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.' Technological innovations enable more precise control of ever-shorter periods of economic activity and allow for the connection of dispersed production locations in...