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The future of work will determine the future of equality


Arjan de Haan

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Naser Faruqui

Director, Education and Science, IDRC

How we will manage new technologies is thus the most important question ahead of us. Knowing about and preparing for upcoming changes benefit the largest number of people, with least costs of transitions.

The future of work is here. Technological disruption is already rapidly changing work, but we still have little idea of what the job market will look like in the years ahead here in Canada or elsewhere, includingin developing countries.

Because we know little about what impact automation technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will have on jobs, skills, and wages, we don’t know what specific skills people will need. But history does suggest that helping people adapt to change plays a key role. Creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking are key to teach people to deal with change and to learn how to learn. These skills will need to be emphasized in education systems.

Retraining for new jobs will not be a one-time effort. Rather it should be an ongoing process, in partnership with unions and governments. The key will be to protect workers, not jobs. There is an important role for research to play in finding innovative solutions to respond to this challenge.

Fears of mass unemployment as a result of automation have not yet materialized. A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives even asks in its title “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?”. However, we should not be complacent. Some people are referring to the current era of new and emerging technology as the “fourth industrial revolution”. Fears of large-scale unemployment arising from past industrial revolutions never came to be, because new jobs were created to replace those that were lost. It is difficult to predict what will happen this time. But there are reasons to suggest this time could be different.

Unlike drivers of horse-drawn carriages that could switch to taxis, it will be harder for truck drivers to switch to data analytics. Developing country economies – where social protections and labour rights, such as pensions or unemployment supports, are generally non-existent – are at greater risk. The manufacturing jobs that have been key to enhancing welfare and creating a middle class both in the Global North and the economic miracles of East Asia are shrinking with automation. This is impacting the factories that have created millions of jobs, for example for lower-skilled women in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

The same technological changes hugely impact the potential for economic transition in Africa. Where previous economic transformation implied export-driven job creation for lower-skilled workers, automation eliminates hope for a new wave of similar employment growth.

However, for many workers in the Global South, the future of work may not change much from the present, at least for some time, and it is important that we don’t ignore them. In low-income Communities across Asia, home based workers, mostly women, already work in precarious and informal settings with little access to social protection. If the types of work they perform – such as stitching and cutting fabrics for garments – are no longer available, millions of women and their families will risk falling deeper into poverty.

While the gig economy that offers short-term contracts or freelance work online is no panacea, for workers engaged in low quality, informal work, it could offer opportunities for economic advancement. The challenges will be regulating these systems so that they respect workers’ rights and ensure inclusion and equality.

In addition to regulation, Governments will have to step in, to subsidize a lifelong education sector while providing safety nets for periods of transition and for those unable to adapt. The moment has come to begin reflecting on a post-work society for at least some workers and to think of measures such as universal basic incomes or universal basic services.

How we will manage new technologies is thus the most important question ahead of us. Knowing about and preparing for upcoming changes can greatly enhance the likelihood that changes benefit the largest number of people, with least costs of transitions.

Big historical transformations we now benefit from were never about technology per se, but about how societies manage the changes and how they build institutions to more evenly spread their benefits.

Arjan de Haan is the Director of Inclusive Economies at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Naser Faruqui is the Director of Technology and Innovation at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

This text was previously published in the Hill Times’ Annual Briefing on Research and Innovation.