It is fast becoming a cliché to say that the world of work is changing. While the Industrial Revolution was a turning-point in history, it lasted around 80 years from 1760. Arguably, we are experiencing a second revolution in the world of work and, and as we enter 2017, there is a sense that work is changing more rapidly than ever before. As a result, governments and employment organizations worldwide are taking steps to attempt to define the organization and governance of the workplace of the future.
According to the International Labour Organisation, it is a global problem. Economies at all stages of development are experiencing profound changes in the nature of work due to numerous and diverse drivers such as demographic shifts, climate change, technological innovation, shifting contours of poverty and prosperity, growing inequality, economic stagnation and the changing character of production and employment. In April, the ILO is hosting an event entitled “The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue.” Bringing together leading academics and policy-makers, the event seeks “to develop effective policy responses that can shape the future of work we want” including the perspectives of young people.
Individual governments are also facing their own challenges in trying to shape employment rights, tax and benefits around a shifting paradigm. For example, the UK government has initiated four separate inquiries into the organization and practices of the modern workplace and the impact of the gig economy since October 2016. In October, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee launched an inquiry into the future world of work, “focussing on the rapidly changing nature of work, and the status and rights of agency workers, the self-employed, and those working in the ‘gig economy’.” In the same month, the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, to look at how employment practices need to change in order to keep pace with modern business models. Then, in December, the Office of Tax Simplification published its focus paper on the gig economy and taxes. Also in December, the Work and Pensions Committee launched an inquiry to examine whether the UK welfare system adequately supports the growing numbers of self-employed and gig economy workers, and how it might be adapted to suit their needs. The issues are diverse and many.
In the US, the Federal Reserve is also engaged in a similar exercise under its mandate from Congress to “promote maximum employment and stable prices.” And in May 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is due to undertake a survey of contingent workers and alternative employment arrangements in the US for the first time since 2005.
While these inquiries are yet to reach any conclusions, this level of scrutiny into aspects of the modern workplace indicates how important the issue has become in recent years. The challenge for policy-makers is to define and shape policy around new models of employment that are nowhere near settled.