20 September 2021
The future of work and the ‘new normal’
United Nations Resident Coordinator in Timor-Leste, Roy Trivedy, shares his reflections about the impacts of COVID-19 and its ‘new normal’ on the workforce, work conditions, and labour markets. This has huge implications for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin, often says that ‘future of work is in fact the future of the world’, I recalled this when last week I participated in a rich, fascinating and insightful webinar organised by UNDESA and UNDP that brought together colleagues from the UN family including ILO and others to discuss the Future of Work. The meeting explored many of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected work in different countries and sectors of economies worldwide. We heard about how millions of workers are experiencing increased levels of job insecurity, as many businesses have folded, resulting from the disruption of markets and other factors. We learnt about how the ‘gig economy’ has grown and now forms an important part of peoples’ livelihoods, especially those working in certain service industries. We heard how for some, this has created new opportunities to work (and often more flexibly), while for others, it has impacted their abilities to enjoy ‘decent work’, stability and effective protection in the workplace. Participants noted that unlike a few decades ago, it is now becoming rare for individuals to work for one company or corporation throughout their working lives. Most people change jobs frequently and the ability to adapt and flexibly apply one’s skills has become a necessary part of the ‘new normal’. A salient feature of the ‘new normal’ has been the way in which workplaces worldwide have embraced and encouraged ‘remote working’. This has resulted in some benefits for workers (e.g., reducing commuting time, allowing people to have more flexibility about when they work and in some places, opened new work opportunities outside of major cities etc.). But it has also exposed considerable challenges (including increased levels of ‘workplace isolation’, mental stress and difficulties in protecting workers rights). Participants noted how in some places, the pandemic has affected people working in care professions and accentuated the importance of effective social protection policies. For some of the most vulnerable groups of people, including those who are unemployed, ‘unskilled workers’, those with long-term illnesses, people working in informal sectors, the elderly and people with disabilities, the changing nature of work often accentuates and deepens inequalities and vulnerabilities. Participants also stressed how digital skills have become an integral requirement in many types of jobs. We discussed how automation and AI (artificial intelligence) is impacting on different sectors, including by offering ‘labour saving’ opportunities in certain industries/sectors (eg some manufacturing industries) but also displacing certain types of traditional jobs and industries, including in farming and seasonal agricultural work. The webinar also focused on the impacts of the climate crisis and environmental sustainability on working patterns. Participants noted many immediate impacts, as well as emerging and potential changes that will become even more evident in future for businesses, employers and employees as the world strives to move towards greater carbon neutrality. The presenters stressed that the impacts of the above changes are not uniformly affecting industries, sectors, economies, countries and individuals. Different changes are taking place depending on different contexts and the impacts are different for different groups of people (men/women, those working in the formal sector, those working informally, professionals, casual workers etc..). One lesson from the discussion was the need for government’s, political leaders, the UN and others to do more to prioritise and find effective ways of strengthening the skills base, flexibility and adaptability in workforces. Improving digital skills and investing more resources now to strengthen the abilities of people is crucial for preparing the future workforce. This needs to start with early childhood development and must ensure that all children have the best start in their lives. Countries like Timor-Leste, must use the post-pandemic period to improve nutritional standards to support better learning, boost the quality of education, strengthen numeracy and literacy skills, invest more in vocational training, digitalisation and skills development now. We have to prepare young people for the types of future employment opportunities that will emerge over the next decade and beyond. We must use every opportunity now to significantly boost investment in these areas. A second lesson that was emphasised was the need for governments and others to improve social protection measures. The pandemic has increased inequalities worldwide. There are many studies that show that improvements in social protection generate positive results in terms of economic growth. One of the recent ones is INVESTMENTS IN SOCIAL PROTECTION AND THEIR IMPACTS ON ECONOMIC GROWTH commissioned by InTouch Credit Union (ITUC). The ITUC report based on research from 8 countries in four continents shows: Investments in social protection positively affect employment opportunities. An investment of 1 per cent of GDP in social protection has a positive effect on rising employment, with a multiplier effect between 0.1 and 1.1 in the eight case studies. In most cases, the employment gains are greatest for women – which underlines the positive role that social protection can play in reducing gender inequalities in the labour market. The analysis also shows that social protection investments increase the overall employment supply. Indeed, the existing evidence shows that social protection plays an important part in helping otherwise liquidity-constrained households to cope with adverse shocks. Households are better able to smooth consumption and thus rely less on negative coping strategies, such as the sale of assets and the withdrawal of children from school. This means that households may, for example, engage in more risks in terms of innovation and invest more in human capital, facilitating longer job search activities. The simulations indicate that social protection investments induce an increase of labour demand, especially in labour-intensive economies and typically in the economies where agriculture is the most important sector and where domestic sectors are more interlinked. Total tax revenues increase with investments in social protection. The analysis shows that by investing in social protection, fiscal revenues increase, making social protection funding less dependent on external sources. Investment of 1 per cent of GDP in social protection has a positive effect on total government tax revenues: between 0.6 per cent and 3.5 per cent in the eight case studies. There is therefore strong evidence for governments and others to work together to boost social protection. As the world recovers from the pandemic, we must grasp opportunities to strengthen social protection measures. A third key lesson that I drew from our discussions was for all of us (governments, private sector, institutions and individuals) to find effective ways of reducing, re-using, recovering and recycling products. For many of us, changing consumption and production patterns is an essential and vital part of contributing to more sustainable lifestyles – a change that can improve the future for all. Let’s not miss the opportunity to make the necessary changes now!