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The future of work

Will the permanent contract be the exception?

"There are two nascent but important trends in the world of work that could be destabilising if not properly addressed," says Roy Chacko, Senior Advisor at the ILO's Bureau for Employers’ Activities (ACT/EMP). The ILO’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities is organizing a symposium on the topic “The future of work” in Geneva on 5-6 December.

Comment | 04 December 2013
By Roy Chacko, Senior Advisor, ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities

Nothing is what it used to be, and that also applies to workers, the workplace and work in general. There are two nascent but important trends in the world of work that could be destabilising if not properly addressed: the polarization of the workforce, and the decline of the standard employment contract.

The polarization of the workforce, sometimes referred to as the “hollowing of the middle”, is a phenomenon observed mainly in advanced economies, where there is a decline in the proportion of middle-skilled, middle-income jobs as compared to both high-end and low-end jobs. Why is this of concern? Because as the number of middle-skilled jobs decreases, workers in those jobs will have to either qualify for the far fewer high-end jobs or accept to move to lower-end jobs, receiving less pay and working below their potential.

The standard open-ended employment contract, which became the norm in the middle of the last century, provided stability to workers and improved living standards in many countries. Workplace regulations, as well as many social benefits, are conceived in the framework of the employer-worker relationship created by such contracts. But the number of workers with open-ended contracts is now declining, while other kinds of work arrangements are becoming increasingly common. The context in which work is distributed, organized and performed has changed irrevocably. We need to find new ways to provide security and stability for workers and their families.

There are many factors behind these two trends, but technology is perhaps the most pervasive and significant one of them, both directly and indirectly. Up until now, introducing technology to work –even when it replaced humans – always resulted in increased productivity, more jobs and improved living standards. That’s because humans were smarter than machines and because our uniquely human capabilities allowed the vast majority of us to dominate technology.

However, machines have increased in sophistication and begun to do things that were once only considered possible by humans. Transformational technologies are being developed, adopted and shared at a faster pace than ever before. Those at the top of the skills curve, who build these technologies, will always be able to control and use them. But what about the majority of workers, who sit in the middle of that curve? What will it take for them to keep up?

These questions are not appearing yet on the radar screens of policy makers, but soon they will have to. Forces like globalization, technology, demographic transitions and climate change are going to have an impact on every aspect of the world of work. We need to manage that impact and make sure that it works for the benefit of all.

The ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities is organizing a symposium on 5-6 December in Geneva on the topic “The future of work”, where many of these issues will be discussed.

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