Uncertain Times, Uncertain Jobs or Both?

I recently braved lows of -10°C and highs of -1°C to visit the IDB’s headquarters in Washington, DC, for the Jobs in Uncertain Times- Facing up to the Slowdown, Technological Change and Precarious Work a conference.  The conference clearly conveyed the fact that the world of work is rapidly changing.

Much of these changes are being precipitated by evolving technological innovation and growth, a mushrooming cycle of labor market mismatch, oscillating economic peaks and troughs, demographics (population growth and death trends), and rising inequalities of income.  According to the authors of Jobs for Growth (page 3, IDB, 2015), these changes have created ‘the vicious cycle of informality and instability’.

Employees no longer hold a job for 10, 20 or 30 years. These days employees are awarded for being in a job for as little as five years.  Some may find it disheartening, but the reality is that our generation (a lady never reveals her age) doesn’t want to be “stuck” in the same job for 10, 20, 30 years.  That being said, employees still desire job formality, stability and security.

What do you understand by ‘informality’ and ‘instability’ as it relates to the world of work?

To get a sense of informality in the workplace, consider those around you, and you are likely to find many people have jobs that provide little or no social security benefits, i.e. pensions, health care, credit union membership.  That is the gist of informality. It is work characterized by “a lack of access to social security benefits”(Jobs for Growth, page 3).

Now let’s go a step further. Imagine what happens when a majority of a population does not contribute toward any form of social security scheme.  There is no safety net – it’s all a free fall from here.  And yes, these persons are likely already vulnerable, in a low wage bracket, lacking protection for illness and unemployment.

Jobs for Growth shows that a direct correlation between informal jobs and ‘instability’.  In fact, this correlation rolls into a demonstrable cycle with “low job productivity” at the nexus (see diagram 1). Here, instability refers to high turnover, low or no training and poor job matches. This in turn leads to low productivity. Low productivity means employers can’t (or have a good excuse not to) provide social security.


The conference addressed other challenges including the continued elevated rates of unemployment (among youth and particularly young men), changes in the labor force, gender disparities, the mushrooming of the ‘gig economy’,  the obsolescence of many highly specialized skills, the need for continuous and lifelong learning, the replacement of the human labor force by robots and machines, changes in the ways to find work and the frequency of job transitions.

So how do we fix it? Are there viable solutions to such enormous challenges? How can governments and public and private employment services address the evolving needs and demands of a challenging employment environment?

Panelists comprising thought leaders and representatives from agencies such as the IDB, the World Association of Public Employment Services, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank, sought to explore and answer these questions. I would recommend reading The Future of Work by panelist Jacob Morgan because it gives an on-the-ground, unique perspective of the rapidly morphing employer and employee dynamic and how employers can navigate the demands of a challenging employment environmen,

These questions were also explored in Jobs for Growth (IDB, 2015). The book looks at how effective public policy can be used and offers solutions such as: i) increasing and equalizing formal jobs, ii) support of labor intermediation, iii) training geared towards re-integration and integration of adult workers, iv) policies which support unemployed workers, v) regulations which guides hiring and firing, vi) policies to enhance productive job stability, vii) training policies for the workers who are already active and viii) public policies that enable the worker to achieve a successful career path.

The World of Public Employment Services, officially launched at the conference, also offered solutions, presenting four keys for unlocking the door to effective employment services: achieving right skills matching, promoting lifelong learning, adapting to new technologies and developing partnerships. There was also discussion on strategic multichannel delivery of services, increases in institutional capacity and the importance of choosing the pertinent governance mechanisms.

This conference left no doubt that the face of work is changing. The question is – are you?

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