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The future of work

June 12, 2017

Digitization, automation, and networked communications are increasingly shaping societies, labour markets, and employment opportunities around the world. Ongoing changes in digital communications and computing affect the nature of work and are poised to have long lasting impacts on marginalized populations.

Technological innovation is providing important economic opportunities in the global South. The digitization of work is enabling job seekers to enter new labour markets, often in wealthier countries, that were previously inaccessible due to barriers in labour migration and high communication costs. This mobility of virtual labour has the potential to raise incomes and move people into the formal economy by freeing workers from geographical constraints and matching individual skill sets to online opportunities.

However, technological innovations are also disrupting social and economic institutions that have been developed to support labourers and workers’ rights. Online work is eroding labour protection standards and rights, and could unleash a global race to the bottom in wages. Moreover, the increasing automation of many industries may wipe out entire labour markets and send millions into unemployment.

Employment, which has served as a key organizing principle for society since the industrial revolution, contributes towards a person’s sense of belonging. Social groups with shared career expectations and societal norms coalesce around these shared experiences. For instance, promoting equal employment opportunities has become an important component of economic and social inclusion programs for women, cultural minorities, and youth.

A solid evidence base is needed to ensure appropriate policy and social responses to the many challenges raised by new modes of working. Research on educational innovations and skills building will also be vital to ensure that capacity exists to take advantage of new kinds of work.

Building on a body of existing work, IDRC’s Networked Economies program is currently planning a large scale global research network to improve understanding of how digitization and automation are impacting labour markets and people in developing countries. A number of existing research initiatives supported by the Networked Economies program are already investigating key themes.

Research themes include:

  • the sharing economy
  • microwork
  • digital learning innovations
  • virtual labour rights
  • digital platforms
  • online governance
  • labour discrimination
  • gender equity in virtual labour markets

These research initiatives are contributing to an evidence base on the future of work that will support improved policymaking and practices in the global South, with the aim of mitigating the potential harms caused by technologies’ most disruptive tendencies, and empowering marginalized populations to harness the advantages.

Current projects

A women in front of a computer

Building trust in digital labour in Latin America

Digital labour platforms can significantly enhance employment opportunities for women and youth in Latin America. IDRC-supported researchers helped a digital labour platform validate skills and in turn, enhanced employment prospects.
A room filled with computers

Mitigating the dark side of digital labour

Many virtual workers face poor labour conditions in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. New research helps showcase policy recommendations that could mitigate the negative effects of virtual work and support the positive ones.
Phone application icons

Understanding disruptive platforms and development

Digital marketplace platforms, often referred to as the “sharing economy”, have become a significant part of the digital landscape. Through five in-depth case studies led by Southern researchers, new findings will help policymakers regulate and address these challenges.
A woman looking at a cell phone

Enhancing gender equity in online work

Women are underrepresented workers on online contracting platforms and overall they tend to bid lower than men — which has implications for income equality. New research is needed to understand existing policy gaps and to develop principles for more equitable and inclusive governance of online platforms in the global South.
Students in a class room in Haiti

Preparing Haitian women and girls for digital jobs

New jobs offered by the digital economy could provide an innovative approach to Haiti’s unemployment challenges and could contribute to new livelihoods, particularly for young women. This project will engage local and regional stakeholders to address digital labour regulation, and support new learning opportunities for female entrepreneurs in the region.
A class room of students using computers

Spurring data entrepreneurship in Egypt

A growing digital economy, combined with government efforts to stimulate job creation and micro, small, and medium enterprises may help to overcome ongoing youth employment challenges in Upper Egypt. An increasingly digital Egyptian economy could offer promising opportunities for young marginalized Egyptians.