Commentary / World | Opinion

The future of work is here: Why the COVID-19 crisis calls for a fundamental reset of labor markets

by Saadia Zahidi

Contributing writer

This year's May Day — or International Workers Day — fell in the midst of a pandemic-induced jobs apocalypse with the International Labor Organization predicting that nearly half of the world’s 3 billion-strong workforce is at risk of losing their livelihoods.

For many workers, the lockdown has hurried the arrival of the “future of work,” a term invoked in recent years in relation to the opportunities and challenges of technological disruption and the structural economic factors that determine the quality of livelihoods.

For many white-collar workers, it has meant remote work. For many service workers and blue-collar workers, it has provided a window into a future where machines may displace people especially as firms consider increasing automation to enhance their future resilience.

For those in the care economy, health sector and education sector, it has led to a long-overdue global revaluation of the significance and essential nature of these professions. For many in the informal and gig economy, it has exposed the fundamental lack of social protection and the precarious nature of subsistence work.

Immediate and urgent action is needed to protect jobs, maintain links between employers and employees, keep large and small employers afloat, and provide income support and other safety nets directly to workers and households.

This is where the efforts in many advanced economies and emerging markets have focused although much greater support is needed in developing economies. Yet we must recognize this moment as an opportunity to “build back better” and lay the foundations of a more resilient labor market and more equal world. Here are five ways how:

1. Double down on upskilling and reskilling.

In recent years, governments, companies and workers have begun to prioritize reskilling and upskilling to better prepare for the disruptions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While it was a microscopic invader rather than the rise of the robots that led to the current collapse of the labor market, it has become clear that the fallout of the pandemic will accelerate digitization and automation across a range of industries and sectors.

This calls for new investments and mechanisms for upskilling and reskilling, for both deeply human skills as well as digital skills. While the online education and training industry has seen a surge in interest from digitally connected workers in lockdown, it is critical that employers double down on retraining workers and that governments proactively build provisions around upskilling and reskilling into the massive fiscal stimulus they are injecting into economies to best prepare workers for the post-pandemic economy.

2. Identify the jobs of tomorrow

The World Economic Forum offered a view of the jobs of tomorrow at the start of 2020. These roles are deeply concentrated among those professions that care for people, support the planet, manage new technologies and communicate products and services: care economy, green economy, people and culture; data and artificial intelligence, engineering and cloud computing, product development; sales, marketing and content.

As the pandemic highlights the critical roles that workers in hospitals, grocery stores, schools and other essential professions play, the opportunities within the care economy are expected to increase. Similarly, roles within technology creation and management, e-commerce and the broader knowledge economy are expected to continue to grow.

And as governments seek to rebuild their economies, new sources of growth — and jobs — will also emerge from the green economy, science and health research, and digital infrastructure. For developing economies, a proactive new approach to the jobs of tomorrow is even more critical as the global value chains of the past are rethought and with it the manufacturing-driven growth model of the past.

3. Prioritize re-deployment and re-employment

Active support to both at-risk and unemployed workers will be critical for businesses and governments. Many companies have already stepped up to provide support in the short-term to rapidly redeploy furloughed workers from low-demand roles to high-demand roles, such as those in logistics and care often beyond the boundaries of a single company or industry.

In countries where governments have systems in place for doing this at scale and in a proactive manner, workers are already faring better than in those that don’t. Yet as governments consider the next set of fiscal stimuli they must also prioritize labor market services for redeployment and reemployment, including providing job market insights, job market intermediation (match-making services), and job-search assistance.

A decade ago, such policies were successfully used to manage the rapid increase in unemployment. Given the more widespread nature of the current crisis, it is critical that such services are expanded and ready to manage the post-pandemic recovery period.

4. Revalue essential work and improve the quality of jobs

It has become increasingly clear that our most essential workers are among those in the lowest-paid and most precarious roles, and that in many developing economies in particular basic social protection is missing for much of the formal and informal workforce.

The period after the Great Depression and World War II saw the formalization of the weekend and other workers’ rights in the United States, and the creation of health and income safety nets as well as widespread education investments across Europe. Yet, as the nature of our economies has changed, laws, standards, and wages have not kept pace with the needs of workers — and, in many cases, their employers.

In parallel to managing the urgencies of the crisis, it is imperative that governments, businesses and workers’ representatives work together to lead a new historical shift in upgrading the protocols that govern our labor markets.

5. A collaborative recovery, reset and rebuild

Collaboration between employers, governments and workers both nationally and globally will be critical to the recovery. At the World Economic Forum, we announced in January the creation of a reskilling revolution platform devoted to improving education, skills and jobs for a billion people by 2030. We have now dedicated this platform to supporting governments, companies and educators to help workers and students through the crisis, exchange best practices and to build back better education, skills and jobs systems for the post-pandemic recovery.

The pandemic crisis has exposed more glaringly than ever before the inadequacies and inequalities in the system of the past. Yet it has also refocused the minds of global leaders on the fundamental value of human life, human potential and human livelihoods. This is the window of opportunity to invest in our most precious asset: our human capital.

Saadia Zahidi is managing director of New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum.

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