What is the future of work?

The “future of work” has different meanings for different regions of the world. The redefining of work, workforces and workplaces is taking place around the world, but it’s mostly focused on one big question: How do we include the informal economy in the future of work?

In the Unstuck briefings, we create a curated collection of intelligence on a specific topic that we know is stuck, but also that with deeper observation and understanding can start the needed change. The briefings are always curated by people working in the field itself, who have realised that “business as usual” is no longer working.

Curators: Curators: Suneptula S Jamir
& Muskan Chawla

(Development Alternatives)

Illustration: Matej Klíč

1. What are the emerging themes on the future of work?

🟢 Building pathways to inclusive entrepreneurship (example from India)

Unemployment in India is estimated to be at a 45-year high. While there has been unprecedented growth in the well-being of the well-off, the disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in rural areas, migrant workers and the urban poor find it difficult to source employment. Research and practical experience validate the potential of micro-enterprises to generate economic, social and environmental benefits, yet the growth in this sector has remained sluggish.


🟢 Creating social protection for the informal economy

If you are a policy maker or a social protection practitioner in a country with a large informal economy, then as the Covid-19 pandemic spread across urban and rural populations, you likely found yourself thinking hard on how to support the informal workers. The ingenuity of solutions from different countries, in the face of travel and social-distancing restrictions, was both inspiring and revealing. However, the need to better prepare for future crises through new approaches to social protection is acutely felt.


🟢 A future of work that works for women

The focus on automation and technology’s potential displacement of jobs has neglected other trends that are also re-shaping the labour market as we know it. Digitalisation and the gig economy, demographic changes and the associated care crisis, and the demand of new skills are all equally important and will have a major impact on how we understand and carry out work in the future. Critically, evidence suggests that these trends have specific implications for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The contribution of this brief is to place a gender lens on the future-of-work debate, highlighting what is known – as well as the remaining data gaps – and making firm policy proposals.


🟢 The gig economy’s shortcomings and opportunities

The increase in non-standard employment in the past few decades and the more recent growth of technology-based businesses have given rise to the gig economy – characterised by digital labour platforms. How do these platforms reshape work in the wider economy?


2. Key initiatives to follow

If you want to see the interventions happening in the field of work, follow the activities of these initiatives.

🟣 Future of Work in the Global South

FOWIGS is a network of think tanks which brings data and knowledge together to build evidence-based narratives on the future of work and contribute to the policy frameworks from and for countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Read more

🟣 Ford Foundation 

The Ford Foundation believes all working people are essential to building a just economy. Their Future of Work(ers) programme is focused on ensuring that all workers, regardless of their status, have equal rights to labour protections, that social protections are guaranteed to all, and that workers shape the policies and economic systems that affect their lives. They work to build public will and reimagine labour and social policies based on worker priorities to make sure all work is valued and protected.

Read more

🟣 Work4Progress 

The Work4Progress (W4P) programme of the “la Caixa” Foundation identifies employment challenges and needs and encourages innovative solutions with a view to creating jobs, while paying special attention to women and young people in situations of vulnerability in the programme’s countries: Peru, Mozambique and India.

Read more

3. Work on the ground

What's our experience with new ways of approaching the future of work? See the UNDP's latest interventions in different parts of the world.

Uzbekistan: Designing a future-of-work portfolio 

Our choice of designing an employment-centred future-of-work portfolio for UNDP Uzbekistan was determined mainly by the increasing importance of employment issues in the country. About half a million youths enter the labour market in Uzbekistan each year, with about a 5% annual increase. These trends may be influenced by environmental challenges, the spread of technologies, and other socio-political factors. Oron the contrarythey can also be leveraged to transform labour markets, social resilience, and growth strategies for a better future. 


Ghana: Reframing the future of work in Ghana

We need to unlock new conversations that broaden the value of work being beyond earnings, and also being about human dignity, social cohesion and security. Reframing the future of work in Ghana comes from the African traditional perspectives that see work as a point of individual worth and dignity, and three essential needs have been identified: creating inclusive workspaces, empowering local economies and a transition out of informality for businesses.


Palestine: Approaching informality and grassroot economics

Deep Demonstrations, the important learning system, confirmed the fact that unregistered businesses are the backbone of the Palestinian economy. It was heard from top economists and business owners that they favourably perceived the role of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly during a crisis. Another key insight was around resilient mechanisms. Excellent examples were provided on the need for shock-absorbing mechanisms in times of crisis, such as introducing alternative marketing outlets when major retail stores are closed or diversified fiscal policy to maintain stability and avoid volatility. Read some of the observations we encountered as part of the field visits held with the production clusters of furniture, leather, local crafts and agribusinesses.


Arab States: Paving the path to successful youth entrepreneurship with behavioural science 

The UNDP’s Regional Innovation Team in the Arab States, in collaboration with 10 Country Offices across the region (Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia), is exploring the behavioural enablers and barriers to youth entrepreneurship and experimenting with solutions to address behavioural challenges, with a particular focus on gender-related challenges. During the project, each UNDP Country Office implements and learns from a pilot intervention in one of three areas (entrepreneurship training programmes, access to finance, and business registration), with a view to then scaling findings to larger target groups with the support of national partners


4. What to read / watch / listen
🤏🏻  Beginners💪🏻 Advanced
🎙️ Podcast: Informal Economy by WIEGO

Women in informal employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO)’s podcast explores some of the most pressing issues faced by the world’s informal workers. The episodes are always to the point and feature experts from around the globe.
💬 Panel discussion: Technology and the Future of Work(ers) in the Global South

In April 2022 a number of economists, employment and labour experts from different parts of the world met to discuss the impact of technological innovation on the world of work(ers) within an analysis of the political economy of labour markets and the role of the state.
📜 Study: What skills are needed for the Industrial Revolution 4.0? 
Deloitte and Global Business Coalition for Education bring a framework for business to “prepare the workforce for the fourth industrial revolution”. Read the study to learn how to respond to the mismatch between youth skills and employer needs and how to get ready for the jobs that don’t even exist today.
📜 Report: State of Working, India 2021

This report documents the impact of one year of Covid-19 in India – on jobs, incomes, inequality and poverty. It also examines the effectiveness of policy measures that have thus far been undertaken to offer relief and support. Finally, it offers some policy suggestions for the near and medium-term future. 
🎙️ Podcast: The Development Podcast by The World Bank Group
Hosts Paul Blake and Raka Banerjee talk to experts to reveal the latest data, research, and solutions in the development field. In the episode #16 As Covid-19 wreaks havoc on service workers, is the informal sector increasing global inequality? you'll get a deep dive into a new analysis of informal work around the globe
🎙️ Podcast: The Future of Work
The International Labour Organisation runs the podcast focused on different aspects of the future of work, including wage inequality, happiness at work, but also informal economy workers and their security and social protection.
📣 Guide: Work4Progress India
The Work4Progress (W4P) programme of the ”la Caixa” Foundation and Development Alternatives
employs a unique social innovation approach to accelerate the growth of sustainable micro-enterprises, thereby creating large numbers of dignified and attractive jobs. In this document you will find many useful resources, like numbers, stories, case studies, but also publications created within the programme.
📚 Book: Cracking the future of work
More than 25 experts from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East & North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa transformed their valuable findings into this book with heterogeneous perspectives. This book aims to enrich the future of work debates with evidence from the Global South. This, in turn, is key for a policy agenda that needs context-specific and data-driven frameworks to promote the creation of high-quality jobs in developing countries amid the fourth industrial revolution.
📚 Book: Adventures in Reinventing Work – Tales of Pioneers from Around the World
If you're looking for some light reading about the future of work, have a look at these stories of pioneers from Netherlands, Brazil, Uganda and other countries who are creating and transforming organisations to enable a future that empowers and uplifts all of humanity.
📜 Report: Innovative approaches for ensuring universal social protection for the future of work
This paper provides a review of innovative approaches that countries have undertaken to close coverage and adequacy gaps, and to adapt social protection systems to changing circumstances and demands. Read the paper to learn more about various categories of workers who face social protection gaps.
5. For deeper learning

The following is a list of webinars, lectures and talks for everyone who wants to develop a wider understanding of social innovation.

💻 Course: Shaping work of the future

Join this 8-week online course if you would like to understand the relationship between new technologies, work and society and develop plans of action for improving the job and career opportunities for today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.


💻 Course: How to use a systems thinking approach

The course (starting in September 2022) will help you to gain clarity in complex systems. The lectures cover the full journey – from understanding the complexity to creating your own framework for learning and adapting over time as your system changes.


💻 Course: Introduction to human-centred design

This creative approach to problem-solving will challenge you to get out into the real world and test your ideas so you can arrive at exciting, unexpected solutions tailored to the needs of the people you serve.


6. In the news

Let's recap the important recent facts that matter. 

  • More than 2 billion workers make up the world's informal economy.
    Read more
  • 11% of women-led enterprises were permanently closed during the Covid-19 lockdown in India,  which has remained the case since lockdown. 
    Read more
  • Around 126 million, or 30%, of employed youths remain in extreme or moderate poverty despite having a job. 
    Read more

7. Radical observations

What are the key areas where the informal economy can be included?

👀 Digitalisation can bring about productive growth for micro and small enterprises

Micro and small enterprises (MSEs) tend to be under-digitalised and may therefore struggle to fully exploit the opportunities afforded by digitalisation. An important objective is therefore to create an environment in which MSEs are enabled to harness digitalisation for productivity growth and for the creation of more and better jobs.


👀 Building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future is possible through social protection and decent jobs.

In this context, countries with strong social-protection systems have clearly had an advantage in responding to and recovering from the crisis. The pandemic has accelerated the rise of the digital economy, and contributed to fostering the transition to a green economy. In the recovery phase, countries must seize the opportunity to build forward better. That means to design and implement human-centred policies and investment strategies for creating decent jobs with social protection in the green, care and digital economies, supporting sustainable development and a just transition for all, and building resilience to future crises.


👀 The platform economy brings new opportunities for higher-quality employment.

Platform economy workers represent a growing share of the large informal workforce around the globe, marred with long working hours and volatile revenues. Learn how, as the platform economy expands at exponential rates, policymakers worldwide have a unique opportunity to translate the aggregation of workers through digital platforms into a more formalised labour market – with opportunities for both revenue collection and higher-quality employment.