The Future of Work

[Presented by Garry Jacobs at a seminar organized by the World Academy of Art and Science in Minneapolis on May 21, 1996.]

The prospects for employment in the 21st Century are of growing concern to citizens and governments of both developing and developed nations around the world. Few social issues bring out so deeply our latent anxieties about the future. In developing countries it calls to mind the immediate challenge of generating remunerative work opportunities to meet the rising expectations of one billion people who will enter the labor force during the coming decade. For many in the industrialized West, it evokes an image of a future in which technology and international competition economically disenfranchise more and more people. For the younger generation it is viewed in more individual terms as an obstacle to career advancement and personal fulfillment.

Discussion of this subject is further complicated by a lack of reliable facts and a confusing array of impressions, emotions, misconceptions and statistics, even in countries with highly educated populations. In the early 1990s when rising unemployment generated growing concern in North America, the focus on the increasing numbers of unsatisfied job seekers overshadowed the more fundamental fact that the actual percentage of the population employment had also reached historically peak levels. The preoccupation of the media with corporate layoffs and downsizing has obscured the fact that only 5% of the US workforce is employed by the Fortune 500 and that since 1990 total job creation has outstripped job destruction in the USA by more than two to one.

Attention to the serious economic problems of some developing nations prompts us to overlook some startling successes and encouraging trends. In recent years a number of East Asian countries have achieved full employment and now confront labor shortages. China has created more than 100 million jobs during the past decade. The rate of employment growth in India has more than doubled since an economic reform package was launched in 1991.

The confusion of facts is reinforced by the lack of good theory. There is urgent need for formulation of an integrated theory of employment to explain the process by which jobs are created and the contributing role of political, social, technological and economic factors in that process. Why is it that the rapid development and application of technology in the USA during the 20th Century was accompanied by a four-fold increase in employment? How are rising social expectations and rising incomes related to the emergence of new needs and new employment opportunities in modern society? The increasing contribution of non-material resources such as information, technology, organization, education and skills to economic development seems to challenge traditional assumptions regarding the limits to growth valid for economic systems based primarily on scarce material resources. To what extent is unemployment a result of economic determinisms? To what extent is it a product of social choices and public policy?

The ILO’s 1995 World Employment Report challenges the deterministic view of employment in noting that "feasible solutions do exist…Employment problems are not predetermined outcomes of the workings of uncontrollable forces such as globalization, intensified competition, and technological change. They are the result of social choice: commissions or omissions in economic and social policies and short-comings in institutional arrangements." The report points out that a common vision and inspired action based on a universal commitment to the goal of full-employment was responsible for the high levels of employment achieved by Western nations after the second world war.

Our present concept of work as employment is a relatively recent phenomena. In earlier centuries the vast majority of people around the world were left to fend for their own economic survival working on farms and in crafts. But the transformation of economic activity and social life in this century and the increasing regulation of economic activity by government have made individuals increasing dependent for their economic survival and security on political, economic and social policies and forces beyond their control. Without access to jobs, people lack the ability to ensure their economic survival. Today employment opportunities are directly influenced by a wide range of public policies relating to taxation, monetary stability, trade, investment, immigration, defense and environmental regulation. This led the International Commission on Peace and Food (ICPF) to conclude in its report, Uncommon Opportunities: An Agenda for Peace and Equitable Development, that employment must be guaranteed as a fundamental human right. "Recognizing the right of every citizen to employment is the essential basis and the most effective strategy for generating the necessary political will to provide jobs for all."

Although the magnitude of the task varies from region to region, generating increasing numbers of work opportunities is a common challenge facing every region of the world. The work of ILO and ICPF suggest that there is considerable scope for applying practical strategies to alleviate and perhaps even eliminate the current worldwide shortage of employment opportunities. Clearly no single remedy will suffice. A comprehensive package of measures is needed that accelerate the process of economic and social development by more fully and effectively utilizing the available material, social, organizational, technological and human resources. Nor can nations hope to resolve this problem in isolation from each other. Coordinated and cooperative efforts will be needed at the international level.

A plethora of technological, commercial and social factors are bringing about a shift in a conception of work. The conventional idea of eight to five employment is breaking down in several directions. More and more people are taking their jobs back to the home. Others are leaving the corporate environment to become self-employed. Although employment has ceased to be a necessity for many, the social and psychological role of work in defining and developing personality remains very strong. Thus, a new generation of healthy retired people are seeking ways to remain constructively active and engaged in work. Perhaps, what is needed is a shift in focus from full employment to full engagement.

The importance, magnitude and complexity of these issues has prompted the Academy to place the future of work to the top of its agenda. Although it is not possible for any institution to address all aspects of the subject, the Academy can make a contribution at three distinct levels:

  1. Theory of employment: To initiate thought and discussion contributing to the formulation of a comprehensive theory of employment, so that a more conscious understanding of the process will lead to more effective policies and strategies.
  2. Evolution of work in 21st Century: To examine current and projected trends to arrive at a better understanding of the future of work in post-industrial societies and the policy measures that will promote a smooth transition to whatever the future holds in wait for us.
  3. Practical country-specific strategies: To initiate research projects to formulate more effective practical strategies for stimulating employment generation in representative developing and developed nations.
  • India: ICPF conducted a country level study of employment in India and formulated a comprehensive strategy for generating 100 million jobs within ten years, sufficient to achieve full employment in the country. The strategy was formally adopted by the Government of India and incorporated in the 8th Five Year Plan. It needs to be followed up by more detailed studies at the local level to document the potential and identify specific steps that can be taken to accelerate economic development and job growth. The Academy proposed to undertake several studies in collaboration with research institutions in India. A study of the Union Territory of Pondicherry will be carried out in association with The Mother’s Service Society, a recognized social science research institute, and a second in Dindigul District of Tamil Nadu State in association with Gandhigram Rural University.
  • Jordan: At an international conference organized in Amman last July by ICPF and the Noor al Hussein Foundation, a proposal was formulated for a project to stimulate employment generation in Jordan and other countries of the region as a support to the Middle East peace process. UNESCO sent a representative to the Amman meeting and has recently organized two workshops to evolve an effective approach for the project. The Academy proposes to collaborate with ICPF, the Noor al Hussein Foundation and UNESCO to evolve practical strategies to stimulate entrepreneurship and employment, and serve as a model for other countries of the region.
  • Netherlands: The challenges of employment growth in Western Europe differ from those in North America due to policies providing stronger support for job security and wage growth, which have resulted in faster growth of incomes and slow expansion of employment opportunities. Netherlands has led the way in examining alternative strategies for improving the situation, including recent legislation to encourage voluntary part employment, which could generate 100,000 additional jobs. The Academy is seeking the collaboration of a research institute in the country for a study of strategies to accelerate job growth in the European social environment.
  • North America: Although the current employment situation and short term prognosis is quite favorable, the longer term impact of technological developments, corporate restructuring, international competition and delayed retirement characteristic of work in the 21st Century are likely to manifest here before they do in other parts of the world. Therefore, an examination of the practical impact of these trends and policy options to address them will be of significant value both here and overseas in the years to come. The Academy is seeking collaboration with an appropriate research institution to examine these tendencies and propose appropriate policy measures to adapt to their influence.