Changes in business models, technology, and the global integration of economies are having profound impacts on an essential component of society: work. The evolving temporal and spatial organization of work—more people can work at anytime from anywhere—raises questions about how this affects our individual lives and our societies. These changes can widen our choices and improve the quality of our working lives, or alienate us from each other, and from purposive and meaningful activity. The outcome depends on the choices we make and the policies we adopt to shape the Future of Work. This will require a fundamental shift in how we value paid and unpaid work and how we measure its contribution to society. Widely used economic measurements, such as GDP per capita, inadequately capture the value of well-being and unpaid work and mask individual inequality. We need new metrics that enable us to measure the contribution of all work to our individual well-being and that of our societies, so that we can formulate policies to shape a Future of Work with social justice.
Work, Individuals, and Society
Several accounts of the Future of Work predict that technology will replace people and bring an “end to work”.1 This view informs some of the proposals for a universal basic income: unconditional cash payments are considered to provide an alternative to work, a response to automation and the boredom sometimes associated with work. Yet, work will remain a central pillar of our individual lives, our societies, and our politics.
Work sustains us. It serves to meet material needs and provides a path through which we can develop as human beings and take pride in our productive endeavors—irrespective of whether we are manual laborers or knowledge workers. The International Labor Organization (ILO) constitution recognizes this in emphasizing that:
“all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity” (Declaration of Philadelphia, Article II (a)).
Work connects individuals to each other and to society; to use Sigmund Freud’s formulation, work provides “a secure place in a portion of human reality, in the human community.”2
A clear understanding of the importance of work for the individual and society is a necessary starting point for consideration of the Future of Work we want. One of the first points to note is that, for a large part of humanity, work still remains a question of survival, the essential means of ensuring the very basics of existence. Given this functional role of work (fulfilling extrinsic needs) and its human dimension, certain basic standards of decency are necessary. A minimum requirement is that work should not kill you—although 2.78 million people die each year because of it—nor should it make you ill or disabled.3 Similarly, work should promote and not violate the labor and other human rights of those who perform it.
If work is not simply to be endured as the price of meeting material need, but to contribute to the self-realization of the individual (fulfilling intrinsic needs), then its content and the way in which it is organized matter too. Purposeful activity is both the distinctive feature and a fundamental need of human beings.
The individual’s experience of work also depends on connections to others—co-workers, employers, customers—and to society as a whole. The importance of such connection is most vividly illustrated by what happens when it is broken, that is, by the devastating psycho-social impact of unemployment. In fact, work provides a whole network of connections between the individual and society: the formal connections of law and contract embodied in the employment relationship; the personal and collaborative connections through interaction at work; the associative and communal connections that are often generated by work; and the interactions that define work-life balances and imbalances. The workplace is also the place where socialization processes initiated in education are deepened and where social inclusion is maintained. For these and other reasons, the Future of Work will, in many ways, dictate the future of our societies.
Encouragingly, the contribution of work to human development and social inclusion is well reflected in the rationale and substantive content of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The focus on inclusive growth underlines the importance of being a part of and contributing to—through one’s productive endeavors—broader economic and social goals, and doing so on terms considered fair and equitable.
These considerations concerning the instrumental, purposive, and social role of work for the individual and society have not changed over time and there is no reason to think that they will do so in the future. This raises the question of how work is changing and what this means for individuals and for society. The risks associated with rising inequality within countries and economic insecurity are self-evident in the current wave of populism shaping a new world order. Yet there is also great opportunity ahead to ensure that work is carried out in conditions of freedom, dignity, equality, and security. It calls for a fundamental shift in how we value work—both paid and unpaid—and how we measure its contribution to society.
The Changing Spatial and Temporal Dimensions of Work
Two of the most fundamental characteristics of work concern when and where we perform work. This impacts the quality of our lives and our ability to balance paid work with other responsibilities. Changes in business models, technology, and the global integration of economies are having profound impacts on the temporal and spatial organization of work. We have seen these dimensions of work evolve and they are continuing to do so, with profound consequences for the individual, families, and society.
Technological innovation has always impacted workplaces and work schedules, or what can be understood as the temporal and spatial dimensions of work, in profound ways. The industrial revolution led to the concentration of industrial workers in large units and imposed rigid working time arrangements. Work ceased to be seasonal and before too long it also ceased to be limited by daylight hours. The advent of electric light allowed factories to operate for longer hours, extending working time. Twelve- to 16-hour work days, performed six days a week were common in the late 19th century, including for children. Trade unions and others continued to draw attention to the social and health costs of long hours and the economic value of leisure. This led to the adoption of an international standard on maximum working hours and night work by women.
Today, rapid technological change is again reshaping the temporal and spatial organization of work. It brings people closer together in their economic interactions. What were once obstacles of distance and time seemingly dissolve, giving way to the immediate and the virtual.i Technological innovations enable more precise control of ever-shorter periods of economic activity and allow for the connection of dispersed production locations in real-time. This supports the rapid inclusion of many millions of people into a single global system of production and exchange.
Yet, as markets for goods and services have become more integrated, changing business models have led to the vertical disintegration of enterprises as businesses focus on the most profitable core activities and outsource or offshore the rest. The mediation of work through digital platforms is also shifting the place and space where work happen. These changes in the temporal and spatial organization of work bring new challenges, but they also open up important opportunities.
The ILO’s very first Convention in 1919 was on working time and set out the goal of the eight-hour working day and the maximum 48-hour working week.4 It was quickly followed by another Convention establishing the principle of the five-day working week with two consecutive days of rest.5 They constitute a succinct statement of what 100 years ago was considered the socially desirable, and economically possible, organization of work.
Since then we have seen a downward trend in hours of work, accompanied by increases in wages and productivity. In recent decades however, this trend ceased, and in some cases has even reversed.6 This is accompanied by a bifurcation of working hours; large portions of the global workforce are still working excessively long hours (more than 48 hours per week)—particularly men (see Figure 1)—or short hours in part-time work (less than 35 hours per week), particularly women (See Figure 2). For many, especially those in the informal economy, worker preferences for more work are not being realized, resulting in chronic time-related underemployment.
Figure 1: Excessive Hours of Work (more than 48 hours per week): Global and regional estimates, total employment, latest year available (percentages).
By broad region and level of development.
Note: Global estimates based on 131 countries representing 95 percent of world employment. Data for the latest available year: 2013 or later (mostly 2014–15) for 80 of the countries covered.
Source: Messenger (2018).
Figure 2: Short Hours of Work (less than 35 hours per week): Global and regional estimates, total employment, latest year available (percentages)
By broad region and level of development.
Note: Global estimates based on 131 countries representing 95 percent of world employment. Data for the latest available year: 2013 or later (mainly 2014–15) for 80 of the countries covered.
*Arab States: the number of countries considered is insufficient to build conclusions on those regional estimates.
Source: Messenger (2018).
Women frequently bear the brunt of unpaid care work.ii They devote an estimated one to three hours more per day to housework than men; between two and 10 times more hours per day than men caring for children, the elderly, and the sick; and one to four hours less per day than men to market activities.7 While estimates vary, studies find that when all work is accounted for, both paid and unpaid, women work much longer hours than men.8 The result is that women are time-poor. This reinforces trajectories of inequality and impoverishment.
Over the last two decades, technological developments have led to a blurring of the line between working time and private time. Information and communication technologies (ICT) facilitated changes in work organization—particularly telework. And with this, there may be less clarity about when one is at work and when not. There are advantages, such as being evaluated against performance rather than mere presence at work, but these may be offset by the requirement to be available to work at all hours. In this way the frontier between work and non- work is now more porous, compromising the capacity of the individual to protect genuinely non-work time. Questions about compensation for time spent “at work” (e.g. by checking messages) during personal time also arise.
All this raises the question of time sovereignty: who ultimately decides and controls the use of time? How can we use technological advancements to expand choice, to balance work and care responsibilities, and advance equality between men and women?
The prospect of work scarcity foreseen by some Future of Work commentators has revived arguments to move to a 21-hour week in the first quarter of the 21st century.9 As with previous waves of technological change, we are more likely to see a significant change in tasks and new types of work than a scarcity of work. This is not to downplay the effect of these changes on individuals and society because many of the new jobs will require a different set of skills than previous ones. The point is that we are unlikely to see the three hours per day or 15 hours per week that John Maynard Keynes predicted his grandchildren would be working in his essay “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren.”10
Nevertheless, the progressive reduction in working time is a long-standing social policy objective in its own right, made possible by improved productivity and living standards. The resumption of the historical trend toward an overall reduction in working hours holds important benefits for people and for the planet.11 For some countries, a reduction from a 40- or 35-hour work week or less may be possible, as may be the possibility of a right to disconnect. For others, there is still significant scope to limit working hours to 48 hours. This will require public policies promoting the reduction of working hours, particularly for those working excessively long hours. At the same time, tackling issues of rising inequality and economic insecurity requires guarantees regarding minimum working hours for those working in part-time jobs with very short hours, including on-call workers and those with zero-hour contracts.
The Future of Work also holds important opportunities to gain time sovereigntythrough the organization of working time. With demands for extended and even 24/7 availability, there has been a diversification in working time arrangements and a shift from standard arrangements consisting of fixed working hours each day for a fixed number of days, toward more flexible working time arrangements (e.g. new forms of shift work, hours averaging, flexi-time arrangements, compressed workweeks, and on-call work).
This flexibility would, a priori, seem to offer important opportunities to respond to the different personal preferences of men and women. The necessity to engage in unpaid care provision often shapes the ability, duration, and type of work opportunities that women are able to take advantage of, reinforcing gender gaps in occupations, pay, and career development. The diversification of working time arrangements offers new possibilities for men and women to balance paid and unpaid work. With women able to take on positions with more responsibility and stay in the workforce and the office, the possibility of achieving greater equality between men and women at home and in the workplace becomes a reality.
These working time arrangements can be achieved through negotiation as part of a package that meets the needs of enterprises for internal flexibility, as well as those of workers to balance work and private life. This is exemplified by the recent collective agreement in the German metal sector and railways, where flexibility has been combined with the ability of workers to determine their own work-life balance by choosing to reduce their weekly working hours (for example, to 28 hours in the metal sector) and take additional annual leave.iii
The negotiation of these balanced working time arrangements is, of course, likely to be limited in developing countries with weak collective bargaining institutions.12 The prevalence of informality and unpaid work in these economies may preclude the choices that are increasingly on the horizon for workers in other parts of the world. Women, particularly in low-income countries, still spend long hours providing care due to the lack of basic infrastructure, such as by carrying water. Investment in basic infrastructure, skills development, and training is important to bring about the leaps needed to set up a virtuous circle of declining working hours and increasing income and productivity.
Work, Place, and Space
In the same way that changes in technology and the organization of work are increasingly enabling or requiring people to work at any time, it is also opening up new opportunities for people to work from anywhere.
Globalization has redrawn the international division of labor. This will continue to evolve in response to the various factors that inform decisions about the location of production and the provision of services. Whereas technology once fueled the integration of economies, there is a likelihood that innovations in 3-D printing and digital voice technology will again change this spatial landscape as manufacturing and call centers are re-shored.
Increasingly, although not universally, it is becoming less necessary or advantageous to group together significant numbers of workers in large production facilities. Formal, physical workplaces and working arrangements are “fissuring.”13 This is partly a consequence of new business models based on the increased use of contractors, subcontractors, and the hire of temporary workers. This fragmentation of organizational space means that workers are less likely to stay in one workplace for a prolonged period.
The application of ICT allows more and more work to be done outside any fixed, collective workplace. That can entail, at one stage, offering individuals the option of working from home or some other remote location, and at another, the definitive abolition of that workplace and consequently the requirement, rather than the option, to work elsewhere. That is typically the case in the platform economy where, depending on circumstance, work may be done from wherever an internet connection is available or on an itinerant basis in locations required by the demander of a good or service. There are individual and social benefits associated with this. Most obviously, it offers greater choice to the individual on where to live and work; they can reduce congestion and commuting time, and pollution too. Additionally, in developed countries—to some extent in developing economies as well—ICT can connect entrepreneurs to markets, banking facilities, and authorities in ways which were not previously conceivable, making viable business models that previously were not. Internet connection equally makes possible the provision and performance of work by people in different countries—in rural and urban settings—offering those concerned an alternative to migration for work. The less positive corollary of this choice is the absence of guaranteed and predictable work.
These changes in the spatial organization of work, particularly when taken in conjunction with the temporal dispersal considered previously, seems likely to have major implications for the role of work for the individual and society. As with the temporal organization of work, our individual lives are made and lived through the spatial organization of work.14
In the simplest terms, if work is not carried out by groups of people at the same time or in the same place, if it is performed remotely or virtually; if it is not the subject of any enduring employment relationship, then it will not likely play the social role it once had, or not do so in the same manner.15 Work will be less associated with the sense of community, the associative behavior, and the social interaction that comes from physical proximity and personal relationships of trust and familiarity built up over time. The effect of this spatial dispersion of work on the social fabric remains an open question.
Similarly, the social honor and status once derived from interactions at work, celebrated in the murals painted in the early part of the 20th century, are being eroded.iv This is likely to be compounded by the insecure nature of the work available, with immediate and direct political implications for decisionmakers and societies.
Interestingly, spatial concerns continue to actively configure labor relations—from the local to the global. It is perhaps no coincidence that we have recently observed the emergence of innovative local, and often community-based, worker organizing strategies, in both developed and developing parts of the world.16,17,18 The reconfiguration of work is accompanied by changing communication practices (e.g. Facebook and WhatsApp). This virtual connectivity can have important effects on the logic of collective action and help overcome requirements to meet physically. It can enhance the associational opportunities of those who might otherwise struggle to connect, including micro-enterprises, women, and those on non-standard contracts.19
There is much room for subjective assessment of these types of development. Some will see them as responding positively to the growing individualism in society, offering new possibilities to meet personal preferences and lifestyle choices.20 Others may see in them the danger of increasing isolation and atomization, and a loss of identity as distances in time, space, and income between individuals grow—in sharp counterpoise to the hyperconnectivity of the Internet Age.21
Whichever side one may take, social change is driven by the decisions we make about how to organize our world. Technology steps in to accelerate and consolidate these changes. This insight is crucial for anyone concerned about the exclusion, inequality, and insecurity that temporal and spatial changes in the organization of work are generating. The Future of Work is not an unavoidable consequence of technological progress, it is a matter of choice. And just as we choose to value technological and economic progress, we can choose to value the contribution of work to individual and societal well-being. We can shape the Future of Work and ensure that it is humane and fosters security, equality, and social inclusion. A Future of Work with social justice depends on it.
The Value of Work and its Contribution to Well-being
In shaping that Future of Work, we need to re-examine one longstanding assumption: that well-being is by definition dependent upon economic growth, the measurement of which is predicated on our current metrics of GDP per capita. If we accept that an individual’s well-being is an important aspect of the future we want, then it follows that the traditional yardstick of economic and social success, GDP per capita, appears increasingly inadequate in capturing and measuring the material well-being, freedom, dignity, economic security, and equal opportunity, which is the role of work to promote.
GDP is a valuable indicator for measuring the economic performance of a country or a region. However, it is not reliable as an indicator of well-being. It does not measure the value of unpaid care and household work that underpins the well-being of individuals and societies throughout the world and throughout the life cycle. Moreover, certain government services such as health and education are measured in national accounts as inputs rather than as outputs. This makes it difficult to reflect improvements in the quality of the services. The result is an underestimation of the productivity and growth of services that provide our social infrastructure. GDP also falls short in addressing important social dimensions of individual well-being, such as inequality.
If governments want to formulate policies that increase aggregate national income and ensure an equitable distribution of that income, then the contributions of all workers, including those performing unpaid care work, need to be counted. The idea that we need other yardsticks to better measure well-being is taking root, not as an abstract concept but as a concrete parameter in policymaking. This calls for a fundamental shift in how we value work—both paid and unpaid—and how we measure its contribution to society.
The ILO, based on time-use survey data, estimates that an equivalent of 2 billion people are working eight hours per day in unpaid care work.22 It is women who provide most of this unpaid care and household work. Does the fact that this work is not paid imply that these activities are less valuable or even valueless? Clearly not, because they sustain well-being of the individual, their family, and society.
We need to incorporate all types of work, including unpaid work, into our measure of GDP. This means adjusting our systems of national accounts to better reflect the new ways in which work is being captured in accordance with the 19th International Conference of Labor Statisticians.23 Unpaid work, volunteer work, work for own production and services, and care work (e.g. cleaning, cooking, and child care) need to be captured in a regular and comprehensive way in the satellite accounts. It would then be possible for these metrics to be integrated into the core of national accounts.
The growing diversity of situations in which work is performed, such as in the digital economy, presents particular challenges with regard to measuring their contribution to the economic growth. At present, the contribution of internet platforms to national income is measured by way of the advertising services they are able to sell to firms. This is misleading as it does not capture the contribution of these platforms to society through the services they provide to users. The creation of value in the digital economy and its measurement in the national accounts need further exploration.
We also need new metrics that reflect the extent to which work fulfills its role in the promotion of individual and social well-being. This is an important foundation for shaping the Future of Work that we want, as well as a key contribution to the measurement of its success. This raises the question of whether alternative measurements are needed to supplement GDP so that we have a more inclusive indicator that provides a comprehensive picture of well-being. A number of alternative measures exist, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI); the Human Development Index (HDI); the Happy Planet Index (HPI); OECD’s Better Life Index (BLI); and the World Bank’s The Changing Wealth of Nations. Each of these indicators captures certain dimensions of well-being. Societies are attaching much higher value to these dimensions in their pursuit of the global goal of decent work and inclusive growth.
By changing what we measure, we change what we value. If we take the blinders off GDP and add unpaid work, we will come to see and value it. If we measure the contribution of all work to our individual well-being and that of our societies, we will be better placed to formulate policies to support its contribution to that objective.
Work will remain central to our lives, our societies, and our politics in the future. Changes in the organization of work involving the reconfiguration of when, how, and where we work—along with issues of rising inequality where present— hold both promise and peril. Perceptions of unfairness and fears provoked by economic insecurity are among the most powerful causes of political instability in many societies. Yet the changes underway also present new opportunities to balance work and private life, to forge a future with gender equality, to connect workers across the globe in virtual communities, and to value and measure all work and its contribution to society. The Future of Work will depend on the decisions we take, as policymakers, as workers, as enterprises, and as workers’ and employers’ organizations, informed by our values and commitment to social justice.
Guy Ryder is Director-General of the International Labor Organization. He was first elected in 2012 and started a second term of office in 2017. He has served the ILO in various capacities including as Executive Director for labor standards and fundamental principles and rights at work. Ryder was elected General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation in 2006. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.
i Jessop describes this time–space compression as involving “the intensification of ‘discrete’ events in real time and/or increased velocity of material and immaterial flows over a given distance. This is linked to changing material and social technologies enabling more precise control over ever-shorter periods of action as well as ‘the conquest of space by time.’” See Bob Jessop, “The State and the Contradictions of the Knowledge-driven Economy,” John Bryson et al., eds., Knowledge, Space, Economy (London and New York NY: Routledge, 2000), 70.
ii Care work consists of the activities that meet the physical and emotional needs of adults and children, old and young, frail and able-bodied. It includes direct personal care as well as household maintenance tasks that are a precondition for care.
iii See IG Metall’s (2018) press release on the outcomes of the collective agreement in the railways for the metal sector, signed on 5 February 2018, in force from 1 January 2018 to 31 March 2020: “Ein starker Tarifabschluss: Mehr Geld und mehr Selbstbestimmung bei der Arbeitszeit” (Press Release, 22/2018, IG Metall, Frankfurt: 2018).
iv For Weber, social order—in contrast to disorder or chaos—depends on class, status (or social honor) and party (political power). Social honor in this context refers to the approval, respect, and admiration a group is able to command. Status groups are typically communities, linked by a common lifestyle. See Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Talcott Parsons, ed., (New York NY: Free Press, 1964).
John Agnew, “The New Global Economy: Time-Space Compression, Geopolitics, and Global Uneven Development,” Journal of World-Systems Research 7, no. 2 (2001), 133–154.
Günseli Berik, “Toward More Inclusive Measures of Economic Well-being: Debates and Practices” (International Labor Organization (ILO) Future of Work Research Paper Series, no. 2: 2018), https:// www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/--cabinet/documents/publication/wcms_630602.pdf.
Derek Gregory et al., eds., The Dictionary of Human Geography, fifth edition (Malden MA: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009).
Working Anytime, Anywhere: The Effects on the World of Work (ILO and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Publications Office of the European Union, Geneva and Luxembourg: 2017).
3 International Labor Organization (ILO) Flagship Programme - OSH-GAP: Occupational Safety and Health: Global Action for Prevention (ILO, Geneva: 2017), https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/- --ed_dialogue/---lab_admin/documents/projectdocumentation/wcms_541545.pdf.
4 “Convention Limiting the Hours of Work in Industrial Undertakings to Eight in the Day and Forty-eight in the week (Entry into force: 13 Jun 1921” (Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, no. 1, International Labor Organization (ILO), Washington DC: 1919), https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/ f ? p =N O R M L E X P U B :1 210 0 : 0 : : N O : : P1 210 0 _ I L O _ C O D E : C 0 01.
5 “Convention concerning the Application of the Weekly Rest in Industrial Undertakings (Entry into force: 19 Jun 1923)” (Weekly Rest (Industry) Convention, no. 14, ILO, Geneva: 1921), https:// w w w.ilo.org /dyn/normlex /en/f?p=1000:12100:::NO:12100:P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:312159.
12 Sangheon Lee and Deirdre McCann, “Negotiating Working Time in Fragmented Labour Markets: Realising the Promise of ‘Regulated Flexibility,’” S. Hayter, ed., The Role of Collective Bargaining in the Global Economy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2011), 47–75.
15 Nora Dudwick, “The Relationship Between Jobs and Social Cohesion: Some Examples from Ethnography” (Background Paper for World Development Report 2013: Jobs, The World Bank Group, Washington DC: 2013).
16 Janice Fine, “Alternative Labour Protection Movements in the United States: Reshaping Industrial Relations?,” International Labour Review 154, no. 1, Special Issue: “What Future for Industrial Relations?” (2015), 15–26.
17 Edward Webster, “The Shifting Boundaries of Industrial Relations: Insights from South Africa,” International Labour Review 154, no. 1, Special Issue: “What future for industrial relations?” (2015), 27–36.
18 Hannah Johnston and Chris Land-Kazlauskas, “Organizing on Demand: Representation, Voice, and Collective Bargaining in the ‘Gig’ Economy” (Conditions of Work and Employment Series Working Paper, no. 94, ILO, Geneva: 2018).
19 Lydia Savage, “Justice for Janitors: Scales of Organizing and Representing Workers,” Luis L. M. Aguiar and Andrew Herod, eds., The Dirty Work of Neoliberalism: Cleaners in the Global Economy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 214–234.
23 “Resolution I: Resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilization” (Nineteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians, Geneva: 2013), https://www.ilo.org/ wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---stat/documents/normativeinstrument/wcms_230304.pdf.