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The future of labor: uncertainty and emerging values

Rome, 27/11/2018, Roundtable for Aspen University Fellows

This roundtable devoted to examining the workplace of the future also marked the launch of a new Aspen Institute Italia initiative, the Aspen University Fellows group, aimed at students that are at an advanced stage of their university studies. It was observed that these members of generation Z, the post-Millennials born after 1995, are called upon to grapple with two challenges: the creative destruction of jobs caused by technological innovation and the need to build a new social contract that ensures shared prosperity, inclusion, and competitiveness.

The participants stressed that the flux between the demand for and supply of work is not a temporally finite process which converges towards a stable equilibrium; rather, it is an ongoing phenomenon. The skills gap is a permanent feature which emerged when, around twenty years ago, digital technology ramped up to pervade every economic sector. The difficulty, at a global level, of formulating a policy response to deal with this change is a cause for concern. The traditional contractual categories of labor (white-collar/blue-collar workers, self-employed workers, and employees) are becoming obsolete. New solutions are needed to accord dignity to those in insecure, intermittent, and fluid work. It was urged that the gaps in the new vocabulary of labor – with its talk of “rights" and "duties”, “security” and “competitiveness”, and “employability” and “training” – must be filled. Moreover, it was felt that the role of the state should not be confined to simply assisting “those left behind”. Instead, it should devise objectives of inclusion and welfare which ensure that people are not left out on a limb. Indeed, it is also incumbent on the state to compete, exploit opportunities, and steer the economy towards generating a prosperity to be shared.

Another keyword cited repeatedly during the debate was disintermediation, brought about by the application of digital technologies. It was noted that, from the services sector to politics, all tangible places of encounter and interchange are being superseded. Offices, markets, and even parliamentary chambers are reducing their physical areas in favor of virtual spaces, delivered via digital platforms and social media. Doubts were raised as to whether it still makes sense to talk of the place and time of work in the age of smart working (“work anywhere, work anytime”). The question also arises as to how much the sharing economy could change transactions and markets. It was stressed that digital thinking needs to be understood and transformed, especially in Italy, where the lag in adopting new technologies is quite substantial, seeing as “jobs are not being lost because of digital technologies, but as a result of too little investment, especially in digital transformation”.

The successful completion of international training by a number of the participants was seen as confirming the high standard of the educational grounding afforded by the Italian system. It was accordingly deemed essential that this asset be recognized, enhanced, and put to optimal use, while at the same time acknowledging some of its limitations, such as the lack of integration between school, university, and the workplace. Citing the well-known proverb that “A bad carpenter always blames his tools”, it was suggested that the “brain drain” should also be viewed in terms of the opportunities it offers to create Italian leaders with international experience. In addition, it was underlined that labor mobility within Europe does not necessarily need to be seen as constituting a "brain drain", but instead as the rationalization of a single market of skills and labor that is a shared ideal (albeit still limited to the pre-work study phase of Erasmus).

In conclusion, it was proposed that the attributes to be nurtured by workers of the future include an inclination towards an interdisciplinary approach, enhanced soft skills, and a capacity for teamwork. For young people soon to tackle their first job, it will also be vital to stay in tune with and make sense of a society whose role in the world is changing rapidly, and to contribute to its growth with shared values and skills.