The Future of Work

A think piece for the ESPAS 2016 conference by Stefano Scarpetta, Director, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

Stefano Scarpetta

The world of work is changing rapidly. Several ongoing mega-trends — including globalisation, digitalisation and demographic changes — coupled with rapid change in values and preferences regarding work, have the potential of significantly affecting the quantity and types of jobs in our economies, as well as how and by whom they will be carried out.

Driven by these trends, the future of work will offer unparalleled opportunities. New technologies and new markets will generate new and more productive and rewarding jobs. The ability to de-bundle jobs into smaller tasks will allow work to be carried out more efficiently on a truly global, digital assembly line. In the future, workers are likely to have more to say about who they work for, how much they work, as well as where and when they work. Such increased flexibility will provide greater opportunities for under-represented groups, such as women, senior workers and those with disabilities, to participate in the labour market.

The future of work will offer unparalleled opportunities

However, there are also significant challenges associated with the new world of work. While fears of mass unemployment caused by automation and globalisation are exaggerated, significant upheaval is nevertheless likely as jobs are destroyed in some areas, while others emerge elsewhere. Adjustment costs may be significant and are more likely to fall on the least skilled and the most disadvantaged.

At the same time, many of the existing jobs will involve new tasks and require new competencies and skills. While building the right skills is more than ever essential to prepare young people to this dynamic labour market, a parallel major agenda is also that of adapting and up-grading the skills and competences of those already in the labour market. Failure to make significant progress in this area may well lead to further increases in inequality if not mass technological unemployment. Moreover, some of the new forms of work that are emerging raise serious concerns about the quality of jobs that are created and the degree of protection the workers involved have given the existing institutions and polices.

There are many uncertainties on how the world of work will look like in the next 10–15 years and thus detailed planning for the potential changes that might occur will most likely be ineffective. It is important, however, to strengthen the resilience and adaptability of labour markets, so that workers and countries can manage the transitions with the least possible disruption, while grasping the new opportunities.

Modernising education and life-long learning programmes, re-thinking labour market regulation and overhauling social protection are only three of the most important policy initiatives that will be necessary to ensure that changes in the world of work result in fair and efficient labour markets, rather than becoming yet another reason for social cleavage.