The “future of work” as a means of achieving and maintaining sustainable livelihoods for all is being called into question these days. Technological change is typically identified as the main culprit; there are other candidates to blame – globalization, climate change, demographic trends, human migration, and yes, even trade liberalization, just to name the more obvious ones. This year, the International Labour Organization (ILO), headquartered in international Geneva, will be 100 years old. It is timely to reflect on what this means for the future of work – and also for the prospects of the ILO as the social pillar of our global multipartite architecture. On every occasion that the ILO’s membership has been called upon to articulate new interpretations of its tripartism (government, employer, and worker representatives) the outcome has consistently been a reaffirmation of the centrality of basic tripartism. The ILO mandate has remained with the traditional “social partners”, that is to say, governments and the national representatives of both workers and employers. It is no surprise, then, that the report entitled “Work for a brighter future” from the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work (to launch the centenary celebrations in January) reaffirmed the centrality of this principle to the ILO.   

Is ILO still necessary?

Three recent reports on the future of work and on how to ensure that work will continue to be the key to sustainable livelihoods offer considerable guidance on public policy priorities, without dwelling on the appropriate composition of the stakeholders. They illustrate how distinctive the ILO approach is on this point. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2019, entitled “The Changing Nature of Work”, looks primarily at the future of work in developing economies, promotes a “Human Capital Index” through heightened attention and measurement of health and of skills-driven education.

The Council on Foreign Relations pulled together a task force to address “The Work Ahead: Machines, Skills and US Leadership in the Twenty-first Century” that also recommends a rebuilding of the links between work, opportunity and economic security through public policies that stimulate both growth and the demand for labour – and again emphasises the strengthening of post-secondary education. The third report on the future of work, “OECD Future of Work and Skills” is a 2017 study for the G20 that starts by noting that the magnitude and speed of changes to the labour market are highly uncertain. The focus, therefore, should be on enabling “individual workers and countries to weather these changes with the least disruption possible, while maximizing the potential benefits offered by the mega-trends”.

Modernising an old institution devoted to labour

It seems a bit out of date these days to even think in terms of a social pillar and a global architecture. Here we are operating with a tumultuous brew full of uncertainty about the future.  Populism, protectionism, divisive “identity politics” are being enflamed by the ingredients of growing inequalities, growing racism, growing civil strife and growing anti-global rhetoric. Some doom-sayers even suggests that the dramatic and awesomely rapid technological composition of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is heralding the end of formal lifelong employment and a corollary increase in socio-economic inequalities. At the global level, the ILO is clearly the place to lead a “human-centered agenda for the future of work”.

The next 100 years

The ILO Centenary Commission’s ten-point action plan packs in a lot of new ideas while reaffirming the normative importance of a human-centered approach. Some of it may be controversial (e.g. establishing a universal labour guarantee or a lifelong learning ecosystem as a basic right); it does move the ILO in a forward direction for the twenty-first century. One might want to see a bit more on the kinds of skills that workers will need for the future or on the strengthening of job creation initiatives or coping with a just transition to a green economy. The overall impression is that the action plan captures the optimism about productive work as the future for everyone, and not just the few.

A draft outcomes document is being prepared with consultations among different constituents – and other kinds of stakeholders, too, including other non-state actors. This will then serve as the starting point for a “committee of the whole” at the International Labour Conference in June to articulate a new ILO declaration on a par with the 1919 constitution and the 1945 Philadelphia Declaration. Happy 100th Anniversary! And many happy returns for another hundred!



Author Katherine Hagen, Past Deputy Director-General ILO, White House Fellow, North Carolina State Senator

More posts by Katherine Hagen, Past Deputy Director-General ILO, White House Fellow, North Carolina State Senator