Azita Berar on ‘From “Future of Work” to “Building Better”: 2021, the year of a Global Policy Rethink ?’ GLO Policy Brief No. 4.

Azita Berar is Director Policy of the Global Labor Organization (GLO), and Senior Fellow, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

GLO Policy Brief No. 4 – Theme 3. Future of Work – Covid-19

From “Future of Work” to “Building Better”: 2021, the year of a Global Policy Rethink ?

by Azita Berar

A year ago, 2019 ended with a pick in analyses, forecasts and policy debates on what the “Future of Work” would or should look like. Hopes and fears were expressed  about the implications of the latest technological innovations , labelled  “Industry 4.0”, for labour markets and more fundamentally for society and humanity. It is bewildering to see how, in less than 10 months, since the onset of  the COVID-19 pandemic as a global threat, the center of focus of both analysis and policy has radically shifted to  entrenched inequalities and vulnerabilities and the deep running fault lines in our political and economic systems.

As 2020 closed down, we submit that the COVID-19 crisis has done more in generating a new momentum for paradigm shift and for indicating the avenues for a social reconstruct than all the preceding years of analysis, forecasts and policy negotiations around the Future of Work.


What we should know

  • 2019 ended with a flurry of publications, national and international policy discussion on the “Future of Work” engaging  multiple stakeholders. These discussions had started mid-decade, triggered by the rapid acceleration in a new and – some argued, radically different- generation of technological innovations. [1] Hopes were raised by limitless opportunities that these frontier innovations could bring to all sectors of economy, work and life. Fears concerned “externalities”, in particular regarding the potential job destruction  and displacement effects of these technologies as well as the slow pace with which, new norms of governance, including  cross-border rules, were developed. The new social construct was lagging far behind the pace of technological innovations and their adoption in advanced and emerging economies.
  • A year later, as 2020 has closed, it is astounding to see the tremendous shift in perspective and policy debate. The COVID-19 pandemic humbled the humanity by exposing its fragility on a planetary scale. It left no aspect of life and no sector of the economy unaffected. The pandemic is still raging,  forcing continuous reevaluation of human losses and multi-faceted political, social, economic and emotional fallouts. In this Brief, we are not focusing on the sobering and evolving socio-economic impact [2], but on what is certain: the powerful revelatory impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has already had in 2020.
  • The pandemic shed light- like no other crisis before- on the deep running inequalities and vulnerabilities within societies and across countries and continents. By accelerating pre-existing trends and  exposing  the fault lines on a scale and in such a compelling manner that left no room for denial, the crisis brought to the fore, the inadequacy of policy paradigms, the need for alternative policy approaches and the quest for a better and fairer world.
  • The unfulfilled promises of globalization, the environmental exhaustion, the rising inequalities in distribution of wealth and income, the crisis of full and decent employment in all of its facets, as much as the persisting structural discriminations based on gender, race, refugee or migrant status, were not a revelation per se. These trends have been well documented and discussed in policy and experts’ circles, over the years. In 2020,  since and as the result of the global spread of COVID-19, the statistics and data buried in numerous analytic and policy reports came to life and wore  human faces, making  it an everyday visible reality for everyone across the globe.
  • The pandemic showed the insecure work and life patterns of those women and men  who work in  the informal economy, 62 percent of the global workforce, who cannot exercise social distancing, apply basic hygiene preventive rules, access health services, or stop work under conditions of lockdown, with no access to alternative income support  and safety nets. School closures vividly exposed, the deep divides in access to quality education and to digital technology for millions of children and students enrolled at all levels of education.
  • It was sobering to observe that in 2020, the year that marks the 25th anniversary of the first World Conference on Women and the launch of a most comprehensive platform of action for promoting gender equality, women  in advanced and developing economies alike, remained the default unpaid care takers at home, and occupied most of “essential” frontline occupations in underpaid sectors with part time and insecure contracts.
  • Youth who have not fully recovered from the employment crisis in the wake of 2008/09 global crisis, have been once more, massively  impacted, this time with a twin challenge of completing their education under conditions of lockdown, and  facing the prospect of  another protracted transition and stalled mobility into work, adulthood and autonomy.
  • Positive trends recorded in some of global indicators of the 2030 SDG agenda, such as reduction in poverty, hunger and malnutrition have  reversed course, with a huge humanitarian crisis looming in the horizon.
  • But the pandemic also brought the “Future of Work” faster and closer to home. The expansion of remote and online work, pointed to a new dualism in the labour markets,  jobs that can be performed remotely and online and those renamed- essential services and critical jobs – that could not. The expansion of online teleworking , beyond the flexibility and resilience it enables, is forcing managers and employees alike to re-consider the value of inter-personal and social interactions and to re-think the nature of future workplace arrangements.
  • As demand expanded exponentially for the digital delivery sector and other on-demand services, the pandemic exposed the ambiguity in the   prevailing business models and employment relationships in these sectors.  In some instances, this increased visibility of these types of  new non-standard forms of employment accelerated the adoption and  implementation of new legal and social protection norms including rise in minimum wages.
  • More significantly, the COVID-19 crisis, by laying bare inequalities and socio-economic divides of various types, questioned the fundamental underpinnings  of policies and policy paradigms enacted over last decades, that allowed and deepened such uneven and unfair outcomes. In short, the pandemic diffused across societies, a new sense of urgency and a moral imperative for a rethink of policy.

Will 2021 be the inflection point to unleash and accelerate such a paradigm shift?

  • 2020 was an exceptional year of reflection  and soul-searching on what is essential and critical to humans? On the relationship between humans, nature and science? What determines resilience to future shocks and what scope should there be for national sovereignty,  and for inter-dependence, solidarity and cooperation?
  • Exceptional measures and  massive stimulus packages, were announced and partially deployed in major economies,  to deal with the most immediate impact of the pandemic and to prevent a catastrophic socio-economic collapse. These measures were exceptional  not only in size, surpassing tens of Trillion dollars already in June 2020, but also in the range and types of policy levers used. There was not much hesitation to push aside stringent prudential rules introduced by the same economies and institutions with respect to the debt to GDP ratio, or the time limit for the debt payments, for example. [3]
  • Beyond immediate relief and recovery packages, calls to “Reset Capitalism”, “Renew the social contract”, reinvent solidarity, rethink public- private cooperation…. are emanating from diverse stakeholders with often diverging interests. More significantly, the importance of  interventionist role of the state in sustaining the economy and jobs and in leading environmental transitions, is rehabilitated and valued. The demand for a stronger role of public policy and  public investment in health, education, universal social protection, basic income have resurfaced to the top of mainstream policy debate and agenda.
  • The serious consideration in policy circles and political campaigns, of  New Green Deal proposals, Public  Job Guarantee schemes , local community development strategies in the United States alone, is a testimony of the extent to which, the pendulum has swung away from orthodox market fundamentalism.  Although these ideas are not new, they have  come out of background, gained in vigor and adherence in a short period of time.
  • It is yet early to judge, how far and how bold will the recovery plans go and what will be the scope of this “rethink”, beyond remedial and recovery responses. Will  recovery plans, as announced and promised, become accelerators of digitalization and  transition to low carbon economy and embed fiscal policies that promote greater equality and “just transitions”? 
  • Are these circumstantial  crisis-induced responses that will deflate once the health hazard and the ensuing economic recession are seen to have been brought  under control? Will once again, reform be stalled and austerity replace stimuli, as in the aftermath of 2008/9 crisis.  Or will it be really different this time, as more and more parties think that a return to status quo ante is not an option, and the future cannot be about building back but building better and different!

Will 2021 be seen as an inflection point as much as 1945 ushered a new era of social innovation and reconstruct, following the devastation of the second World War?

  • In the current global political context of divided societies, weakened democracies, growing mistrust in institutions and fragmented multilateralism, the odds for a collective political will to emerge and to lead a new wave of reform, may not seem very high.  However the pandemic and its consequences have also awakened and re-mobilized forces of citizenship, advocates of participatory and solidary development and democracy and re-invigorated labour and social movements. These factors combined have generated such high  demands and societal expectations that cannot be left unanswered and  are not ready to recede.
  • Paradigm shifts do not occur overnight, however the COVID-19 crisis by sweeping away with such speed a few more myths associated with market fundamentalism and unleashed globalization, has brought us so much closer to the imperative and possibility of  building a new social trust.

The year 2020 has closed with the pandemic still ravaging lives, economies and societies across the globe. Humanity is entering 2021 with the renewed  hope in science and in new vaccines- which signal that the end of this pandemic might be in sight- but uncertain about how far away and at what cost. More significantly, the COVID-19 crisis has re-ordered our value system and reshaped the policy debate  by pointing out that  the problem is not technology but the deep political, economic and social divides. The shock and response have created a new momentum for a fundamental policy rethink and action in a way that all the preceding discussions on the Future of Work had not succeeded.  Will the momentum be seized? What is certain is that 2021 will be looked at as the inflection year, where a new course seemed possible through a broad understanding of human agency, embracing multi-layered social mobilizations and political leaderships.

[1] The Policy Brief No. 1 on Automation, inequality and jobs, in this Policy Forum, included references to major reports on Future of Work published since 2013. It also highlighted that most analyses overlooked the specific dynamics of technological adoption and labour markets in low income countries with large swaths of rural and informal economy workers.
[2] For regular updates and estimates see the following websites: COVID-19 Worldwide Dashboard – WHO Live World Statistics: Socio-economic impact of COVID-19 | UNDP; ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. 6th edition.
[3] It should be noted however that this flexibility, sits in sharp contrast to the  lack of solidarity and international financial support to fiscal policies in particular, in middle-income developing countries. Coordinated stimuli response and use of multilateral institutional mechanisms have been disappointing. In particular the combined response of G20, World Bank and IMF are falling short of providing the financial and fiscal space needed for an adequate COVID-19 response in much of mid-income developing countries.

NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of the GLO, which has no institutional position.