Time for collective decision-making on the future of work

Work is becoming less structured, less certain and more varied, and society's stakeholders need to act in concert.

PREDICTING the future is a fraught mission. But there is a remarkable conformity of response from people of otherwise vastly different experiences when asked to describe what they feel about the future of work. One of the most common responses is "uncertainty".

It was not always this way. For many of our parents' generation, and even more that of our grandparents', the prospect of doing either the same job or of methodically advancing through the same sector, was normal. The vagaries of economics might involve passing periods of worry and unemployment, but come better times, a return to the status quo was always a reasonable expectation.

The technological, economic, political and social forces that have upended these assumptions are well understood; their consequences, less so. The speed with which "disruptors" deploying innovative and rapidly evolving developments in artificial intelligence, automation and robotics is perhaps the clearest indication that jobs we took for granted are already ceasing to exist - at least in the manner in which they have long been performed. Current predictions of the proportion of jobs in developed economies that artificial intelligence (AI) will either make extinct or change fundamentally over the next 30 years differ in degree - they range between over half and up to almost two-thirds - but not in direction.

Add to this shifting centres of higher and lower-skill production, the reallocation of primary resources in the battle with climate change and a spectrum of societal demands and expectations, and patterns emerge which make anticipating needs less the preserve of the amateur futurologist and rather more the pressing requirement of our times.

A "future of work" which is less structured, less certain and more varied is not a prediction. It is a given. It is happening now. This is why it is important to emphasise that we need not be at the mercy of impersonal forces over which we have neither foresight nor control. Those that succeed - individuals as much as companies, economic sectors and countries - will be those who neither fight these developments nor pretend they are not happening.

But this is not a call to "go with the flow" in the mistaken belief that all destruction is innately creative. To plan is to safeguard.

First, let us deal with a Pollyanna-ish belief that everything will turn out all right. If the shifting and uncertain hours that mark the "gig economy" suit your preferences for a multi-faceted portfolio career for which your spectrum of skills make you perfectly suited, then you may be thankful that technological and market forces are creating the work environment that suits your diverse and uncontainable talents. You may also feel that the greater opportunity to work flexible hours suits you if you need to prioritise family and care responsibilities.

On the other hand, if your one skill set is being repositioned from a full-time job with defined benefits to a freelance role facing relentless competitive deflationary pressure, you will naturally be less inclined to equate flexibility with freedom.

We can either let this great disruption widen inequality, or we can take steps to tackle it. Doing so is not just a task for politicians - although good government planning is a pre-requisite. It requires a new social contract between government, organisations representing employers and employees, and individuals.

That is the clear message that emerges from an important contribution by the International Labour Organisation's Global Commission on the Future of Work. Its report, "Work for a Brighter Future", will be one of the key discussion points at the ILO's centenary conference in June. It is a sign of how important Singapore's experience in readying its population for workplace challenges that intergovernmental representatives from across Asean and the wider Asia-Pacific region discussed many of these themes in a conference convened by the Ministry of Manpower on April 28 and 29.

Addressing the challenges embraces core aspects of the human experience: from fostering gender equality through greater pay transparency and initiatives to break down "male" and "female" job silos, to ensuring social insurance systems are both comprehensive and sustainable to support the pace of change. Addressing environmental challenges in ways that ultimately create more jobs than they lose is also vital. Each requires a vision that is long-term and inter-generational, and not defined by tomorrow's headlines.

Nor is it just a question of grand macroeconomic strategy and social policy. Public and private sector support for life-long learning is essential. Like Aristotle's oft-quoted dictum about excellence - the acquiring of the right skills is not a one-off act, it is a habit. Given the speed of innovation and change, there is no other way of looking at this requirement.

So while schools, colleges and universities must continually adapt curricula, teaching methods and course access requirements, other institutions must also play their part. For instance, the Singapore government's Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) has created the Tech Immersion and Placement Programme, which has partnered with General Assembly (part of the Adecco Group) to provide re-skilling in the most in-demand areas of tech, date and design.

Does this work? A good 96.7 per cent of General Assembly's immersive graduates have landed jobs in their field of training. Nor is this just for those who can afford it. With inclusivity vital if technology is not to widen social inequality, Singaporeans are eligible for subsidies in the IMDA-backed course.

Also central is the willingness of businesses to provide support. There is nothing selfless in their doing so. Where upskilling rather than reskilling is the requirement, giving employees the ability to adapt and develop is a surer way of retaining their loyalty than redirecting it to a competitor. Indeed, for many companies, giving their employees such training is the only way that the company will adapt and thrive. Train or die.

Also necessary is a willingness to match a diversifying marketplace with a more flexible workplace and office-hour structure. Companies with proportionately high levels of millennials are typically reporting that younger employees - often used to the self-motivating hours of a student life they have only recently left - baulk at a rigidly structured work routine and question its value for an "always- on" digital economy.

This experience should not be misread as youthful insubordination. Making workplace hours and attendance more flexible also suits those nearing - or at - retirement age. Given the ageing populations of developed economies and the need to balance ensuring their well-earned rest with what is often a willingness on their part to continue playing a reduced role in economic and social activity, such flexibility can represent the best of both worlds. The expansion of "time sovereignty" is also important to carers and those bringing up young families, for whom incentives and gender-neutral policies should seek a more equitable planning and sharing of responsibilities.

Although we may all, at some stage in our lives, feel like corks bobbing and drawn along by currents not of our making or choosing, we have to acknowledge at least the existence of such currents. Decisions we take now will determine whether we find ourselves up the creek or in the harbour of our choice. To work for everyone, these decisions must be taken collaboratively by the widest possible range of interested stakeholders.

  • The writer is Asia-Pacific CEO of Adecco Group