Work, the engine of productive activity, is increasingly explained with less certainty. The space in which it takes place is in question, with teleworking becoming an object of desire for office jobs after a pandemic that proved that it works. Also how long the day lasts, due to an exponential improvement in technology that has not changed the current 40 hours for a century. It is not clear who works for, given the strength of platforms (such as Uber or Glovo) and the templates made up of in-house and external employees. Even the idea that you have to work to live is in question, taking into account that in some sectors there are fewer and fewer jobs to distribute and basic incomes are taking root in several countries. To answer these and other questions, EL PAÍS begins a series of reports on the redefinition of work, one of the main challenges of modern society.
“We are facing several structural crises that are changing the world of work. There is a transforming inertia”, says Joan Sanchis, associate professor of Applied Economics at the University of Valencia, adviser to the Department of Sustainable Economy of the Generalitat Valenciana and author of Cfour days. Work less to live in a better world (Sembra Llibres, 2022). In his book and in his political activity, he promotes the need to rethink labor activity, with proposals as groundbreaking as the four-day shift. “What people now expect from work has changed a lot. Young people are increasingly clear that salary is not the only thing they are looking for. The great purpose is vital development, which fosters phenomena such as the Great Resignation in the United States. Some companies are being pushed to propose much more flexibility in face-to-face to retain talent”, adds Sanchis.
It is not a different analysis from the one made by Carlos de la Torre, partner in the labor area at the Gómez-Acebo y Pombo law firm and vice president of the Association of Managers and Labor Relations Professionals: “Hybrid work has been an unprecedented success . This means that the classic concepts of where, when and how work is in a phase of search for virtuous balances”. There is also a debate about “how much”, as Albert Cañigueral, author of Work is no longer what it used to be: New ways of working, other ways of living (Conecta, 2020): “We must end this mania that we all have to work 40 hours. The job it is a good throwing to little, and if we want it to continue being central in our societies, we must distribute it”. This analysis is based on reports such as those of the World Economic Forum, which in a 2020 study estimated that in 10 years 5% of the positions that existed then will have been eliminated and that 50% of the total will be different due to automation.
“In many reflections we start from a false idea, that everyone has to work. Nowhere is it written that for the system to work there must be as many people of working age as jobs”, Sanchis abounds. However, this economist believes that the improvements that make it possible to address these concepts, through automation, artificial intelligence or specialization, are hardly improving the lives of workers: “The benefits of digitization must be better distributed, so that it does not go alone to the margins of the companies. That is the most important debate in social terms.”
Juan Francisco Jimeno, economist at the Bank of Spain labor market specialist, believes that technological advances, so far, have destroyed employment “fundamentally” in “medium-level manual and non-manual occupations.” This reflection is consistent with the largest studies on this topic. “The relative weight of occupations with lower and higher qualifications has increased. It seems clear that the development of robotics and artificial intelligence will also affect occupations that have hitherto suffered less, including many low-skilled and high-skilled ones.”
Experts from the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training (Cefedop, an EU agency) Konstantinos Pouliakas and Jasper van Loo agree with Jimeno in their email response: “It is very likely that before 2035 there will be more highly-skilled jobs that average rating. This requires massive upgrading and upgrading of skills.” These Cefedop researchers believe that easily automated jobs, such as those in assembly lines or drivers, will “probably” end up disappearing. “But we are not heading to a future without jobs. There is a lot of fear about it, but mass automation is not going to happen. The future has more to do with the transformation of tasks”, they insist.
“With technological advances”, the economist from the Bank of Spain abounds, “always increases productivity and with this increase the working time is reduced. During the last decades there has been a continuous decrease in working hours, a trend that will accentuate”. He qualifies, at the same time, that he considers job sharing policies as “ineffective” to combat unemployment. “The 35-hour week that was implemented in France, even though it had positive effects in other dimensions (family reconciliation, increased demand for leisure activities…), did not have an appreciable impact on the unemployment rate.”
Another risk of the new wave of ways of working is further deepening precariousness in a country where the median salary in 2021 was just over 21,000 euros gross per year, barely 6,000 euros above the minimum wage and far from the average remuneration in the European Union. “The fragmentation of work through platforms can create opportunities, but it is also causing a lot of precariousness. If we do not find a better reconciliation between these formulas and the rights of the worker, the system will suffer”, adds Cañigueral. Pouliakas and Van Loo believe that lawmakers “must ensure that platforms and their clients do not avoid basic responsibilities enshrined in the European Pillar of Rights, such as minimum wages, sick leave or social security.”
Jimeno warns of more weaknesses in Spain regarding precariousness: “In general, wages follow productivity. They will continue to be relatively low in Spain if its productivity does not improve, if it does not converge to the European average“. Sanchis goes further: “We cannot ask for pears from the elm. We have an economy with a huge weight in sectors such as the hospitality industry, which, as they are configured, will never pay better wages. It’s a chimera. The productive model must be reconsidered and resort to differentiation strategies focused on quality. The labor reform has brought very positive things and is improving the lives of many workers, but the production model is what it is”.
To correct precariousness and adapt to digital capitalism, De la Torre considers it essential for public administrations to be more agile: “The regulatory framework evolves very slowly and sometimes not in the right direction.” He gives as an example of this dysfunction the norm that regulates teleworking, downward in Spain while in other countries it has been consolidated after the pandemic: “Parameters have been established that discourage it, such as the creation of new obligations for companies and rights of Workers”. Cañigueral believes that the new ways of working are beginning to find a regulatory foothold, but “for too long they have lived in the Wild West”: “We have allowed many problems to fester. For example, the payment of unemployment is only designed for traditional forms of work”.
Ana Gómez, president of the National Association of Labor Lawyers in Spain, points out that labor law is always one step behind. “It adapts to the needs, it does not anticipate them. And now we are facing new paradigms, new scenarios, which require better regulation. The challenge is to find the balance between the security of the workers and the flexibility for the companies”. She believes that there is much room for improvement in Spain, but she highlights some “avant-garde” regulations, such as the one that obliges companies to inform workers about the algorithms that affect their working conditions. In the same line, Jimeno is committed to a “Statute for Workers of the XXI century”, since in the current “flexible jobs, remote employment, the definition of the content of the job occupation and other issues are contemplated with a conception that does not correspond to the technological characteristics of the present and those that are glimpsed in the future”.
In this future, all the reports from international organizations augur for Spain in particular and Europe in general an immense demographic challenge. “With the aging of the population, the mismatches between labor supply and demand can worsen, especially in those occupations that are more likely to be carried out by the young population (those that require greater geographical mobility or physical capacities). Delaying the retirement age may lessen the shortage of workers, but only in some occupations. In the rest, immigration should contribute to increasing the population available to work”, comments Jimeno. He also points to an increase in demand for senior care trades. “But, today,” he continues, “it is difficult to foresee which of these services will be able to be provided without human intervention, since this will depend on how technological advances develop.”
That is precisely the big question that conditions the debate, which can leave the forecasts and strategies of governments on paper, questioned by a major challenge.
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