World Development Report 2019
Your neighbor drives for a ride-sharing company. Your nephew just joined his third start-up. Your daughter lands a job as a freelance journalist. Your street vendor who sells flowers down the street has been absent due to an illness.
The changing nature of work is upending traditional employment. But as the gig economy, part-time jobs, contracts and other diverse and fluid forms of employment grow, what happens to the protections the traditional job market offered to people and workers?
It’s not so long since the days when speaking of ‘universal health coverage’ used to provoke shockwaves. Happily, the principle that “… everyone having access to the health care they need without suffering financial hardship” is now widely recognized and documented. And although few countries have achieved this goal in practice, it is clearly within reach, including in low-income countries like Rwanda.
In 1997, Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest chess players in history, lost a chess match to a supercomputer called Deep Blue. Some years later Kasparov developed “advanced chess,” where a human and a computer team up to play against another human and computer. This mutation of chess is mutually beneficial: the human player has access to the computer’s ability to calculate moves, while the computer benefits from human intuition.
Our starting point is to deal with what we know – and the biggest challenge that the future of work faces – and has faced for decades – is the vast numbers of people who live day to day on casual labor, not knowing from one week to the next if they will have a job and unable to plan ahead, let alone months rather than years, for their children’s prosperity. We call this the informal economy – and as with so much pseudo-technical language which erects barriers, the phrase fails to convey the abject state of purgatory to which it condemns millions of workers and their families around the world.
Do you wonder if the good fortune and opportunities that you’ve enjoyed in your professional life will be available to your children, and to their children? At a time of strong global economic growth, it may seem paradoxical that we face an existential crisis around the future of work. But the pace of innovation is accelerating, and the jobs of the future – in a few months or a few years – will require specific, complex skills.
In short, the changing nature of work – and how best to prepare people for the jobs of the future – are some of the toughest challenges countries face, which is why they’re the subject of this year’s World Development Report.
Because the future of work matters to all of us, we decided to give this report an unprecedented level of transparency. For the first time since the World Bank began publishing the WDR in 1978, the report is completely transparent throughout the writing process. Every Friday afternoon, the latest draft is uploaded to the World Bank website, so that anyone with internet access has an opportunity to read it and engage with the team of authors. I can’t promise that the WDR won’t have changed a week from now, which is why I encourage you to keep revisiting it as we keep revising it.
For new readers, here are a few insights into the report’s contents that I hope will get you thinking about the future of work:
IT’S robots that mostly come to mind when you ask people about the future of work. Robots taking our jobs, to be specific. And it’s a reaction that’s two centuries old, in a replay of Lancashire weavers attacking looms and stocking frames at the start of the first Industrial Revolution. A secondary reaction, among a much smaller group, is the creation of new jobs in the coming fourth Industrial Revolution.
Professor Ed Glaeser at Harvard neatly summarizes this dichotomy in one figure:
One of the encouraging signs that I pick up whenever I travel is the difference that technology is making to the lives of millions of marginalized people. In most cases it’s happening on a small, non-flashy scale in hundreds of different ways, quietly improving the opportunities that that have been denied to remote communities, women and young people for getting a foot on the ladder.
And because it is discreet and under the radar I dare as an optimist to suggest that we are at the beginning of something big – a slow tsunami of success. Let me give you some reasons why I believe this.
“I like work, it fascinates me,” said Jerome K Jerome. “I can sit and look at it for hours.” We concur with the author of “Three Men in a Boat’, a novel which so fascinated Late Victorian England that, within a year of publication, the number of vessels on the River Thames had doubled.
We too love work and we anticipate that our devotion to it will result in Jeromesque adulation. The early signs are good; our report is still in draft stage but it has already been downloaded more than 20,000 times. You can discover for yourself why it’s proving so popular by clicking here.
As economists our fascination with work has nothing to do with Jerome’s mirthful quip (but just think how many enduring jobs were created as a result of his fictitious river journey) and everything to do with untangling a riddle that is embedded in the zeitgeist. Google ‘the future of work’ and, in 0.56 seconds, 115,000,000 results appear.
We are living through transformative, perhaps epochal times, when the only thing we can be sure of is persisting uncertainty. What will our children do for a living? Never mind the kids, what about us -will we make it to retirement? And how will we pay for it? Will the robots rise against us?