One scenario of the future of work in the popular media is one of a jobless future, when robots take our jobs. How do we structure a fair post-labor economy in a post-work society? But is that really where we are headed?
The possible futures that we face are hot topics right now. Just last month, Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs invited me to speak on a panel about artificial intelligence and the future of work.
As one of the panelists, I wanted to challenge the assumptions and fears underlying the far-off future scenario of a post-work society and a post-labour economy. In the national dialogues on the future of work in over 110 countries, there was a near-consensus that we should all work. Hence, we can say that we do want a society that works.
By examining the function of work in society, we can see the value of work goes beyond its role of redistributing economic gains. Work is central to how we contribute to society and the community around us. For most, work is a powerful mechanism for one’s economic inclusion and participation in society.
Psychologically, one’s work identity is closely associated to one’s dignity, self-worth, and well-being. The value of work in our lives is embedded and reinforced in our education system, values and norms, and cultural institutions, like family.
However, the traditional archetype of having one stable job for your entire working life is quickly eroding. Standard forms of employment, permanent full-time work, is being replaced by more flexible short-term precarious contracts that are non-standard forms of work.
The nature of work is rapidly changing, leaving many scrambling to figure out how to adapt. What impact will these changes have on workers and their relationship to society?
Many of our values and norms, cultural institutions, and education systems were designed for to create workers who are in the more standard form of employment. New forms of work, like digital labour and casual workers, will likely to impact our traditional perceptions, norms, and institutions.
Work for human development is a concept that I think is worthy to consider. When we talk about the future of work, there is a question of whether we should make invisible work visible. By broadening the definition of labour, employment, and jobs, we can incorporate many activities with economic and social value into what we consider work and treat it as such. The definition of work needs to go beyond that of paid employment, so that it includes other forms of productive and meaningful work, such as unpaid care work, volunteering, artistic expression, and emotional work.
Decent work is crucial to achieving social justice. As non-standard forms of employment become more prevalent, how can we ensure work is decent? In other words, is the social contract at work still working?
How do we give shape to new social contracts or models and work towards decent working conditions for all those who want to work? The ILO convened global experts to discuss this question in fall 2017. The experts also submitted articles on their thoughts on Work and Society.
Work and Society Workshop | ITC-ILO
The Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, Thomas Kochan defines the social contract at work as “the mutual expectations and obligations that workers, employers, and their communities and societies have regarding work and employment relationships” which stabilize labour relations. This social contract at work can be seen in such public works projects like the American New Deal in the 1930’s. The New Deal labour legislations promoted the creation of new high-quality jobs and normalized labour relations that underpin the American Dream. Since the 1970s, there has been a weakening of the post-war social contract; the promise that a good education and hard work no longer guarantees a decent job and upward social mobility.
The questioning of our current social contract at work reflects many people’s disenchantment with their job and labour market prospects. As we look into the future of work, what are the new ingredients of a social contract at work? How can we ensure there is appropriate representation between the state, workers, employers, and other actors when redefining the mutual expectations, norms, and institutions needed for distributing power and resources to achieve social justice?
This article is a part of the #ChangingWorldofWork Series, which examines the “Inception Report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work” by highlighting its key findings and conclusions. The series aims to unpack and explore the emerging research and conversations driving how the world of work is evolving today.