9. Future of Work

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
Relevant Policy Outcomes

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

The topic Future of Work (FoW) distinguishes itself from the other subjects included in this compilation in that it does not (yet) constitute a specific work area, nor belong to a particular organizational unit of the Office. The topic was launched in 2013 by the Director-General as one of seven “Centenary Initiatives” announced in his report to the 102nd ILC (40). In his opening address to this ILC the Director-General presented the Future of Work initiative as an umbrella and point of convergence for the other six centenary initiatives.27 Indeed, FoW quickly occupied the centre of attention of ILO constituents, ILO staff and the public, and became the subject of the Director-General’s report to the 104th ILC (41); the report emphasized that “the initiative must, by definition, be a contribution to the cause of social justice. What gives it particular significance, and perhaps explains the great interest it has evoked, is that it is launched in a context of great uncertainty and insecurity, and of fear that the direction of change in the world of work is away from, not towards, the achievement of social justice.” In his speech on the occasion of his re-election in November 2016 the Director-General remarked: “I have spoken to you and the others about the extraordinary challenges that result from the reality of unprecedented, transformative change in the world of work, change which seems to excite and to intimidate in more or less equal measure, but which in any case apparently unites us in the realisation that now is the time to reflect profoundly on the future of work.”

The world of work is undergoing a major process of change. There are several forces transforming it, from the onward march of technology and the impact of climate change to the impact of demographic changes in economics and employment (42):
  • While the nature and location of work has always been changing, the pace of change has greatly accelerated, the scope of change has broadened, and the impact of change has deepened, affecting even existing social values.
  • The drivers of change in the world of work include aspects such as globalization, automation, digitization, demographic developments, global warming and other environmental developments, etc. Those are not new, but the speed of change has increased greatly during the last two decades: the rapid expansion and acceleration of communication technologies, the spectacular progress in automation and digitization, as well as the increase and growing importance of emerging economic sectors, such as the care economy.
  • The possible impact of such developments on the world of work could be as follows:
    • Work may not necessarily need a work place anymore; people can work from anywhere, and remote work arrangements will become common place.
    • Employment relationships will evolve and may require new contractual arrangements, which may not always provide a sufficient level of worker protection.
    • Collaborative technologies, collective entrepreneurship and virtual team work will gain in importance, as will sub-contract and outsourcing arrangements. This will lead to an expansion of hitherto “atypical” employment relationships. Work will become more isolated, more fragile, less predictable, and less secure.
    • Businesses will seek to enhance productivity by transferring ever more tasks from the company to the user (e-banking, e-check in, e-check out etc.).
    • Production, manufacturing and services will be further decentralized (3-D printing, internet-based services etc.), while data and information will be further centralized (cloud computing, crowd sourcing, big data).
    • The age pyramid will in a growing number of countries turn upside down, thus creating new demand for goods and services designed specifically for the elderly.
Additional innovations, such as genetic engineering, cell stem therapy, nano-technology, supra-conductors etc. are likely to further impact on the world of work.

The Future of Work initiative involves the ILO's tripartite constituency fully and universally, but will also reach beyond them to the academic world and other relevant and interested actors. During 2016, all ILO members States were invited to undertake national "future of work" dialogues structured around four “centenary conversations”, namely:
  • Work and society
  • Decent jobs for all
  • The organization of work and production
  • The governance of work28
In 2017 a High Level Global Commission on the Future of Work will be established to examine the output from the national dialogues and other inputs it may consider necessary. The Commission will publish a report and recommendations during 2018. In the first half of 2019, all member States will be invited to organize events to mark the ILO's centenary and to discuss the Commission's report. The culmination of the Future of Work initiative will be the 2019 International Labour Conference, with the possible adoption of a Centenary Declaration on the subject.

The FoW topic could constitute a subject par excellence for inter-agency discussions at the level of UN country teams, since every single UN entity could contribute to such a debate, and benefit from its outcome.

DWA-SDG Relationship

The 2030 Declaration does not mention the term Future of Work as such, but stresses several times the importance of the 2030 Agenda for future generations and the future of humanity. The 2030 Agenda and the Future of Work are symbiotic processes in that they are attempting to map challenges and solutions in a similar time horizon. This is also evident regarding the new requirement in the UN Development Assistance Framework Process to prepare a Vision 2030 document The scope of the topic Future of Work is so broad that it has linkages with all 17 SDGs, as illustrated by the cover page to the Director-General’s report to the 105th ILC(12)29. Of particular relevance to the subject, however, are SDG targets 8.4 (resource efficiency), 9.b (technology), 17.6 (access to science, technology and innovation), 17.8 (technology bank) and 17.11 (exports by LDCs).

The Future of Work initiative is equally relevant for all four strategic objectives, for all policy outcomes, for all ILO technical units, and for the Office’s entire development cooperation programme. The report which the High Level Global Commission is expected to publish in 2018 will constitute an important contribution to the implementation modalities of the 2030 Agenda.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

In view of the above it becomes evident that the Future of Work Initiative has close links with all four cross-cutting policy drivers, and that it cannot be implemented without considering international labour standards, gender equality and non-discrimination, as well as environmental considerations. Most importantly, the initiative cannot succeed without a comprehensive process of social dialogue. The changes associated with the Future of Work will have a profound impact on the social dialogue processes, and they will require the design of new, appropriate labour standards and social protection systems. It may even have an impact on the governance of the ILO itself, an issue examined under the Office’s Governance Initiative (one of the seven Centenary Initiatives). The Initiative is closely linked to the Women at Work Centenary Initiative, as women have been losing out when it comes to decent work, as compared to men, both in terms of the quality and quantity of jobs (8). As the ILO Director-General has clearly stated: “Promoting decent jobs for women is imperative, now and for the next generation. The future of work must also deal with the future of women at work. It is a matter of rights and what is right for women and sustainable development.”


The social partners at the global level have immediately adopted the FoW Initiative and have launched their own processes and reflections on the subject. The IOE has published a dedicated web site on the future of work. The ITC Turin will be offering in October 2017 a course on “Global Workers' Academy on the Future of Work: Organizing and Collective Bargaining”; many other ITC courses and academies include FoW-related topics. Globally hundreds, if not thousands of universities and research centres work on scenarios related to the future of work. Several ILO development partners have shown considerable interest in the subject, and expressed their willingness to support the Office’s work in the run-up to the 2019 Centenary ILC.

ILO Capacity

The ILO has set up a unit at headquarters to prepare and steer the initiative until its completion in 2019; the unit will also serve as the secretariat of the future Global Commission. Because of its cross-cutting nature the initiative will involve all ILO technical units and all field offices and Decent Work technical teams.


The ILO portal on the Future of Work provides access to numerous resources related to the subject. In addition, the ILO library has compiled thousands of articles and publications on the Future of Work.

27 - Poverty Initiative; Enterprises Initiative; Women at work Initiative; Green Initiative; Standards Initiative; Governance Initiative.

28 - For more details on those, see the Director-Generals report to the 104th ILC (41)

29 - The cover page shows the connections between the ILO’s work items and the 17 SDGs; the Future of Work initiative is depicted as embracing all 17 goals.

8. ILO. Women at Work Trends. Geneva : ILO, 2016.

12. —. The End to Poverty Initiative - The ILO and the 2030 Agenda; Director-General's report to the ILC. Geneva : ILO, 2016.

40. ILC. Towards the ILO centenary: Realities, renewal and tripartite commitment - Director-General's report to the Conference. Geneva : ILO, 2013.

41. —. The Future of Work Centenary Initiative. Geneva : ILO, 2015.

42. ILO. The future of work centenary initiative ILO Topics. [Online] 01 December 2016. /global/topics/future-of-work/WCMS_448448/lang--en/index.htm.