Make the digital transition fair as well, experts warn

Young male and female classmates testing their IT project application correcting mistakes and finding bugs in program via modern laptop computer and wireless connection to internet working in library. [Shutterstock]

The world of work is changing dramatically as a consequence of the digital transformation, while the social protection systems are often not added to the new realities of the labour market, experts warned during an event hosted by EURACTIV.

According to a recent survey commissioned by Zurich and conducted by the Oxford University, although more than 50% of workers consider the impact of technology broadly positive, 30% fear they could lose their jobs as a consequence of technological changes.

“The issue of automation really plays on people consciousness but it depends a great deal on the macroeconomics of the country,” Gordon Clark, a senior consultant and Emeritus Professor at the University of Oxford, said during the presentation of the study at EURACTIV.

The changes in labour markets are increasing the pressure on workers who face fragmented career paths and are required to improve their employability by re-skilling and up-skilling themselves to be able to fit the new demands of the labour market.

“There is a tremendous demand for retraining,” Clark explained. The surveyed people who admitted fearing to lose their job within two years would be happy to access retraining programmes.

“In this sense, there is an acknowledgement that these are real issues,” the consultant added, “but it is an unmet demand in many respects.”

Women are more vulnerable to those changes as they often leave the job market at an early stage of their career to become mothers and then do not have access to retraining programmes afterwards.

The work instability, the need for long-life training and the lack of a social protection system adapted to a labour market where non-standard contract represents 39% of the working relations result in a high level of anxiety for workers.

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Social protection needed

Bettina Kromen, deputy head of unit in charge of modernisation of social protection systems at the European Commission, underlined the increasing diversity of the labour market and non-linear careers.

However, social protection systems were originally conceived for people in standard employment and have not been adapted to the new reality of the labour market, Kromen pointed out.

As a result, people in non-standard contracts and with non-linear careers, in many cases as a result of the changes the digital revolution has brought, “face significant gaps in their social protection,” the Commission official underlined.

“I do think it makes a difference whether a social security system is as flexible as labour is flexible,” Gordon Clark said. He said workers should be able to bring with them the social benefit they acquire in every job, no matter whether in a standard or non-standard framework.

“It makes a lot of difference to help people think about their future prospects if they feel that the system follows them rather than them having to adapt to the system,” the academic added.

The Commission’s Kromen argued that “if people feel well equipped and well prepared to take the risks that come with the labour market, they are also mobile. They are more willing to move between different jobs, to take an opportunity as self-employed…”

“We need to make our labour markets and our societies more resilient to shock at the macroeconomic level and social protection has a huge role to play there,” the deputy head of unit insisted.

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The macroeconomic factor

The study conducted by Oxford University reveals that most of the workers are not inclined to leave their job voluntarily but they do not fear to lose their job either. However, in different age groups or countries, the perception of the risk of losing their job or the willingness to change career path varies.

The macroeconomic context plays a rather significant role in this respect. Addressing the skills gap, reforming the social security system and improving the macroeconomic situation of the country needs to go hand in hand.

“In a full-employment economy, people would go into an atypical contract to take advantage of the huge capital in the labour market, whereas in some countries where macroeconomics are against them, they would go into atypical contracts because there is no other choice,” Gordon Clark explained.

When people are well educated and do not suffer from material needs, they are not afraid of change. It is the weakest stratum of society who usually struggle with a volatile world of work.

“You can encourage people to move if they feel safe,” said Franca Salis-Madinier, trade unionist and vice-president of the Single Market Observatory at the European Economic and Social Committee.

Social, demographic, climate, technological… all the big challenges Europe is facing are interconnected and cannot be tackled separately. “We can’t address the climate transition without addressing poverty,” Salis-Madinier argued.

And the same goes for the digital transition. “Technological progress is not an end in itself and it should bring benefits for all,” the trade unionist said, “in the digital transition there should be no losers,” she stressed.

A European sustainable model on the basis of the Social Pillar that the Juncker Commission launched in 2017, and president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen intends to further strength, should be the basis for that, she argued.

Digitalisation is a threat as much as an opportunity for workers, experts say

While digitalisation offers more flexible forms of work, it can also be a threat to well-being and encroach on work-life balance, policymakers warned during an event organised by EURACTIV.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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