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Joint Nordic project on the future of work

| Text: Berit Kvam

The Nordic ministers of labour have launched a comprehensive research project led by the Norwegian research foundation FAFO, studying how Nordic working life might look like in 2030. The knowledge resulting from the research will be used for further cooperation on the future of work in the working life sector.

“I am very pleased that we have managed to initiate a broad, solid and future-oriented Nordic project focussing on these challenges. The project aims to identify what will be the main trends in the Nordic labour market in the coming 20 to 30 years. The aim is to create new knowledge and recommendations for Nordic politicians, authorities and the social partners,” said Anniken Hauglie and added:

“The Nordic countries need more knowledge about how the Nordic labour market model can work in a very different future labour market.”

An interim report from the project The Future of Work will form a contribution from the Nordic region to the ILO’s centenary celebrations in 2019. The project will also create some of the basis for the Future of Work conferences held in Sweden in 2018 and in Iceland in 2019. The reports from these conferences and from Norway’s 2017 Future of Work conference will also be presented to the ILO.

“The final report from the entire project will be presented in 2020. It will provide the Nordic countries with the recommendations resulting from the project,” said Anniken Hauglie at the presentation of the project during the ministers’ meeting.

A project in its early days

During the ministers’ meeting, Jon Erik Dølvik, one of FAFO’s overall project leaders, provided an introduction to the project, which is in its early days. Seven universities and 25 research teams across the Nordic region are involved, and Dølvik promised it would be a policy-relevant and communication-oriented project. 

“This is a brave initiative,” said Jon Erik Dølvik, and praised the authorities who have initiated such a large project. It had been a long time since the last time, he felt.

“Our mandate is to provide knowledge for the Nordic processes that lead up to the ILO’s centenary. We will be comparative internally in the Nordic region, but also when it comes to other countries. We will be action-oriented, stay in close dialogue with our commissioners and help contribute to knowledge-development and learning between the Nordic countries.”

The project’s structure is broad, and organised in seven research areas with specialised teams. The first research area will look at the drivers; demography, immigration, globalisation, climate change and technological change. Part two is about the digitalisation and automation of traditional work in private industries and the public health sector. Part three is about the emergence of different levels of attachment and types of working life, like the platform economy – where the fragmentation of working life and the erasing of employee and employer roles challenge the Nordic system, which is based on the wage earner role.     

One question is what these changes will mean for working conditions in the Nordics, and how the Nordic model will be able to influence these new developments. Institutions develop technology. The challenge for the Nordic countries will be their ability to change.

This will be followed up with a study of working life health and working environment strategies, plus one which will look at the consequences for labour law. In the end there will be a final report.

Jon Erik Dølvik believes the changes offer enormous opportunities for innovation and increased productivity.

“There are studies that show productivity growth could be doubled. The question is how the value creation is distributed, whether it will generate sufficient purchasing power among the population as a whole, and as a result high enough demand for labour to employ those who might become superfluous.

“That is when we come to what so far has been a far too dominating question: Will jobs disappear? Will we end up with three-hour days and citizen wages, as was claimed when computers arrived in the 1980s? I very much doubt it,” said Jon-Erik Dølvik, and referred to David Autor, a leading American economist who points out that there has always been productivity growth and technology growth. It has generated more employment in different sectors.

“Or take McKinsey, which not so long ago predicted that 30 to 40 percent of our jobs would disappear, but now reckons early adopters of new technology, including the Nordic countries, perhaps will experience a net increase in employment levels as a result of digitalisation.”

So Dølvik warned not to jump to conclusions in this debate:

“There are good reasons to believe that this time things could be different.”

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