Is the Future of Work the Next Global Collective Project? It Should Be

Jimmy John employees having fun making sandwiches
Jimmy John employees having fun making sandwiches

The global international order is tumultuous these days; relationships, institutions, and norms that have made peace and progress possible for the last three quarters of a century are fraught.  Spheres in which cooperation across borders has traditionally thrived – trade, security and climate action – face opposition and sabotage from antagonistic leaders.  While multilateral action atrophies on these fronts, in other critical spheres like work, skills, and the fostering of healthy labour markets, it’s now flourishing – giving rise to hope that despite the recent cross-border cooperation chill, there remains appetite to tackle intractable challenges as international collectives. 

Last year, United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General, Liu Zhenmin stressed to a group of Sherpas preparing for the G20 summit that, “the future of work is the future of world.”  Zhenmin is right – across the globe, work is changing in consequential ways and societies are being forced to grapple with challenges in uncharted territory.  Emerging technology requires that workers young and old learn new skills to stay competitive; aging workforces require creative solutions to fill potential productivity gaps; and the changing nature of employer-employee relationships demands societies rethink how workers are supported. 

In the 21st century, building healthy and equitable societies hinges on our ability to successfully manage the forces currently disrupting work, and like so many other collective action problems, the forces driving change cannot be confined within any border.  Finding solutions has to be a global effort.  Today, action is materializing in diplomatic forums, across regional trading blocs and within international institutions.  Still, the challenge of work is so grand and the implications so severe, that the efforts already underway must be escalated.

Forums for action

When advanced economies met in Charlevoix and Buenos Aires last year for the G7 and G20 summits, both forums prioritized the development of policy relating to the future of work, education and training.  Their communiqués highlight the need for countries to adopt policies that promote lifelong learning, support workforce transitions and strengthen worker-centric social safety nets, in particular for individuals participating in non-standard work arrangements.

At the G7, member countries further agreed to explore “innovative new approaches to apprenticeship and vocational learning.”  As jobs change, and in particular as algorithms take on more tasks that are cognitive in nature, we could increase demand for workers who are adept at working with their hands in the physical space – technicians, technologists, and skilled tradespeople – those who can build automated systems, maintain robots and construct critical infrastructure.

The G20 output further highlights the need to enhance social protections in a changing workplace.  As workers become less attached to employers through growth in the gig economy, it’s increasingly necessary to find ways in which worker rights can be protected, workplaces made safe and innovative schemes be implemented that provide for more portable benefits.

The nations of the G7 and G20 clearly have these challenges directly in their sights, but in order to truly lead, they must lead first by example.  All member countries should move swiftly with a bias for action to implement proposed policy options.  By being first to act, advanced economies will create best-practice frameworks others can adopt and drive down associated costs by creating economies of scale.  As noted in the G20 communiqué, “international cooperation will remain key to achieving our collective objective of strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth.”

Coordinating a response

Along with the policy groundwork that’s been laid by the G7 and G20, regional coordination in education and training will also be central to building resilience to technological disruption.  In geographic spaces where economic integration is high, coordination ensures citizens not only have the skills they need to succeed, but that the ways in which skills are taught, assessed and recognized are common and transferable, leading to enhanced mobility of labour. 

One of the most comprehensive examples of regional coordination is the European Union’s Bologna Process, which is constructing frameworks that align and recognize certifications and credentials across the entire EU region.  Similarly, in West Africa the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is delivering a range of regionally aligned certifications, training, and upskilling programs.  For example, through their Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, ECOWAS is training a next-generation sustainable energy workforce, equipped with in-demand skills, and backed by portable certifications. 

To curb the effects of disruption, more regions should pursue policies that better align education, training and workforce development.  Strikingly, a regional coordination in education and training is largely absent in North America, despite that like the EU and West Africa, integrated value chains mean the challenges of work are intertwined across borders. 

Former US Ambassador to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne is hoping to inspire regional action and suggests in a recent paper, a North American Workforce Development Agenda, that cross-continental collaboration on skills, credential recognition and labour market information is necessary to enhance the human capital potential and economic competitiveness of North America. Policymakers in Mexico, Canada and the US would do well to consider how such a workforce development strategy might be implemented in order to bring the region up to speed with global competitors. 

As work continues to change, the global mobility of talent will become ever more imperative.  Economies are increasingly comprised of “intangible” elements like online applications and digital services.  As more work moves online, the physical location of workers begins to matter less, and in order to remain competitive, employers are going to want to access top global talent no matter where it resides.  So while regional coordination will remain critical, so too will the international community’s ability to ensure that there are broader policies in place which allow employers to leverage and access talent across the entirety of the globe. 

Institutions as leaders

The future of work challenge isn’t just about economics and labour.  In addition to economic prosperity, healthy and equitable labour markets also promote global peace and stability.  As such, post-war institutions like the UN have a vested interest in curbing the negative impacts of technology on work – and they are. 

Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN is working to rally international support for the implementation of policy frameworks related to lifelong learning, increasing the number of individuals with vocational skills and improving the overall quality of workplaces.  The International Labour Organization (ILO) – which is central to the UN’s efforts specifically as they relate to workers’ rights –  recently organized a Global Commission on the Future of Work to develop policy solutions aimed at “renewing the social contract” and better supporting workers in precarious arrangements.  The Commission’s recommendations focus on the three pillars that seek to increase investment in: enhancing people’s capabilities, strengthening institutions that protect workers, and creating more decent and sustainable work.

At the same time, the IMF is working to develop policy that will promote healthy and sustainable economies through investments in the retooling of low-skill workers.  Low-skill workers are typically those who face the most risk of being impacted by the forces of technological disruption, and putting protections and supports in place targeted at those most at-risk, is easily the most efficient route to enhancing economic equality. 

Policy solutions from institutions like the UN require broad-based buy-in before they are implemented at scale, and buy-in requires champions who can stand above the rest and lead by example.  While there are clearly leaders in the development of policy that promotes labour market resilience, we need those leaders to ensure others are moving in the same direction, and particularly those who are most vulnerable.  Which countries will be the first to step up not only in implementing strong policy, but also ensuring that others go along with them?  Let’s push for a global champion.

There are myriad global challenges in front of us that require collective action.  Presently, the preferences of some global leaders for economic nationalism and for turning a blind eye to ecological crises, have resulted in meek action on important fronts like trade and climate change.  However, the international community has recognized that other pressing challenges, like those surrounding the future of work merit multilateral action.   There are no easy solutions to the intractable challenges of technological and demographic disruption, but by working together and leveraging our strengths and resources across borders – taking a truly global perspective in our search for solutions – our people, our societies and our economies will no doubt be better off. Perhaps eventually cross-border cooperation will not only serve to resolve the challenges of the future of work, but will also stimulate action on those fronts where it has currently stalled out – we can only hope for as much.

Image: Jimmy John’s Franchise, LLC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.