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Going from more to better jobs

Siv Tokle's picture
Also available in: 中文

This is part of a series of blogs focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and data from the 2016 Edition of World Development Indicators.


Sustainable Development Goal 8 makes a specific commitment to improve the quality of employment. Its targets go beyond economic growth and more employment; they now commit us to job creation that is sustainable, more productive and inclusive. This is particularly applicable to women: the data show that women are disproportionately employed in lower productivity sectors.

Disparities exist between the work of men and women

The differences between male and female work remain notable across regions and sectors. Women make up a smaller share of employment in all regions - amounting to a third of male employment in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. In general, women also work disproportionally in agriculture and in the informal sectors, both of which have lower levels of productivity than other sectors. Allowing these women to work more, and work in more productive areas, will reap huge economic dividends, and allow us to meet the challenge of the SDGs.

So how do we create jobs through growth? The key is in productivity - an elusive term. Sustained economic growth happens through higher levels of productivity, both within sectors and by shifting to sectors that generate higher value. Regions or countries that have managed to transform the structure of their economy towards industry and services have a higher gross national income per capita.

Low-productivity agriculture still dominates in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Raising agricultural productivity should facilitate greater structural transformation and a reallocation of resources and workers to other activities. Much of this agenda will need to focus on the service sector, in which more and more people are working. Many services are labor-intensive, but in many countries, their productivity remains low. Finding ways to make these jobs more productive is key to meeting the targets of SDG 8.

Measuring “quality” employment

Many people around the world are not working to their full capacity. It might be that they are only working for a few hours a day, when they would prefer to be working full-time. Or that their skill levels are not equal to the job they have, such as graduates working as cleaners. But measuring the precise number is difficult, given that it is a question of preference. Unlike unemployment, under-employment is not binary; it is more nuanced. Even if it makes it hard to measure, it does not detract from the problem.


The need for full employment was recognized in Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Much has been achieved. Unemployment in 2014 was, on average, 6 percent in low-income countries, 5 percent in lower middle-income countries, 6 percent in upper middle-income countries and 7 percent in high-income countries. But these numbers are skewed by the large number of people who are not actually in the work force. Globally the labor force participation rate stands at 69 percent, and is highest in low-income countries (79 percent). In these countries, people are generally too poor not to work and may be on subsistence or in informal low-productivity activities. For them, the real problem is not the lack of a job - it is the lack of productive work within that job.

The SDGs take on this jobs challenge. There is now recognition that poor-quality employment is as serious a problem as unemployment. This shift can be seen in how the jobs challenge has been articulated in the MDGs and now the SDGs.

At the heart of the twelve targets of SDG 8 is employment generation through expanded economic opportunities and growth. The private sector is called on to propel sustainable development and serve as a key engine of investment and growth. This will support the structural transformation that developing countries need by delivering better, more productive jobs.

Concepts and data challenges

Measuring progress towards the varied and complex targets associated with SDG 8 across all countries will be a challenge. While improvements continue to be made in establishing international standards on labor statistics, there are big differences in the systems and capacities for data collection and analysis. The size of the informal sector in many countries makes monitoring progress on this even more difficult.

There is a lot we do not know about the dynamic relationships between policies and employment, investment and jobs, and growth and jobs. In particular, we need an expanded data agenda that captures more of the demand side of labor markets, which will aid countries in developing strategic responses and policies to meet the targets under SDG 8. By doing this, we can help people find better jobs, make more money, provide greater opportunities for their families and escape the burden of under-employment.

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