Workers fight 2.0: Ensuring social security in the fourth industrial revolution

For over one hundred years generation after generation have fought to ensure workers rights and bring a balance in the employer-employee relationship. With the growth of the gig economy — working from an employer to another — and automation, we see more and more people moving away from the traditional employment. The move being out of choice, or out of necessity, we don’t have systems and instruments to treat income and social security fairly. It is reserved for people that choose to have one employer. That needs to change.

The number of freelancers, contractors and self-employed is growing. According to a 2016 McKinsey study, around 93 million persons in Europe (20% of the workforce) are today “a-typical workers”. This is no longer a trend, but a reality that is having profound effects on our traditional view of labor — being employed. A heritage from the industrial revolution that has built up all current institutions and maintained a control over people.

Ford introduced a 5 day work week. Trade Unions organized us and brought collective agreements that ensured workers rights. In Denmark we have a welfare system that protects us when we get sick, get unemployed or get old. Solidarity. Well, as long as you play the game and sign an employee contract.

While our welfare system is based on solidarity, it is not democratic. You are not guaranteed to get access to it.

We have in Denmark 155.000 Danes that don’t have an income. Like zero income. We have another 200.000 16–24 year’s old that are unemployed, and roughly 300.000 students of whom a lot are looking for an extra income.

The current labor market can’t solve all of the issues of unemployment, and the instruments we have today are too expensive to maintain, too complicated to use and too rigid. On top of it, we lack ambition. The government wants to create another 60.000 jobs over the next years. That is a good start. I would like to create 300.000 new jobs in Denmark within the next 3 years. And then another 10 million jobs throughout Europe to further reduce the youth unemployment.

But in order for that to happen, we need to change our current systems with rigid institutions that operate in silos that don’t allow flexibility. And we need to work closely together to ensure that a choice of income and work-life does not reflect negatively on your access to social security.

A recent study in Denmark unveiled that younger generations are more open and positive towards the gig economy. The graph is a clear downhill slope in likelihood moving from age group to group, demonstrating well the fact that for every generation, we almost double the number of employers we have throughout our lifetime.

The reason why younger persons like to work from task to task is that it gives them complete flexibility, often around their school/university schedule. Their life situation (context) plays well with what sporadic work can provide, plus no need to stress about employers need when they have to focus on exams. No loans, no kids allows another dimension of a cost effective everyday.

The same group of people, when asked if they would like to continue working task by task when they grow older — only 4% said yes. So apparently not everybody wants to travel the world and open up a yoga center in Bali.

We still want to buy a house, an (electric) car, eat well, provide safety for our family and be able to serve food on the table everyday. For most of us, work vocation comes second, or even third.

Now imagine you could choose, what would you prefer? Work with what you would like to each day, or go to the same workplace everyday?

The answer is highly individual, but I believe we can agree that it should be a choice. We should be able to choose how we would like to work. Because why does it matter where you worked your 37 hours last week? Or for whom?

That is why we need to re-think our entire system and perception of work.

Denmark has already started. From June 2018 freelancers and self-employed will have for the first time access to social security. Danish Trade Unions are more and more opening up for a-typical workers. And the collaborative (and sharing) economy is on the main agenda within the European Parliament.

What we now need is to extend the collaboration and dialogue between governmental institutions, online platforms, trade unions and people that choose to work task by task.

Secondly, we need to create a system that allows self-employed to easily report hours they worked and income, so that there is an overview what they have performed. This way we could easily allow the same level of social security based on income instead of an employment contract.

Online platforms provide all data that is needed, plus more as ratings go both ways and “bad” employers can in full transparency be outed. And platforms have even increased the traceability of economic transactions. What is lacking is the APIs.

That is the fight we need to take — create a fully accessible social security for everyone that chooses to work. Regardless if it is a payroll job or a-typical work. It is not protection that is needed, it is empowerment and pro-active assistance, and a real will to change together with our future generations. And not telling them how they should work.

In Europe, a McKinsey report estimates that an additional 8,5 billion household work hours could potentially be done by independent workers, creating millions of new job opportunities. The same goes for companies.

With a more flexible job market that doesn’t compromise on social security, we can provide the necessary solutions to cushion unemployment, maintaining people on the labor market and creating new opportunities to learn new skills. We can give people an attractive supplementary income, and even help refugees to get more integrated, creating the first stepping stone and a “community CV” via reviews. And lastly, move away unemployed youth from the welfare systems, and endless job applications, to work where they can increase their network and gain experience for the future.

That is worth fighting for.