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Society & Future of Work: What are the challenges in making society and the future of work more sustainable?

Women sew protective suits, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a factory in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani - RC2A6H902C51

More work is needed to achieve the education and gender targets by 2030 – especially in the midst of the pandemic. Image: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • The world is not on track to achieve the SDG education and gender targets by 2030.
  • Despite some progress, 258 million children globally are still out of school, and women and girls around the world still face violence.
  • COVID-19 is making it more difficult for everyone to obtain decent work, education and basic rights – especially women, the LGBTQI+ community and the most vulnerable.

A more sustainable, inclusive world is one in which all people – including women and girls and the most vulnerable – survive and thrive. This includes equal rights and access to services like healthcare and education, and a life free from violence. It also entails the opportunity to own a business or property, hold management or elected government positions and fully participate in all levels of political, economic and public life.

Unfortunately, many challenges remain to realizing this world. Millions of children still don’t go to school. Technology is making work more efficient, but we urgently need to increase access to the skills, tools and financial services needed to thrive in the new digital economy. On top of a wide pay gap, women around the world face risk of violence every day, including domestic violence, sex trafficking, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is making it more difficult for everyone to obtain decent work, education and even basic rights – especially women, the poor and the LGBTQI+ community.

Have you read?

"In addition to the immediate concerns related to increases in unpaid care work, domestic violence and exposure to the weaknesses of the healthcare system, the pandemic’s long-term economic repercussions are also likely to disproportionately affect women’s productive lives compared to men’s," according to several experts from the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The pandemic has also created an environment in which the rights of the [LGBTQI+] community "are further being violated," said Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.

As we embark on the Great Reset, it’s important to keep these societal challenges in mind, and work to close gaps in access to education, work and basic necessities.

Sustainable Development Goals for society and the future of work

Eliminating disparities in access to education, skills and full participation in all levels of political, economic and public life are key to a more sustainable and inclusive world. This depends on achieving the targets of three SDGs in particular:

SDG 4: Quality Education. By 2030, targets include:

  • For all children, free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education and access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.
  • For all adults, equal access to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.
  • Ensuring all youth and a substantial proportion of adults achieve literacy and numeracy.
  • Increasing access to knowledge and skills necessary to obtain the jobs of the future.
  • Reducing gender disparities in education and increasing access for the vulnerable, people with disabilities, indigenous people and people in Africa, LDCs and small island developing states.
  • Increasing the supply of qualified teachers.

SDG 5: Gender Equality, which focuses on ending all forms of discrimination, violence and harmful practices (like child marriage) against women and girls everywhere, as well as ensuring equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of political, economic and public life. Additional targets include:

  • Recognizing and valuing unpaid care.
  • Ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • Ensuring equal rights to economic resources and access to property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources.

SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, which focuses on promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. Specific targets include:

  • By 2020, reducing the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training.
  • By 2030, achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay.
  • Protecting labour rights and promoting secure and safe working environments for all, especially migrant workers and women.

How much progress has been made?

While there has been progress, the world is not on track to meet most education and gender targets by 2030, according to the UN SDG Progress Report 2020 – and the COVID-19 pandemic puts them further out of reach.

Before the pandemic, the number of children out of primary and secondary school had been declining, from 26% in 2000, to 19% in 2010, to 17% in 2018 – and more children (85% in 2019, from 70% in 2000) were finishing primary school. Pre-primary education was rising, too, from 62% participation in 2010 to 67% in 2018.

Primary school completion rate
Primary school completion rates have been rising, but disparities still exist. Image: UN

However, with 258 million children out of school in 2018 – including 5.5 million more girls than boys – more progress is needed. Among those in school, more than half “were not meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and numeracy.”

Adult education needs work, too, including both basic education as well as reskilling for the jobs of the future. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that 1.1 billion jobs could be transformed by technology over the next decade, making access to new technological skills essential to compete in the workforce.

Progress on SDG 4
Progress on SDG 4 is being undercut by COVID-19. Image: UN

More laws are in place to ensure all people, especially women, have greater autonomy over their sexual and reproductive health. Furthermore, before the pandemic, child marriage had been declining: one in five women between the ages of 20-24 was married before the age of 18 in 2019, compared with one in four a decade earlier. Still, one in three girls in sub-Saharan Africa was married as a child, according to the progress report, and at least 200 million girls worldwide are still subjected to FGM, a number expected to continue to increase with population growth.

In the workplace, more women hold managerial positions (28% in 2019, up from 25% in 2000) – but according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020, none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes.

Similarly, in politics, the number of women in national parliaments increased from 22.3% in 2015 to 24.9% in 2020, including more than 30% in Australia and New Zealand, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe, says the progress report. However, only 13% of countries have reached gender balance (40% or more) in national parliaments, and 15% in local government.

COVID-19 gender gap
COVID-19 threatens progress made for women and girls. Image: UN

COVID-19 threatens to take society backwards. More than 90% of students worldwide have been affected by school closures – and the most vulnerable, including students with disabilities and those without computers or internet access for remote learning, will suffer the most.

The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on workers in the informal economy, with income estimated to have dropped as much as 81% in the first month of the pandemic in some regions. Women have been hit especially hard. Accounting for 70% of health and social workers globally, women are on the frontlines of the pandemic. Women already “spend about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men,” according to the progress report, and with school closures, these hours have increased. Lockdowns and school closures have also put more women and girls at risk of domestic violence.

What are the World Economic Forum and its partners doing to make society and the future of work more sustainable?

  • Launched in January 2020 in at the Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, in partnership with global governments and businesses, the Reskilling Revolution Platform aims to provide better jobs, education and skills to 1 billion people in the next 10 years to ensure they can access the jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • The Forum’s Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators are public-private platforms to develop national-level action plans and share knowledge and tools to increase workforce opportunities and work towards gender parity. The goal is to have accelerators in 15 countries by the end of 2020.
  • Supported by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in collaboration with the Forum, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality (PGLE) is a coalition of organizations committed to accelerating LGBTQI+ equality and inclusion in the workplace and in communities.
  • Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap is a Forum initiative to accelerate the Valuable 500, which aims to engage 500 national and multinational private sector corporations to put disability inclusion on the agenda.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

What can I do to improve society and the future of work?

  • Work to close gender and diversity gaps in my company by hiring, mentoring or promoting diverse colleagues.
  • Encourage my company to offer scholarship, internship or apprenticeship programs, especially for women, minorities, the LGBTQI+ community or people with disabilities.
  • Volunteer to tutor or mentor a vulnerable child, donate books to libraries or schools in need, or support other programs tackling literacy and numeracy.
  • Encourage my national and local lawmakers to support equal rights for women, the LGBTQI+ community and the most vulnerable.
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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalSustainable DevelopmentEducation and SkillsEquity, Diversity and InclusionJobs and the Future of Work
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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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