Future of Work Focus Newsletter

What can the past tell us about the future of work?

As we look to the future of work, ILO Historian Dorothea Hoehtker tells us what we might learn from looking at the past.

News | 13 February 2018
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When we think of the future of work, the past is not a bad place to start. It might not provide clear-cut answers but it can place current developments in broader perspective. Our evaluation of the present and our prognosis for the future are influenced by our understanding of the past. It allows us to anticipate the impact of change on individuals and societies. And it reminds us that despite all rationally calculated predictions, the course of history can change and be shaped by the frameworks we develop to guide our action, as well as our policies.

For example, the first industrial revolution led to the mechanization of spinning and water and steam-powered looms in large factories. Prior to this, households in the textile industry spun and wove for market production. As productivity and the standard of living for the general population increased, so too did the employment of women and children in factories, often in harsh conditions. The advent of electrical light allowed the extension of working hours well beyond daylight hours. This led to new policies limiting the hours of work and night work by women.

After World War II, the progressive framing of the conditions of work through laws , policies and actions by the social partners, resulted in the institutionalization of the most advanced form of wage labour, the ‘standard employment relationship’ (SER).* Standard employment – which generally involves full time work, a physical workplace and a relationship between an employer and employee, defined by a contract – has since become a model and the basis of the “decent work” that is at the heart of the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s mandate.

Non-standard forms of employment have been increasing in developed countries and work in the informal economy continues to be an obstacle for decent work in developing countries. As it stands now, these forms of work look certain to remain an important fixture in the future.

The lesson we learn is that social and economic progress do not always go hand in hand. Any improvements in the past were the result of political will and the capacity to craft policies based on a vision of social justice.

And in the course of its almost 100-year history, the ILO has been at the heart of this social progress. During the Interwar years, at a time of increasing mechanization of production and rationalization of work, Albert Thomas, the first Director of the ILO, stressed that these changes could not be stopped but that they had to be controlled to avoid hardships for the workers and the risk of labour strife. “The human factor must remain in the foreground,” Thomas told the 1931 International Labour Conference. This remains the position of the ILO.

New technologies in the 1950s and 1960s triggered a much broader debate. In many countries, job displacement is now one of the most important concerns. Anxiety about work is widespread. But the ILO, its constituents and most economists remained optimistic, saying that past experiences has shown us that history shows us that technological innovation destroys, but also creates new jobs. This process of change, while accelerating, will require a renewal of policies – such as social protection – that we use to shape a future with social justice.

Predicting the future is evidently tricky business – just look at IBM Chairman Thomas Watson’s 1943 claim that “there is a world market for maybe five computers.” But we can look at history for clues. And while we can’t assume the past will repeat itself, we do have to ask ourselves what we can learn from it to ensure that the future of work is marked by sustainable economic growth and social progress.

* “The traditional SER has been defined as a stable, socially protected, dependent, full-time job… the basic conditions of which (working time, pay, social transfers) are regulated to a minimum level by collective agreement or by labour and/or social security law." (Bosch 1996, 165 and ILO 2016, 10-14)