Making Technology Work for Workers
For workers, coping with the rapid technology-driven transformation of labor markets, without sacrificing dignity, autonomy, or ambition, will require a combination of economic mobility and financial security that can be delivered through a new kind of social safety net – one that puts benefits squarely in the hands of the individual.
NEW YORK – As technological innovation transforms our economies, workers all over the world are doing whatever it takes – whether crossing borders, changing jobs, or starting businesses – for a chance to thrive. Yet, social safety nets have been much slower to change, meaning that workers in transition are often highly vulnerable. What will it take to safeguard workers in the labor market of the future?
In the not-too-distant past, most workers were employed in the same industry – often at the same company – for most of their careers. But today, nearly 40% of employed people in the European Union are in atypical employment (not working under a full-time, open-ended contract) or self-employed. The average working-age American today will hold 11 jobs over their lifetime, with many working multiple jobs at once.
Globally, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030, up to 375 million workers (14% of the workforce) will need to switch occupational categories in order to meet the needs of a shifting labor market. Moreover, all workers will need to adapt – acquiring new knowledge and skills – as their jobs evolve alongside increasingly capable machines. If automation will shape the future of work, life-long learning will determine the future of workers, especially as workers’ lives become longer.
Coping with these changes, without sacrificing dignity, autonomy, or ambition, will require a combination of economic mobility and financial security that can be delivered through a new kind of social safety net – one that puts benefits squarely in the hands of the individual. Workers should not have to choose between facing a period of severe vulnerability as they shift occupations and clinging to the same job until it becomes obsolete, just so they do not lose their benefits. Just as technology is disrupting their work lives, it can ensure that they are protected by enabling the delivery of benefits that accrue over a person’s working life, regardless of the type of work they do or where in the world they do it.
Some governments are already responding to this imperative. In 2015, France established individual training accounts for all private-sector workers, accessible from when they first join the labor market to when they retire. Every employee receives 24 hours of training per year of full-time work until they reach a threshold of 120 hours, at which point they receive 12 hours per year of training.
More recently, Singapore created “individual learning accounts” for each citizen over age 24. Account balances can be spent on skills training from approved providers. Similar models have been proposed in Canada, China, and Egypt. In the United States, legislators in a handful of states and cities are drafting bills to test and fund portable benefits.
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Our newest magazine, The Year Ahead 2022: Reckonings, is here. To receive your print copy, delivered wherever you are in the world, subscribe to PS for less than $9 a month.
As a PS subscriber, you’ll also enjoy unlimited access to our On Point suite of premium long-form content, Say More contributor interviews, The Big Picture topical collections, and the full PS archive.
But, the responsibility for developing universal portable benefits cannot fall only on governments. The private sector must also help to ensure that all workers – from the migrant to the miner to the marketing professional – have access to the tools and services they need to achieve financial security today and remain agile and productive throughout their lives.
Fortunately, progress is being made here, too, with some startups offering the kind of people-centered tech that will underpin the social safety nets of the future. For example, Trezeo developed a bank account that, using artificial intelligence, provides interest-free loans and ensures consistent pay for independent workers, even during slow periods. France’s Bob Emploi uses AI and government data to provide job seekers with personalized assessments of their prospects.
To encourage continued progress, Mastercard has joined with the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce Future Work Centre to create the Economic Security Impact Accelerator. The partnership – which aims to facilitate the development and deployment of innovative initiatives that directly promote good work and civic inclusion, while ensuring secure and reliable household incomes – shows how private-sector actors can come together and discover new ways of working by leveraging their technology and knowhow.
We have seen firsthand the impact of such joint projects. Jaza Duka – a partnership among Mastercard, Unilever, and Kenya Commercial Bank – is a digital platform that, since its introduction in 2017, has been helping to ensure that small merchants have access to the working capital they need to compete and grow.
But, developing such a program in one market is only the first step. A common framework must also be created so that such programs can be scaled up and implemented in different contexts. For example, delivering benefit “points,” rather than money denominated in a particular currency, would allow schemes to operate across borders at a time when workers increasingly need to do the same. And standardized educational credentials would retain their value as they moved with those who have earned them.
As the nature of work changes, so must the nature of benefit systems. To deliver opportunities and security to everyone, everywhere at a time of widespread technological disruption, governments and private-sector actors must work together to advance innovative solutions that meet the urgent and evolving needs of workers. The best way to do this is by taking advantage of the very technologies that are causing the upheaval.