The future of work is not what it used to be

How are technological change and digitalisation impacting on work, and what does this mean for its future? This has been the focus of various activities including studies, conferences and online events undertaken by the European Training Foundation (ETF) and its partners over the past five years.

“One of the biggest difficulties to track novel labour market changes and project the future of working and learning is the lack of evidence for policy making”, said Iwona Ganko, ETF Human Capital Development Expert.

This has been especially true when it comes to platform work, whereby companies use smartphone applications and algorithms to match clients and contractors. Not that there hasn`t been progress.

“When we started an investigation in early 2020, just before the pandemic, we could not even find a common definition of platform work,” said Ganko. Here even the European Union is playing catch-up in this mostly unregulated realm, and is finally about to issue a directive to cover this constantly evolving. The new EU Directive will try “to stabilize the definition of platform work” and improve data collection.

Ubiquitous thanks to those high-profile ride hailing and delivery services, so-called “on-location” platform work is one significant shift away from the standard 9-to-5 system. Platforms also manage labour relations for higher-end services that are typically performed remotely and delivered digitally, such as coding and graphic design. In addition to the platforms, the 21st century is also witnessing remote work, freelancing, consulting, short-term labour contacts, voucher work, to name a few, that don`t involve a daily commute to the office or factory. These include.

With the EU Directive imminent, and studies completed or on the near horizon in the partner countries of the EU neighbourhood, it is time for the ETF to take stock.

 “Working conditions are changing within the new forms of work, particularly in platform work,” said Ganko. “Now we are in the moment of reflection about what to do next.”

Reflection is not a synonym for stagnation or inaction, however. The next step in the process is an online event titled “The changing nature of work: ensuring everyone benefits”, featuring experts from Serbia and the Oxford Internet Institute. They will talk about: how digital developments affect employment relationships; the benefits of new forms of work; how to reconcile labour flexibility, skills development and social protection; and best practices.

Below are some of the highlights, lessons learned and surprises from the last five years:

Global experience with variations

  • Building on the reflection made by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other international organisations , ETF decided “to map certain trends” in the nature of work in its partner countries in the European neighbourhood. This included a major conference and a written report. “We realized that the impact was different depending on the [level of] development, the starting point, and policies,” Ganko said. Globalization also played a role.

That led to consultations with people in the partner countries of the Western Balkans, the Southern Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Discussions focused on “labour needs and skills needs in specific sectors with innovation potential,” she said.

  • Research has revealed that platforms offered an unprecedented “opportunity for perfect matching of a labour demand and labour supply,” Ganko said. It also revealed a world where “employment is not called employment and employees are not called employees.” At the same, new forms of work give space to use and further develop skills. ‘We just need to find the way to recognise the work and skills independently of how they are delivered or developed’, she added.

More widespread than expected

  • Given a mandate from the EU to look at platforms and related phenomena in partner countries, ETF first set its sights on Ukraine where there was already clear evidence of shifting labour relations.

Yet, even in relatively small countries such as Albania or Armenia, digitalisation meant that “countries are becoming more open, and individuals are becoming more open.” Researchers “noticed a certain prevalence of and shift towards new forms of work, and ‘platformisation’ of work in all the countries that we looked at. That was a surprise,” Ganko recalled.

Back to the future for vulnerable groups

One initial assumption was that digitalization and the rise of flexible forms of work could especially benefit vulnerable groups that face huge barriers in the standard labour market. This would include persons with disabilities and mothers with young children. “We were very optimistic,” said Ganko.

But the research turned up something different. “New forms of work are actually deepening and replicating the mismatches we already have in the standard labour market,” she said. One example would be the disparity in demand between highly-skilled individuals and low-skilled people. “This polarization is deepening as we research it.”

Yes, We Still Lack Data

“Not all countries actually realise what is happening on the ground,” she noted. There are few if any reporting requirements for platform companies and others who rely on new forms of work. ETF and its sister agencies Cedefop and Eurofound are working to produce more and better figures.

New forms of work “are actually appearing as we talk,” said Ganko. “So, they are not really regulated. This is why there is this huge discussion, for example, about social protection and certain [labour] rights for everyone, independent of the type of contract or not having a contract. This is a very prominent discussion right now.”

The draft European Commission Directive would require platform companies to report on things such as the number of transactions and the number of people who work with them.

“Without information and data, we cannot direct the policies,” Ganko added. “This is our biggest challenge.”





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