The human endeavor to turn natural resources into goods for consumption through work is as old as human civilization. The agricultural societies of the past, there was a very direct link between the work of farming and the resulting harvest. As technology advances, work is becoming more and more specialized, and people are now rarely involved in the production of a consumer good from start to finish. Nonetheless, work is still the main source of income for most people today. Paid work is the source of their livelihood, quite literally their only means of securing the necessities of life. Yet a number of economists have questioned the role work plays in generating wealth, and how an economy should be organized. The way we work is highly dependent on the society we live in; the forms it takes are socially determined. As work has become more specialized, it has also increasingly linked to our social identity. In the past, people doing similar work organized first into guilds, then later into unions, and children often followed their parents into the same profession. Over the last 50 years, the nature of work has changed drastically, and the role of work in society has been called into question. For one, people have had to adapt their careers and become more flexible as traditional lines of work disappear. These technological changes have inspired visionaries of the past to imagine a society in which work has become obsolete. Given the recent developments in industry 4.0 and robotics, these visions no longer seem limited to science fiction. But there is a downside: people fear being replaced by machines. The “working poor” in particular have yet to benefit from these technological advantages. Especially in emerging economies, exploitation, a lack of regulation and vulnerable employment puts workers at high risk. The global debate on development will have to answer tough questions in the coming years, such as how to achieve the sustainable development goal of decent work when robotics are replacing workers in countless labour-intensive industries. This question was at the core of our new issue of Digital Development Debates on “work”. The chapters “new work”, “no work”, “my work”, “illegal work”, and “decent work” explore different aspects of work and its significance today.
The issue opens with an interview with ILO Director- General Guy Ryder, who talks about work in the 21st century and possible ways of realizing decent work. Our authors also discuss women in the tech industry, creating jobs in Morocco through solar power, the new meanings of work, and whole host of other interesting topics.
Enjoy the read,
Yours Frederik Caselitz & Raphael Thelen