for the male breadwinner, with a sufficient wage to feed a family, with rights and social protections, is the most advanced form of wage labour developed in the latter half of the 20th century. But such standard employment was only dominant in a few parts of the world: Europe, North America, Japan and Australia.

Today, we are witnessing a return to pre-standard forms of employment. The great challenge is that “standard” employment today is no longer standard, but constitutes a more atypical relationship. As a consequence, paid labour comes in increasing varieties — from traditional employment to dependent or independent self-employment and various forms of casual labour.

The emergence of the digital economy has had a tendency to hasten the erosion of traditional employment relationships. A consequence of this is that the employer becomes “indirect/invisible” or “disappears”.

The erosion of traditional employment presents a challenge to the role of trade unions. It weakens their position as they lose their counterparts. In the current debate trade unions are also criticised as a tool of the 20th century, adapted to the traditional employment relationship and obsolete in terms of their ability to protect workers in the 21st century’s changing world of work, especially in the digital economy.

Trade unions have successfully fought for standardisation of employment in the past, and have already started to organise workers in global value chains, self-employed workers and those who work in the digital economy. Weakening trade union power could have negative economic, social and political consequences for workers as well as for society at large.

Democratisation is equally important for trade unions. The developing world has been dealing for a long time with problems that the developed world is now facing: high rates of informality, underemployment and limited tax revenues to fund social protection. The “flexibilisation of labour” has often been presented to the developing world as a way to attract foreign investment. The developed world is now experiencing the negative social consequences of its own approach and may learn a lesson or two from the Global South.

Changes in the labour market are likely to increase inequalities and the increased use of robots will possibly accelerate the current trend, because the rate of return of capital will rise.

Profits are financialised and not reinvested to produce more — so a surplus of money is generated by automation, which exists in the system but is not being used for production.

Two areas require urgent attention. First, the concept of work needs to be broadened to include unpaid work (especially care work) so that the notion of work is not just limited to wage labour. Second, technology should be seen as a social production, and its negative aspects, such as employment reduction, can be controlled with a social agenda.

Some Western societies have developed tools to introduce technological change gradually, allowing workers’ representatives and employers to negotiate the conditions and rights (for example, the right to professional training/retraining).

The digital economy, innovation, artificial intelligence, robotisation and 3D printing, among other technological advances, will contribute to structural changes in industries and labour markets and, in turn, redefine the types of jobs carried out.

There is an element of fear, which is common in the face of any uncertainty, but these developments also provide an opportunity for the creation of more and better jobs. Previous industrial revolutions have shown that, after initial disruption, technological changes have brought improvements in job quality, and do not necessarily precipitate a loss in the overall quantity of jobs.

The current industrial revolution, led by the digital revolution, presents an opportunity to create more and better jobs, but there are reasons to believe that this industrial revolution may be different.

For one thing, the pace of change is faster, offering little time for pre-emptive action and timely reaction. For some, the most likely scenario is one in which the current inequalities are exacerbated, which merits consideration of changes to the distribution of productivity gains.

Changes brought about by automation will increase the demand for certain types of jobs and skills. The occupational structure of our economies will change too, according to the human’s advantage over machines. As machines penetrate all occupations, the future of work will be one in which workers function alongside machines or computers.

Jobs in research, development and support for new technologies will grow. Productivity gains will increase leisure hours and hence the demand for services in the recreation sector will rise. Jobs in the care economy will increase, but machines may be able to carry out related tasks, albeit without emotional interaction.

The effect of innovation and technology on the world of work will vary considerably by country. Job quality will not necessarily increase as a result of technological change. Moreover, human labour can always compete if workers are willing to accept sufficiently low wages. The challenge for developing economies is their ability to remain competitive in a global economy in which productivity, innovation and competitiveness rely on high-level Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills — often in short supply in these regions.

The future of work will be marked by greater inequality in and between countries. Productivity gains will be led by capital — owners of capital will reap the benefits of future productivity gains. The declining labour share of income will continue and, if capital remains in the hands of a few social actors, inequality will increase.

Market forces, as the mechanism for distributing wealth in society, may not ensure decent living conditions. Redistribution is warranted, and governments will play a key role in addressing rising inequality and the social conflict that it may incite.

Technology has brought us to an inflection point. We are in transition, and consensual redistribution policies are vital for it to be a fair transition. Reducing inequality should be the primary objective of all future policy development.

Resulting policies should be rights-based, consensual and founded on global solidarity and global governance. Social justice and human welfare should be the guiding principles.

Several policy tools are available to redistribute productivity gains, all prompting a prominent role for governments and multilateral organisations. They include a guaranteed universal basic income, a “robot tax”, or profit-sharing governance in enterprises. Traditional policy tools and institutions, wage-setting mechanisms, collective bargaining, labour market regulation, social dialogue and social protection remain as relevant as ever.

Profit-sharing or worker-ownership schemes could also be seen as effective measures for redistributing productivity gains. Profit-sharing schemes avoid pitting labour against capital and benefit both workers and employers.

Technological change will disrupt the labour market, and it will change the types of jobs available and how they are carried out. Given the pace of innovation and technological change, higher education has to be innovative. Incentives for workers to upskill and gain high-level skills may need to be devised, particularly in emerging economies. Specific incentives for those aged 40 to 50 may be required. Universities and technical vocational institutions need to adapt continually to the changing nature of jobs, building human capital that will allow future workers to remain relevant in the labour market and to be sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changing employment situation. Education providers need to keep pace, to innovate and to re-orient their offer to provide students and workers with soft skills, entrepreneurial and managerial skills that are hard to automate and offer workers the flexibility to move between jobs. This also means providing students and workers with digital and IT skills, computer science and computer programming skills, as interactions with machines will be a common denominator across most, if not all, jobs.

This is an edited version of a summary of the International Labour Organisation’s global dialogue, The Future of Work We Want

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