The growth in automation and the platform economy are changing the nature of work and feeding political upheaval. Technology is creating new jobs, but it’s not certain that the new jobs are coming as fast as the old ones are going. What is certain is that many members of the workforce aren’t prepared for the new jobs. In most countries, governments aren’t doing enough to close the skills gap and align the workforce with future employment opportunities. Many new jobs, especially those in the platform or “gig” economy, fail to offer the benefits and security that traditional jobs did.
The threat to prosperity and political stability is huge. Some studies indicate that automation may threaten half or two-thirds of current jobs. Yet the world is already slated to need 500 million new jobs by 2020. “The coming jobs crisis needs more political attention, or the political backlash we’ve already been seeing will amplify,” said Philip Jennings, General Secretary, UNI Global Union.
What can be done? Policy-makers have some good options.
Develop apprenticeship programmes for young people. Countries with strong apprenticeship programmes, such as Germany and Switzerland, are among the few in the world where youth unemployment is not significantly higher than the overall unemployment rate. Parts of Latin America and the US have also successfully implemented apprenticeship programmes. Good apprenticeship programmes require cooperation between schools and businesses so that young people receive the right training and on-the-job experience. Governments have to provide appropriate regulations and financing to facilitate such programmes, which pay for themselves through lower unemployment rates. “The focus of education has to be not just teachers and early childhood development, but the transfer of skills to work,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, President, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington DC.
Provide lifelong training. Here, too, government needs to cooperate with business to help workers acquire the skills they need to keep pace with a changing economy. “In the past, people went to school for 15 or 20 years, then worked 30 or 40, and retired. Now we have to think of lifelong learning and lifelong working,” said C. Vijayakumar, President and Chief Executive Officer, HCL Technologies, USA. Governments will have to provide resources for this lifelong learning, just as they provide resources for primary education. But governments globally are currently spending less than 1% of GDP on policies to help workers acquire new skills and jobs. The focus of retraining should be jobs that cannot be automated – those that require creative thinking and empathy. Individuals need to be ready to have 10 or 12 different careers in the course of their working lives and to have multiple jobs at the same time.
Give rights to workers in the platform economy. The growth of self-employment has led to a growth in precarity, with many companies in the platform economy refusing any obligations toward their employees. Government policies need to redefine the employment relationship to protect these workers, who have a relationship with the companies that pay them even if they are officially self-employed. Possible government polices include a new labour code; a renewed social safety net; a universal basic income; and laws to give these workers collective bargaining rights. “The freelance trend is here to stay, but we have to provide people with security as well as flexibility,” said Alain Dehaze, Chief Executive Officer, Adecco Group, Switzerland.
It is possible that the growth in automation will lead to a world in which people can work less, but work better: with effort concentrated on creative activities and with greater time for leisure. But the world will need active government policies to reach this new, prosperous equilibrium.