Jobs and the Future of Work

5 themes shaping the future of work

this man is working from home. A new report from the United Nations Development Programme has revealed how workplace developments can help us to move forward as a society

A new report from the UNDP has shone an insightful light on the future of work. Image: Unsplash/Jason Strull

Katharine Rooney
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  • 70% of workers felt that COVID-related restrictions had led to the most stressful period in their career.
  • Many people are reconsidering what really matters to them at work.
  • Technology is enabling new work models.

When it comes to the world of work, COVID-19 has taught us an important lesson: that preparedness is everything.

In a new report, The Changing Nature of Work: 30 signals to consider for a sustainable future, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) examines how workplace developments are likely to influence the way we move forward as a society.

One key finding? That planning for disruption is critical, not only to enable a rapid response to external shocks, but to ensure that any necessary adaptation is inclusive of marginalized populations.

Here are five more things we’ve learned from the report.

1. The pandemic has highlighted the emphasis we need to put on wellbeing

Remote working has blurred the line between work and home life for many people; intensifying discussions around work-life balance and adding stress to daily life. This is particularly true for women, who have experienced higher levels of anxiety during the pandemic, according to a multinational survey by French international development organization Focus 2030.

In its COVID-19 Risks Outlook, published in May 2020, the World Economic Forum noted that up to 70% of workers felt that COVID-related restrictions had led to the most stressful period in their career. As a result, many of us are reconsidering what really matters to us at work.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities, making it harder for marginalized communities to access healthcare, education and work opportunities.

In May 2021, the World Health Assembly recommended that governments incorporate mental health support planning into preparedness for emergencies such as the pandemic.

The physical and mental health impacts of the pandemic should also be considered by employers when reimagining future work models, the UNDP report suggests.

2. Digital technology will change the way we work forever

We are now deep into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with leading-edge technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things shifting the balance of the way we operate at work. By 2025, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, humans and machines will spend almost an equal amount of time on tasks in the workplace.

This dovetails with the UNDP’s report, which suggests that so-called “superjobs” – roles that integrate human and machine skills – will require careful consideration of human-machine interaction protocols and ethics. One example of this is ensuring that AI systems are free from bias.

As process-driven activities are taken up increasingly by machines, there will be a demand for humans to develop new soft skills, like empathy and creativity, in order to adapt to a rise in more knowledge-intensive sectors, such as financial services and product development.

a chart showing the share of tasks performed by humans vs machines, 2020 and 2025 (expected), by share of companies surveyed
By 2025, the balance of labour between humans and machines will be almost equal. Image: World Economic Forum

3. When it comes to new work models, we’re still finding our way

The world of work is no longer centred around traditional employment patterns. The Forum’s Platform on Digital Economy and New Value Creation estimates that 70% of new value created in the economy over the next decade will be based on digitally enabled platform business models – yet nearly half of the world’s population is not connected to the internet.

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Many are also heading down the piecemeal work route. In the United States alone, the value of the gig economy is expected to reach over $455 billion by 2023.

That comes with its own challenges, like a lack of job security and social protection.

The UNDP believes that in the future we will see a blend of best practice from across the private and public sectors, with new social protection nets adapted to emerging work models and improved digital infrastructure.

4. The right conditions at work can help foster inclusion

A potential downside of advances in technology is that it could deepen inequalities, according to the UNDP report.

For instance, the authors note, “Women have less time for reskilling, upskilling and seeking jobs because they spend much more time than men on unpaid care work.”

They call for skills and innovation gaps to be improved through a process of lifelong learning, on-the-job experience and staff involvement in shaping the way organizations create value alongside more formal qualifications.


More inclusive work settings – from wider corridors to areas designed for specific tasks and even virtual reality spaces to reduce isolation among remote workers – are also set to become commonplace as we adjust to life in the wake of the pandemic.

5. Entrepreneurship is transforming the way we do business

With technology like crowdfunding, blockchain and online banking democratizing access to investment, there is now greater opportunity for disruptive ideas to take root, says the UNDP.

It predicts that start-ups will lead the way in adopting new organizational structures and practices, as they have already done with digital collaboration tools.

The organization also sees a role for entrepreneurialism within larger and more traditional companies, supporting a culture of innovation and embedding lateral thinking, autonomy, proactivity, market awareness and risk-taking.

Whatever the future of work turns out to be, the UNDP sees one thing as non-negotiable: “The interventions we create should focus on solving the problems of tomorrow based on foresight, with humans at the centre of transformation.”

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