The Future of Work – The Global Challenge

The global challenge of work is two-fold. First, will automation, in its various forms, destroy jobs? And second, even if not, will workers be paid enough to sustain the global economic system? This is why the former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has said the problem of “good jobs” is the central problem of the richer economies.

The combination of economic stagnation, global competition and digital technology has created something of a social and public panic about work. We are losing “the race against the machine,” or reaching “the end of labor”. But there are two diverging stories about the future of work, one dystopian, one utopian, as Flipchart Rick has observed. On the one hand: it “will revolutionise the workplace … and enable us to have more fulfilled working lives.” And on the other: a future “of factories without people, of vanishing jobs, of a hollowed out labour market and … vast profits with few employees.”

Our present model of work is, broadly, a creature of the industrial revolution, dominated by the division of labour, the supervision of labour, and payment of workers for their time or their tasks. This includes so-called “new economy” models such as Uber, whose casualisation of its workforce would be recognised by any 19th or 20th century dock-worker. Some of the big shifts shaping work reinforce this model. Others are starting to reshape it, potentially marking the start of a transition beyond it.

To understand how this is likely to change over the next decade and beyond, we need to understand the global landscape of work. These are a shift towards services, the globalisation of supply chains, the growth of ubiquitous technology, an increased squeeze on resources, and a shift in social values towards well-being. These pull in different directions.

Globalisation and digitisation take you towards rawer forms of capitalism, whereas resources and values take you towards more inclusive versions. The way you deliver services depends on which model of these two that you prefer. The version of the story about the future of work you subscribe to tends to depend on your assumptions about how these drivers will play out.

The shift to services: The deep shift in the global economy is in the long-term rise of services to “become the dominant economic activity” (UNIDO, 2009). The economists Timmer and Akkus (2008) describe this as a “powerful historical pathway of structural transformation,” which every country follows.

One of the reasons for the long boom in living standards in the 20th century was because of the long boom in manufacturing, the dominant economic trend for much of the century. Productivity growth and economic growth tends to fall as services become dominant, and the influence of trades unions, which are effective in maintaining the value of wages, tends to decline.

The globalisation of the supply chain: Manufacturing is also tradable, meaning that it is open to export competition. The growth of the Asian economies, in particular China, has been extensively driven by manufacturing. Taking a long view, Asia’s share of world production almost doubled between 1970 to 2008, from 15.5% to 28.5%, at the expense of Europe and North America. (Unido, 2009). This growth was driven largely by the development of containerisation, not digital technology, because it transformed shipping costs.

But globalisation is reaching its limits. Wages in export sectors in both China and India are now relatively high (a pattern seen in other emerging economies in the past) and companies are moving their production closer to their markets, both anticipating rising transport costs and wanting to be able to respond more flexibly to demand.

The other effect of globalisation, of course, is an increase in migration: more than 500 million people globally now live in a country they weren’t born in. Economists generally agree that immigration is good for economies. Migrants tend to be younger, more enterprising, and economically active, and their effect on wages, economic growth and tax contributions is almost completely positive. However, in weak labour markets migration also tends to push down unskilled wages by increasing competition for such jobs; such competition is gamed by unscrupulous employers.

The growth of ubiquitous technology: There is a widespread fear that the rise of robots – or more exactly, a combination of computing power, algorithms and robotics – will destroy the labour market, even, possibly, the very idea of labour value. A widely publicised study by Oxford University academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne argued that for the United States jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the conventional occupational classifications (Frey and Osborne, 2013). In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee suggest a reason: that computing power is capable of exponential growth in performance over time, and that we’re just at the start of that progression. If robotics did for blue-collar work, then artificial intelligence will do for white collar work.

This argument, however, tends to miss the fact that technological innovation, historically, has created new jobs, typically after a period of turbulent transition. In his analysis of the labour market, David Autor (2014) finds that between 1999 and 2007 “routine task-intensive” jobs were indeed largely removed by computerisation, while knowledge jobs (“abstract task-intensive”) tended to survive or increase where human knowledge was complemented by computers. “Manual task-intensive” jobs, at the less-skilled end of the market, were much less affected by computerisation, and demand for them seemed to be rising. Yet their wages fell. His explanation: labour supply for these jobs increased because of the collapse in demand for “routine task-intensive” jobs.

The squeeze on resources: Population and consumption pressures mean that we are breaching many of the natural planetary boundaries. For capitalism this is a new game: traditionally it has been able to use resources without worrying much about the consequences. And after a century of cheap energy, the long-run trend is up, despite the current downward blip in the oil price. In our recent Futures Company report The 21st Century Business, Jules Peck and I argue that this resource shift is changing the way that companies behave; we are moving to post-sustainability (socially, economically, and environmentally). An important element is a shift from consumers to citizens, among both customers and employees, where the overall impact of a business matters. An example: it’s argued that one of the reasons why McDonald’s sales are slumping among Millennials is that eating there is depressing, because of “the feeling that the people behind the counter, flipping burgers and taking orders, have dead-end jobs where they’re treated poorly.”

The shift to wellbeing: One of the long trends is a trend towards wellbeing, physical and psychological, individual and social. This complements one of the strong workplace trends: that significant competitive performance is typically produced only by empowered and engaged employees, who are intrinsically motivated to work for the business. This is true of lower-wage environments as well as higher-wage businesses.

Striking research by Zeynep Ton (2014) has found that companies such as Costco in the United States and Mercadona in Spain out-perform their sectors – by some margin – through a combination of better wages, significant investment in training, and appropriate technological investment to support staff. With such a “good jobs” strategy, increases in wages translate directly into far larger sales increases. High value work benefits individuals, businesses, as well as society as a whole.

The Future of the Company – Options and Possibilities

There is little that is guaranteed but change is certain. In the words of Lawrence Bloom, the co-founder of B.e Energy (a triple bottom line energy company), we are no longer in an age of change but in a change of age. The world faces three converging crises – economic, environmental and social – that require urgent and visionary action. Behind these crises are the failure of a worldview based on the single-minded pursuit of growth and the failure to work collaboratively to ensure that benefits are shared widely.

In the next decade, we will certainly see the effects of our failure to proactively address challenges such as inequality, the regulation of financial markets and youth unemployment. The effects of our failure to make capitalism inclusive will become apparent: we have a generation of young people with uncertain prospects and we face rising inequality with a rising share going to the wealthy even as our wages stagnate. The corporation will be increasingly associated with these problems due to its status as the place where much of the distribution of the benefits of capitalism take place.

We have already started to see the effects of climate change and business has started to sit up and take notice. How will we react and will we be able to turn the ship around? The answer to this question largely depends on the readiness of the corporate sector to support progressive political solutions. It is becoming patently clear that exhausting the planet’s resources is not an option – a growing number of politicians and business leaders recognize we cannot burn our fossil fuel reserves without destroying the world as we know it.

Not all is grim; in the next decade we will witness the continued rise of a new generation of leaders pushing for responsible business, broader recognition of the need for gender and racial diversity in boardrooms and C-suites, and the shift of power from the global north to south and from west to east. Companies from emerging economies will certainly take on a key role in the global economy. They will bring with them different models of governance which might be more able to respond to changing conditions, although they will also introduce new challenges. Finally, the line between public and private will continue to blur. There will be mounting pressure from civil society and the general public for sustainability in business and for corporations to take responsibility for the impacts generated by their value chains and off-shore operations. The reordering of transnational legal and political frameworks will offer us the opportunity to revision the respective roles of the State, the corporation and civil society. Concerted effort is needed to nudge the process in the direction of democracy and broad-based participation.

On our current path, another crash of the financial markets is highly likely. We have not addressed the root causes of the 2008 crisis and momentum for a significant overhaul of the markets has slowed to a crawl. Will the erosion of trust in business caused by the cyclical boom-and-bust nature of markets have an impact on policy-making? It’s hard to say.

The relative power of stakeholders within companies is similarly uncertain: will employees regain their voice? Will responsible investors play a more important role in influencing companies?

There are several events that could occur at the world stage that would have a profound impact on the global economy: another global energy crisis, the eclipse of Western economies by emerging economies, and the dissolution of the European Union.

The overarching uncertainties are whether we will see a rebalancing of power between different stakeholders, whether big business and key interested parties will lead or resist a rebalancing of influence, and how big a crisis is needed to jar us from our current trajectory. The risk is that entrenched interests that benefit from the current state of play will thwart reforms that threaten to limit their influence.

The Future of the Company – Proposed Way Forward

The backlash against big corporations has already fostered interest in alternative business models that will continue to gain momentum over the next decade. There is not one perfect alternative to publicly listed companies but rather a plurality of legal structures that each have certain benefits and drawbacks, including privately held companies, partnerships, benefit corporations, cooperatives, and worker-owned enterprises.

Major changes are on the way for company boards. Although problematic, the concept of stewardship has become the go-to response for regulators seeking to address short-termism in the markets, along with increasing shareholder rights. In theory, strengthening ‘shareholder democracy’ by giving shareholders additional powers such as a say-on-pay seems like a good way to encourage institutional investors like pensions and sovereign funds to steer companies in the right direction. In practice, however, it is unclear whether we can expect investors to take on this responsibility. A slight variation on this would be to assign different powers to different classes of shares.

It may be that other stakeholders besides shareholders will take on an increasingly important role. Board level employee representation is well established in much of continental Europe and has started to receive some attention at the EU level. Board diversity is also a key topic now and will almost certainly be into the future. We may see reserved seats for women, visible minorities, and other traditionally under-represented groups.

The classic maxim says that what is measured is what matters. The traditional focus of firms on measuring and reporting on almost exclusively financial indicators is changing to look at a broader set of indicators. In the EU, the recently adopted Non-Financial Reporting Directive requires certain large European companies to disclose information about environmental matters, social and employee-related matters, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery matters. Integrated Reporting (<IR>) was devised less than a decade ago but has been picked up by an increasing number of companies who welcome the ability to tell a story about the whole picture of the company, which is often overlooked in quarterly reports. Closely related is the question of how to share information about companies to potential investors and the public. There are several ideas out there for developing benchmarks and labeling standards to identify sustainable companies and financial products, similar to what has been done for Fair Trade products.

There are two main ways to influence behaviour: sticks and carrots. Ideally, we will push companies to be pro-social through a combination of both regulatory policy and economic incentives. For example, there has been a lot of discussion in the context of climate change about introducing taxation of externalities, e.g. carbon taxes, as well as a carbon market. The EU has also considered proposals to impose a transaction tax on financial markets to reduce volatility and generate revenue, which has been used in other jurisdictions with inconclusive results. We may see requirements imposed to devote a certain percentage of revenue to CSR, as is being implemented in parts of Asia.

The Benefit Corporation and similar models might be supported by governments, either by tax incentives or by preferential treatment in public procurement. Farsighted States may reform their company law to introduce mandatory elements of corporate purpose, such as, for example, the concept of making decisions with an aim to remaining within our planetary boundaries, and adjusting directors’ duties and responsibilities accordingly. These changes have the potential to have high impact because they could shift economic activity to a new model – and for that reason, they are unlikely to be implemented. Other debated regulatory reforms include caps on executive pay and/or pegging executive pay to non-financial returns; changing the rules on the legal liability of multinational enterprises to allow parent companies to be held legally liable for the actions of their foreign subsidiaries; and restrictions on firms’ right to buy back their shares. Each of these reforms is potentially important but it is only when they are taken together that they have a chance to lead to system-wide changes to business conduct.

In terms of incentives, almost any of the regulatory reforms discussed in the previous paragraph could be framed instead as an incentive with a bit of ingenuity. Additional ideas include introducing incentives for boards to change their composition or to balance the short-term financial interests of the company with long-term and/or non-financial interests. Thoughtful policymaking is needed; indeed, perhaps the best we can do is to try to ‘nudge’ behaviour in the right direction and closely monitor the results, ever ready to react to changes.