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Facing the Future: Institutions and Work in the 21st Century

8 May 2017

Facing the Future: Institutions and Work in the 21st Century
The rapid advance of digital technologies has left an undeniable mark on modern labour markets and is almost certain to continue to reshape the world of work in the future. How we address the challenges posed by this digital transformation depends on how we come to understand its impacts, and how well we are able to adapt our social policies and institutions to the new reality of work in the 21st century.

Kelly Stetter is Research Analyst with the Social Policy and Development Programme at UNRISD. She holds Master's degrees in Development Studies (Graduate Institute, Geneva, 2016) and Latin American and Caribbean Studies (New York University, 2013) and has previously researched linkages between education and industrial policy, and NGO-led service provision.

Navigating the known and the unknown

Working towards a sustainable and equitable future for all presents known and unknown challenges. This is to say, some challenges are already familiar to us, while others are yet to fully reveal themselves. Among the known, poverty has existed since time immemorial and persists even in the most developed corners of the world, and rising inequality within and between nations and environmental degradation present additional hurdles for global development. These known challenges are the main focus of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to address the most pressing global issues of our time in order to secure a just, sustainable future for all.

The transformation of the global economy through the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, which blurs the lines between the physical and the digital, presents a different type of challenge. The expansion of digitally-enabled non-traditional forms of work, such as “gig” work via online platforms, is already eroding long-standing traditions of 20th century industrialization, and automation and artificial intelligence are replacing increasingly large segments of the currently human workforce. Yet, despite the impact that these innovations are already having, exactly how they will reshape our societies and social policy structures remains unknown. This is especially true in the labour market, where existing institutions are proving to be poor shelter from the winds of change.

Such was the topic of much discussion at the ILO’s recent Global Dialogue event, The Future of Work We Want, which sought to work towards a greater understanding of these challenges and identify effective policy responses to address them. Of the many topics debated over the two-day event, a central message arose time and time again: a repackaging of 20th century institutions is not fit for purpose in the face of 21st century problems. While we strive to address the known challenges facing global development, we must also be open to new approaches to tackling the emerging challenges unfolding before us.

21st century institutions for 21st century challenges

Despite agreement on the need for innovative institutions to face new challenges, the picture of what these institutions should look like is less defined. What is clear is that, at a time when multilateralism seems to be in danger, global agreement and coordinated action is perhaps more important than ever. The use of artificial intelligence and automation poses a tangible threat to employment-based social security systems, and as a result, recent headlines have debated the virtues of taxing the use of robots as a response to these pressures. Yet, without global agreements, a tax on robots will only lead to flows of robots and automation from one country to another. Further, many of the problems that arise from digitally-enabled non-standard forms of work have to do with companies distancing themselves from the responsibility to ensure the health, safety and well-being of workers, without relinquishing corresponding control over the work being performed. In the absence of global frameworks that universally apply the necessary pressure to recouple power with responsibility, this process may remain unchecked.

In addition to the continuing importance of multilateralism, 21st century institutions must be inclusive of the array of stakeholders affected by 21st century challenges. Innovations like the rising gig-economy employment model require a rethinking of the basic principles of regulation as well as representation of workers’ interests. Collective bargaining remains an essential component to ensuring that the rights of workers are realized and protected, but the structures that protected these fundamental rights in the last century are not inherently fit to do so in a changing labour landscape. As non-standard work increases, traditional labour unions must evolve to represent the interests of those outside of their membership at the margins of the labour market, at home and abroad, in order to contribute to a just future of work. Ensuring that the voices of those in precarious positions are heard and their rights protected is essential to addressing future labour challenges. This means a reimagining of the institutional arrangements and regulations that governed labour relationships in the last century in order to advocate for all workers in an increasingly global, digital market.

And, while these concerns are indeed important, new institutions must not omit those who have long been excluded from the protections of formal labour relationships. In many ways, the concern over increasing flexibilization and automation of work and the quest for effective policy responses reveal biases within the international system. We speak of the growth of non-traditional work arrangements as if they were a deviation from a global employment norm, when in reality workers with formal contracts represent only a minority of the global workforce. We debate how to counteract increasing flexibility in labour relationships, when labour market flexibility has been pushed on the South for decades as a development strategy. Just as we cannot force ourselves back into another reality, we cannot force institutions from one context onto another, a lesson that has become clear to development scholars and practitioners. New multilateral and multi-stakeholder approaches to the challenges of the future of work must, from their inception, consider the reality of work and its place within diverse societies around the world.

Ensuring that the new is also transformative

UNRISD has long advocated for transformative change through innovative and inclusive policies that address the root causes of global development challenges rather than their symptoms. For new institutions to mitigate the potentially negative impacts of the uncertain future of work for all people within and beyond the labour market, they must by their very nature be transformative. Despite the recent pushback against multilateralism, the new agreements and institutions that will be essential to ensuring that the future of work does not exacerbate inequality and marginalization must be rooted in a sense of solidarity on a global scale, both within and between nations. And without strong guiding norms focused on social justice and sustainability, new institutions may not have their desired effects. However, this will not happen on its own. In order to build the institutions for the future of work, and for sustainable development more broadly, it is essential to understand the impact of these ongoing and future changes on the lives of individuals. UNRISD research contributes to this objective by questioning not just the aggregate impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but by examining the effects that these shifts in the global economy have on the welfare and well-being of people and communities. Because only once we unshroud the challenges surrounding the future of work can we devise appropriate policy solutions to address them, thus realising the 2030 Agenda’s vision that no one is left behind, now or in the future.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.