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SDIS21: Society & the Future of Work - What are the challenges in making society and work more sustainable?

Silvina Sonzogni (R), researcher member of the CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council), works next to student Eliana Rozowykwiat, at the laboratory of Neurogenetics of the University Buenos Aires, in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian - RC25FN9ZSL50

COVID-19 sets us back on progress towards achieving many education, gender and work targets. Image: REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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Education, Gender and Work

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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  • COVID-19 made it more difficult for everyone to obtain decent work, education and basic rights – especially women, youth, the LGBTQI+ community and the most vulnerable.
  • Despite recent progress on school participation, childhood marriage and women’s advancement, the pandemic threatens to set us back.
  • The sustainable participation of women and youth is vital to recovery.
  • The Forum takes stock of the UN's SDGs at its annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit on 20-23 September.

In the decade leading up to 2020, we saw significant, albeit slow, progress towards making education and work more equitable and inclusive.

Then, COVID-19 hit – and “what took a decade to achieve unravelled within a matter of months,” wrote Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab and then OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

The pandemic made it more difficult for everyone to obtain decent work, education and basic rights – especially vulnerable groups. Lockdowns and school closures meant more children out of school and women taking on a greater burden of unpaid work at home. Even in the world’s most developed nations, racial minorities were far more likely to experience job loss and illness. The LGBTQI+ community suffered from “limited access to and de-prioritization of healthcare services, stigma and discrimination.” All of these groups were subjected to more violence.

Violence against women persists and is intensified by the pandemic.
Violence against women persists and is intensified by the pandemic. Image: UN

“There is no time to waste to put in place comprehensive policies to avoid creating a lost generation and greater disadvantages for those who were already impeded from full access to learning and earning,” said Gurría and Schwab.

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As the recovery continues, we must work to close these gaps. And doing so requires putting these vulnerable groups at the center of recovery - a key topic at the Forum's virtual Sustainable Development Impact Summit on 20-23 September.

“We cannot build back better after COVID-19 without gender equality,” wrote Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Undersecretary-General and Executive Director of UN WOMEN. “Specifically, we must place women at the center of our economic recovery. Now is the moment for leaders to publicly commit to that work – by supporting the care economy, and equal wages and access to opportunities.”

Similarly, we need to involve youth: “The year 2021 is the time to start thinking and acting long-term to make intergenerational parity the norm and to design a society, economy and international community that cares for all people,” wrote Schwab. “Young people are also the best placed to lead this transformation.”

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 targets of three SDGs:

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

  • For all children, free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, 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. This includes:

  • 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 promotes sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. 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 over the last decade, COVID-19 sets us back on many education, gender and work targets, according to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021.

Before the pandemic, the number of children out of primary and secondary school had been declining, from 46% and 53%, respectively, in 2010 to 82% and 85 in 2019. Participation in pre-primary education rose from 65% in 2010 to 73% in 2019.

Proportion of children and youth out of primary, lower and upper secondary school, 2000-2018
Before COVID-19, the number of children out of school had been declining. Image: UN

“The pandemic is projected to cause an additional 101 million children (roughly 9% of those in primary and lower secondary school) to fall below the minimum reading proficiency threshold, increasing the total number of students falling behind to 584 million in 2020,” says the progress report. The pandemic is also expected to slow or reverse progress on early childhood education, school completion and adult education, which is necessary to access technological skills required for jobs of the future.

Change in reading proficiency for grades one to eight, from 2019 to 2020
Reading proficiency fell worldwide as a result of COVID-19. Image: UN

The pandemic threatens progress on gender equality, too. Before 2020, child marriage had been declining. However: “Over the next decade, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of child marriage as of a result of the pandemic, in addition to the 100 million who were projected to become child brides before,” as a result of “economic shocks, school closures and interruptions in reproductive health services,” explains the progress report.

While the number of women in leadership roles continues to rise, albeit slowly, the gender gap has widened, according to the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.

“As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years,” says the report.

Income Gap
Gender gaps in income persist. Image: World Economic Forum

While COVID-19 has disrupted work for everyone, it’s had a disproportionate impact on women, youth and the informal sector. In 2020, youth and women saw employment losses of 8.7% and 5%, respectively, compared with 3.7% for all adults and 3.9% for men. “[T]hree quarters of informal economy workers (1.6 billion) were significantly affected by lockdown measures and/or were working in the hardest-hit sectors”; women are overrepresented in this group.

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

  • In partnership with global governments and businesses, Reskilling Revolution aims to provide better jobs, education and skills to 1 billion people in the next 10 years. The Skills Consortium is a community of online learning providers that aims to elevate online learning and provide learning solutions at scale, as well as create a shared language for skills.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

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

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World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalJobs and the Future of WorkEquity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and Skills
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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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