In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations around the ‘future of work’ have deepened, as the way we ‘work’ experiences a period of disruptive change. Labour markets are particularly affected by the disruptions, with deep repercussions on employment and inequality. Women and young people are the hardest hit. In India women and youth were already facing significant challenges to their employment with one of the lowest labour force participation rates in the world. Just to address the unemployment crisis in the country, estimates show that India would need to ensure the creation of 30 million jobs by 2030, which is almost three times the population of Sweden. The marginalised will have to develop the entrepreneurial attributes needed to self-sourced their livelihoods in absence of comprehensive policies and support. After all, the least affected, economically speaking, are those who can ride the wave of technological progress.
Yet, within the ongoing conversations around the ‘future of work’, the ‘voices’ of the marginalised, part of India’s burgeoning informal economy, remain excluded and silenced. The broad discourse contends that technology will optimise ‘work’ where more can be done and had – with less effort. Ideas of optimisation, however, don’t seem to hold true for much of the rural populace. State-run support services merely ‘manage’ rural employment to ensure subsistence and need, rather than ‘optimise’ for individual and community aspirations. Top-down structures during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic cause deep distress as the marginalised are either pushed further to the peripheries of economic systems or are entirely expelled from them. One wonders if we are pushing for efficiency and optimisation at the expense of attributes of equity, justice, and inclusion.
If the ‘future of work’ is be shaped by logics of equity, justice, and inclusion, it cannot be within existing systems where the majority are only going to be spectators of a world passing them by. For socially innovative outcomes, the levers of change, namely technology, markets, and finance, implicit in entrepreneurship need to be interwoven with values of solidarity, collaboration, trust, and empathy.
In this issue of the Development Alternatives Newsletter, we discuss the need for communities, particularly women and youth, to co-design local systems to determine their own directions. We find that collaborative action is key in determining inclusive narratives of the ‘future of work’. Technology that otherwise is central to the ‘future of work’ discourse, can be levers of co-productive change when co-designed with communities. Technology can then initiate discussions of socio-economic consequence, build peer networks, and address local needs and opportunities. The entrepreneurial energies thus unleashed provide early evidence that contrasts with the broad economic focus on hyper-individualised models inattentive to issues of employment security and dignity. In short, this edition shows that when the ‘future of work’ narratives focus on both individual and collective autonomy, there will be exponential change to business models, markets, and social structures. Technology will then be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
As for our work as practitioners, I borrow the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Our work is not to foresee the future, but to enable it. And enable it we will, when communities are at the centre of determining ‘their’ future work.
This blog first appeared as an editorial in Development Alternatives Newsletter May, 2021