The future of work has “already arrived”, the World Economic Forum (WEF) declared in October last year. According to its Future of Jobs 2020 report, the pandemic had accelerated changes to the world of work. With the workforce automating faster than anticipated, the WEF estimated that 85 million jobs would be displaced in the next five years.
Businesses and governments have long discussed the potential impact of AI and automation, but the Covid-19 “home-working revolution” proved that high-tech virtual jobs will be an enduring feature of this brave new world. Further, parallel conversations about the climate crisis raised the prospect of new, clean energy jobs as the world transitions to net zero.
But the economic impacts of the pandemic also laid bare underlying inequalities in the labour market and in the workplace. Women’s jobs have been 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than those of men, according to McKinsey, with women over-represented in vulnerable industries such as retail and hospitality. There has been an increase in automation in both sectors. Women have also taken on more of the unpaid care burden. Those from black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds have been particularly affected. According to the Fawcett Society, 50 per cent of BAME working women are worried about their job or promotion, compared to 43 per cent of working women in general.
Last year, jobs and skills were a big focus of the government’s coronavirus response – from the furlough scheme to the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. As countries work to rebuild economies, there is growing consensus on the need for green and sustainable recovery. But if economic recovery plans, job creation schemes and the “new normal” of remote and flexible working do not proactively aim for equality of gender, race, disability and class, the future of work, however clean or automated it is, will look much like today when it comes to access and opportunity.
As the Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, Marsha de Cordova, tells Spotlight, unless government puts equality at the heart of policy as the world of work changes, “those groups that have been disproportionately negatively impacted” in the past will continue to be in the future.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on the future of work. Click here for the full edition.