Jobs and the Future of Work

What the next 20 years will mean for jobs – and how to prepare

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Technology is here to stay – what matters is how we use it. Image: Unsplash

Stephane Kasriel
CEO, Upwork
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Future of Work

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The next two decades promise a full-scale revolution in our working lives. Before we look into the next 20 years, let’s take a quick look at the present – and something once considered paradoxical.

We’re already living in an age of a lot of robots – and a lot of jobs.

As the number of robots at work has reached record levels, it’s worth noting that in 2018 the global unemployment level fell to 5.2%, according to a report last month – the lowest level in 38 years.

In other words, high tech and high employment don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We’re living the proof of that today.

Given this synchronicity between employment and tech, I believe there are reasons to be hopeful that jobs will become more accessible, more flexible and more liberating over the next two decades.

Here are five significant changes I foresee, as I previously highlighted for the World Economic Forum:

• AI and robotics will ultimately create more work, not less. Much like today.

• There won’t be a shortage of jobs but – if we don’t take the right steps – a shortage of skilled talent to fill those jobs.

• As remote work becomes the norm, cities will enter the talent wars of the future. Untethering work from place is going to give people new geographic freedom to live where they want, and cities and metropolitan regions will compete to attract this new mobile labour force.

• The majority of the workforce will freelance by 2027, based on workforce growth rates found in Freelancing in America 2017.

• Technological change will keep increasing, so learning new skills will be an ongoing necessity throughout life.

The most constructive discussion is not whether there will or won’t be changes, but what we should do to ensure the best, most inclusive outcomes.

Here are some recommendations that could help guide us towards a positive future of work:

Solution #1: Rethink education

Fast technological change means that the people operating constantly evolving machines need to learn new skills – quickly. Our current education system adapts to change too slowly and operates too ineffectively for this new world.

We need to build an education system for lifelong learning – and a culture that promotes it. Rewiring the system should begin with pre-kindergarten, which should be free and compulsory, while education should remain similarly accessible throughout someone’s working life.

Skills, not college pedigree, will be what matters for the future workforce – so while we should make sure college is affordable, we should also make sure higher education is still worth the cost, or revisit it entirely and leverage more progressive approaches to skills training. Skills-focused vocational programmes, as well as other ways to climb the skill ladder (such as apprenticeships), should be widely accessible and affordable.

Furthermore, our education system needs to equip people with skills that machines aren’t good at (yet). This means meta-skills such as entrepreneurship, teamwork, curiosity and adaptability.

As government adapts at all levels to a changing workforce, businesses, too, must shoulder some of the load. And, like government, businesses needs to invest both in the workforces they have today and the one they will need tomorrow. That means they need to spend more resources training new workers for job openings, and to invest more in up-skilling their current employees. Tax policies can encourage companies to take these steps. For example, governments can tax companies whose former workers end up being unemployed or take lower-paying jobs – both of which are signs they’ve under-invested in their workforces. These types of policy should lead to positive-sum outcomes across the workforce: the labour pool adapts to the available jobs, businesses have the talent they need to achieve their goals, and government sees a bump in the tax base from steadier growth in the workforce.

Solution #2: Change worker protections from a safety net to a trampoline

Our tax, healthcare, unemployment insurance and pension systems were all created for the industrial era, and they won’t serve anyone in the future if we can’t make significant reforms.

For decades, that system was aligned with how the majority of workers were employed. But as that has changed, and indeed, is quickly passing us by, all parties should “explore ‘decoupling’ benefits and protections from the status of full-time employment and distributing them more evenly across the productive workforce”, according to a new Forum white paper.

Flexibile employment is a growing trend across the world's workforces.
Flexibile employment is a growing trend across the world's workforces. Image: Unsplash

Innovation and technological advances in the delivery of such benefits can help with this shift too. For a safety net of the future to be effective, it should embrace technology to deliver benefits. Edtech, for example, offers low-cost ways to provide skills-training. It must also be designed by its stakeholders – not merely the citizens being trained, but also the businesses, trade unions and other groups who depend on that reskilling and upskilling to ensure they can meet their goals with workers in the pipeline.

Myriad policy ideas are already being tested in changing delivery of benefits – such as “flexicurity”, Denmark’s model, which offers government benefits like unemployment security and heavily subsidized skills-training. Others, such as “portable benefits” and a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, are similarly worth continuing to examine for their utility too. And we should challenge ourselves to continue driving innovation in this area – and work with governments to create sandboxes for these ideas to be tested, while respecting the needs of today’s workforce as well as tomorrow’s.

Solution #3: Provide people with more freedom and flexibility

Acting together, government and business can make people’s lives easier by creating more inclusivity. They can begin doing that by embracing remote work, flexible scheduling and the power of the platform.

Working in an office is often neither possible, nor practical, for new parents, single parents, some of those living with a disability or many others in our society – but given the option to work from home or set their own schedules, many would be able to earn an income. And many already are.

“Today, approximately 20–30% of the working age population in the United States and the EU-15 engage in independent work, and the numbers are even higher in most emerging markets,” according to the World Economic Forum.

Platforms, such as my company, Upwork, are helping to fuel this trend, by creating faster and better ways for buyers and sellers to connect. And for millions of people around the world, through our site and a host of others, this is already providing new opportunities to earn the income and flexibility to live the life they want. So today’s message to government is: “First, do no harm.” But more importantly, looking ahead, encouraging government policies that don’t discourage independent work, including freelancing, can allow more people to work who otherwise might not be able to. In fact, McKinsey, the global consultancy, estimates that “by 2025 they could add $2.7 trillion to global GDP, and begin to ameliorate many of the persistent problems in the world’s labour markets”.

Promoting remote work and flexible scheduling could advance women’s participation in the workforce and, according to some economists, reduce gender inequality.

One major company provides an important proof of concept. In the mid-1990s, Ernst and Young (EY) began aggressively promoting their “flexibility efforts” after the consultancy realized EY female employees were leaving the company at a rate 10–15 percentage points higher than their male counterparts.

Twenty-seven years later, according to one report, “with formal flexible work, reduced and part-time schedules and informal day-to-day flexibility, along with other efforts … EY retains men and women at the same rate. And they’ve reached their original goal of promoting women partners, with women making up about 30% of each new partner class every year.”

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Local communities can also facilitate independent work by creating more virtual workspaces and tools to get work done. This would help expand opportunities into new communities, opening rivers of new capital into towns as decentralized workplaces take root, even on a micro level.

The past three industrial revolutions have enabled increasing levels of globalization. And while they have generally been positive for the global economy, the transitions have often been very scary, and have even left some people behind in the long term. Western economies have seen shrinking middle classes since the recent waves of deindustrialization. Now, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, is enabling globalization 4.0, and while its positive effects are likely to be as strong, if not stronger, than the prior versions, we need to make sure this revolution creates the most inclusive growth possible for all. It’s on each of us, as global citizens and individual stakeholders, to help create that path – one that provides the the future of work people need, as well as the training and support for them to thrive.

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