Ideological and Theoretical Implications of the Changing World of Work

Ciara McQuillan Bridson

The world of work is changing rapidly. Advances in technology and innovation are re-structuring the world of labour at an unprecedented rate, and policy makers like the ILO must keep up. The ILO’s Future of Work Initiative is dedicated to meeting the challenge presented by the changing world of labour. Its aim is to consider the impacts of changes such as technology transformation and climate change on the nature of future employment in order to continue working towards its social justice mandate. As well as the practical changes that will be experienced by workers, employers and governments, there are also certain ideological and theoretical implications for the way we understand work and our relationship to it.

Digitization of work and the gig-economy are expanding exponentially in the developing world. There are many examples of companies using robots and other forms of automation in place of workers. Even in the developing world, sectors such as the tobacco industry are increasingly using automation instead of people to harvest tobacco. This is in part due to recent increases in demand for e-cigarettes, but it also signifies a trend towards automation for efficiency gains. The concern that jobs in many industries may eventually become obsolete has been widely expressed and is neatly encapsulated in the title of Jerry Kaplan’s book, ‘Humans need not apply’.

Even if comprehensive ‘robotization’ does not become a reality, it is already evident that relationships between employers and employees are changing. The gig-economy has given rise to uncertain, ‘grey’ areas of employment. Uber drivers are only one example of workers who seem to be both an employee and self-employed at the same time. This has implications for the very essence of what signifies a ‘normal’ business or working environment. Hence, this not only has consequences for the structure of everyday life of workers and employers, but also overhauls the methodology used by regulators and organisations like the ILO when attempting to make sure work is fair and of a decent standard.

New jobs will be accompanied by new skill requirements. The ILO is already responding to changing demand for skills in the world’s labour market through quantitative and qualitative skills needs anticipation models. Mismatch between skill demand and supply must be dealt with to an extent through education. The change in skill requirements will require changes in the content of education and training that is provided to young people and students. The ILO has been utilising education to foster decent employment for many years; therefore this is not a new concept for the Future of Work programme to apply.

Changes in the world of work may have a profound effect on the way we view work, and consequently the way we view ourselves. For centuries, human beings have structured their lives around their work. If work is no longer available for many people, what will we structure our lives around? More fundamentally, work is often a cornerstone of an individual’s identity. One of the first things typically said or asked when introducing yourself is what you do for a living. What will work come to mean for individuals in the future? The changing labour market ultimately calls into question the motivation behind work. To what extent is work desired for a sense of fulfilment, compared to being driven by a need for an income? If the most can be made out of the opportunity (and challenge) of the changing world of work, we may be able to reach a time in which work is predominantly a means of fulfilment in peoples’ lives.

It is already understood that education is a tool to develop well-rounded human beings, as well as being a means to finding a job. Education allows an individual to make the most out of his or her situation, and it is therefore imperative that it is used to respond to the changing nature of work. How we educate ourselves and what we educate ourselves on has direct implications for how we live our lives. The future of work thus has implications beyond the availability of jobs – it will trigger transformations in all aspects of society. These thoughts and questions are at the core of the ILO’s Future of Work Initiative, and will be at the heart of the discussion on work and society that will take place during the Global Dialogue at the ILO headquarters in April. The ILO’s Future of Work Initiative offers a chance to turn the challenges presented by the changing world of work into opportunities for developing society and advancing social understanding.


Ciara McQuillan Bridson is studying for an MA European and Global Affairs, a two-year collaborative programme with the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and the School of Government at the Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali (LUISS), Italy.





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