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The future of work


European Commission



Will it be different, better or worse than in the past?


Well, we wonder always, don’t we: how will the future look?

We hear a great deal about the new technologies that will change working patterns. And there are fears expressed all over the place that robots will take over all our jobs and put us all out of work, so what are we going to do to keep moving?

Will we all have to learn to sit around on exercise bicycles instead of just sitting, to keep fit? Perhaps we will also have to walk around constantly, with a headset on for music and news and games and such like, in order to keep our brains lively.

All sorts of possible scenarios arise here.

Let’s look for a moment first at the way work was, the way jobs were, before the days of factories and offices. Workers were part of a scheme, a system, whereby merchants hired their workers to do specific tasks. Tasks like spinning and weaving - traditional tasks. Then those workers would be paid a piece rate, so per piece that they produced. Awfully good for the employer of course, because that meant cheap labour, and as one marketing executive said recently, we can save up to 40% if we don’t have to pay benefits to our workers, or, and this is important, to office space.

Now, in two countries in particular, there is a huge boom now in the so-called ‘on-demand jobs’ sector. The main markets there are India and the United States of America.

Taking the case of India, workers are less likely, too, to have any sort of access to legal protection. Legal protection is usually associated with some form of formal employment, contractual employment.

But the new forms of employment are not all negative. Sometimes flexibility is what counts for people too, especially the young. I’m thinking of some of my young friends, who were looking around for temporary jobs, perhaps over the summer vacation if they’re studying, or simply because they want to improve, for example, their knowledge of English.

Now it’s quite easy to go to the UK, look up your job possibilities on websites… there’s always work available in shops and in bars and in restaurants and so on. Of course, sometimes the rent is very high, but most young people decide to share a room or share a house all together, to keep the rent down. The main thing is, they’re learning and they’re gaining experience and the labour market, especially in the UK, is flexible enough to allow them to do this. It may not be very comfortable to share a room or a house with others for a few months, but it gets you what you want.

Now, it’s also the fact that the UK market is flexible, which means that it’s easy to hire people, but the downside is of course it’s also easy to fire them. Nevertheless, that flexibility is what has attracted so many young people and I’m comparing the situation in the UK with, for example, that in Belgium or France, where it’s very difficult to work temporarily. There’s a whole lot of red tape for the employer, social charges, there’s not much of an incentive to recruit. It’s usually just the people who will be willing to accept cash in hand who will do temporary jobs.

Now what about the whole area of the gig economy and on-demand jobs? Many workers, particularly in emerging markets, but also closer to home, are quite happy with this idea. They may want to have a job just to supplement their family, perhaps supplement the family’s other sources of income. In some cases, the workers have got together and formed platforms where they’re identified by numbers and letters, so that there’s no discrimination possible, for example between religions, sex and age.

There are other interesting new features here too. Some have set up an online forum, where they share reliable, or they share information about reliable employers, and less reliable employers too. These forums have taken on some importance now, and are expanding. It’s a little bit like the medieval guilds worked, in that those guilds helped workers to acquire new skills. In this case, good employers could then pledge to use only those workers from the guilds. And to apply minimum standards and minimum pay, and pay promptly.

So, those are all the possibilities. Only some of the possibilities in fact, for the future. And I’ll finish off with a line from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains”.

Thank you.

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