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The global agenda on poverty and shared prosperity hinges in large part on the number and quality of jobs people have. 

Even before the disruption caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the world was changing rapidly and that is true for the nature of work and how we acquire skills on- and off- the job. Technological change and globalization have created unparalleled economic opportunities and challenges while shaping a new geography of jobs. They are changing how skills are rewarded and create large uncertainties in terms of which skills will remain relevant in the medium to long term. Similarly, climate change is already generating significant disruptions, threatening livelihoods, and generating displacement, while at the same time opening new opportunities in greener economic activities for those with the necessary skills and inputs to clench them.

A new demographic landscape is developing – through aging in some parts of the world or youth bulges in others. This is generating a new set of opportunities for growth and better jobs through labor and skills policies but also concerns if policymakers do not react to demographic shifts. At the same time, demographic change also nurtures concerns such as the consequences of a shrinking labor force with depreciating skills (aging) and questions about maintaining social cohesion (e.g. in countries with high shares of unemployed youth). In parallel, rapid urbanization is bringing new benefits from agglomeration, but also new challenges of identifying and connecting millions of vulnerable people, women, and youth to jobs in the more anonymous urban centers. Migration of workers within and between countries continues to be an important trend in most regions across the globe.

In addition to these opportunities and challenges linked to global mega-trends, significant structural issues prevail in labor markets across the world, notably inequality and informality. Substantial inequalities persist in the access to work and its quality. These include the segmentation of workers by their form of employment, their gender, age, or location, both between countries but also within countries’ urban and rural areas. Many women remain outside of the labor force in countries around the world; when they do work, they often do so in activities where pay is low and opportunities to progress scant. Many youths are idle: not employed, or in education or training, putting a dent in aspirations. Just as worrisome, many of those who do work do so in very low productivity activities, often informally, without access to social or legislative protections and with few opportunities to move up the labor market ladder or learn. As a result, many workers today are poor or one shock away from falling into poverty. 

COVID-19 impacts could leave an entire generation behind; the outlook for future employment, productivity, and earnings growth is sobering. Experience shows that workers who start looking for a job during a recession experience significant and long-lasting negative impacts on employment and income compared to those with better timing. This ‘COVID-19 Generation’ includes recent graduates, first-time job seekers, and workers who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. They are likely to be scarred from this crisis the longer they are out of work or underemployed. The disruptive impact of the COVID-19 crisis on workers, labor markets, skills development, and livelihoods, as well as its likely long-standing impact on the world of work, has reinforced the importance of labor & skills policies and programs. Looking beyond the crisis, it is imperative to reflect on the multiple impacts of COVID-19 on labor markets and skills development and understand its future implications on the agenda, especially in developing countries. This changing landscape for employment relations overlays with other factors that have traditionally provided the rationale for public interventions, including market failures and the exploitation of workers. Public labor and skills policy interventions can help mitigate these challenges. They can, for example, limit uneven bargaining power, reduce information asymmetries or discrimination, improve access, quality, efficiency but also the relevance of skills training, and provide protection against risks such as job loss and disability.

As outlined in the World Bank’s 2013 World Development Report, beyond policies that facilitate investments and growth, advancing the global jobs agenda requires the right investment in people – the right skills for people to secure good jobs, the right protection for people against risks arising from volatile economies, and the right mechanisms to help people transition smoothly out of inactivity and unemployment into jobs, and from low to higher productivity employment. 

Labor policies and programs support these goals. Labor regulations and insurance programs protect workers from risks and, if well-designed, can facilitate labor market transitions thereby allowing individuals to engage in higher risk, higher return activities. Active labor market programs such as training, job-search assistance, or support to self-employment or micro-enterprises can also help workers acquire the skills they need and connect them to jobs. For many, these programs can facilitate internal or international labor mobility and increase access to better economic opportunities.

Last Updated: Oct 04, 2021

Human Development Topics