The future of work we want
What do we want the future world of work to look like? That was the topic at the ILO Conference on the Future of Work held in Geneva earlier this Spring, bringing together over 700 participants from trade unions, academia, governments and employers. It was an ambitious program for the two days-conference, resulting in intense and interesting discussions on the challenges and opportunities that lies ahead.
Do we need to rethink our perception of the work day in the future? The labour market has undergone an immense change the past century, where people work less than they used to do. Not only has the work week been shortened, but the total hours of work during a whole work life has also dropped as people spend more and more time in the educational system.
A higher level of education as-well as new technological tools and solutions have helped our productivity to grow exponentially. The ongoing digital revolution will also boost the productivity of workers. In short, we will get more work done in a shorter amount of time in the near future. This has spurred a global discussion on shortening the 40-hours work week, in order to be able to provide employment for as many as possible as-well as boosting work life balance (and no, in contrast to common beliefs; Sweden has not switched to a 6-hours work day).
Will we need to rethink the welfare systems in the future? In the increasingly digital society, where the recent technological development makes it easier to replace not only physical but also cognitive work with Artificial Intelligence (AI), additional pressure is being put on our welfare systems. The conference’s key note speaker, the British economist Robert Skidelsky, contemplated on the idea of taxing human labour lower than AI/robotic labour. He argued that it could help leveling the playing field for humans in the match against robots at the labour market. The risk is however that a national “robot tax”, could risk creating tax havens for robots if no international agreement is made at the same time.
Instead he suggested a basic income to even out the inequalities of society. In practice his suggestion was to set up an investment bank funded by tax revenues, that re-invested part of the funding in growth and distributed the other part back to the citizens. The idea of a basic income has been increasingly common in the public debate during the last few years, also in the Nordic countries where Finland has launched a two-year trial of basic income for 2000 unemployed Finns.
How can we make sure that the future of work is beneficial for all; society, companies and employees alike? One key element will be training, competence development and reskilling throughout the work life. The recently published Reflection paper on the EU’s social dimension from the EU Commission foresees a dynamic future of work characterized by lifelong learning where soft skills and creativity will be increasingly important. This was also highlighted by the many of the high level panelists at the ILO Conference.
And this is a development that trade unions can (and must) be a part of. Digitalisation and a changing world of work do not just happen in a vacuum, meaning that we can steer the direction of the future by pushing for good policy and regulation as-well as engage in social dialogue to shape the future conditions of the labour market. It has been said before; the Nordic model of cooperation and social dialogue will be increasingly important in a faster changing world of work.
Trade unions will of course need to adapt and perhaps also rethink current strategies, but the idea of cooperation at the labour market to ensure good working conditions and competitive sectors will prevail. At least, that is the world of work I want in the future.