EU Science Hub

The changing world of work and skills in the digital age

Picture: The digital revolution is causing significant changes in the world of work
The digital revolution is causing significant changes in the world of work
May 01 2019

The celebration of International Workers' Day takes place in a context of profound structural transformation in labour markets throughout the world.

Technological change, demographic trends, globalisation and other socio-economic drivers are altering the fundamental nature of education and work. In particular, the digital revolution is causing significant changes in the world of work, according to JRC experts:

  • Some jobs are at risk of replacement by machines. Others are being transformed and new job opportunities are also emerging. The use of computers has already changed the nature of work. While automation poses a risk to many jobs in the EU, jobs requiring the use, maintenance and upgrading of new technologies are expected to continue to emerge and grow faster than others;
  • As a result, occupational structures are changing, often leading to a polarisation of employment and wages that can increase inequalities. In the EU there is a wide diversity of occupational structures within and between countries;
  • At the same time, new forms of employment are on the rise. This creates many new job opportunities but often leads to more precarious labour market conditions. Since 2001, the number of part-time and temporary workers has grown by over 30%. 20% of total EU employment is part time work and 12% is temporary work. The number of self-employed workers without employees has also increased by over 13%, blurring the line between dependent employment and self-employment. Platform work (e.g. Uber) is also an emerging and constantly evolving phenomenon in the EU;
  • Digital skills and non-cognitive skills such as entrepreneurship, active citizenship, creativity and socio-emotional skills are increasingly necessary to thrive in the new world of work, but there's a shortage of these skills in the EU. In 2017, 10% of the EU labour force had no digital skills at all. There is already a wage premium on non-cognitive skills, and jobs anticipated to expand in the future require primarily non-cognitive skills.

Implications for EU policies

On-going trends raise questions regarding the design of all levels of education, the provision and access to training and lifelong learning, the regulation of labour markets, the future of tax and benefits systems, and the protection of social rights.

The EU is responding to the challenge by putting Europe's social dimension at the top of the agenda. In November 2017, the European Parliament, the Member States and the European Commission proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights, with 20 principles and rights essential for fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems in the 21st century. Work is ongoing to ensure its implementation at EU and Member State level. The EU rolls out concrete initiatives that help people to face this new world of work with confidence and added security:

  • A Skills Agenda for Europe to help equip people in Europe with better skills. The European Commission has delivered on the 10 actions in the Skills Agenda.
  • New EU rules on transparent and predictable working conditions to increase protection for the most precarious workers in the new world of work. For flexible contracts, the new rules will ensure that rights and obligations for employers and workers are in balance. The more flexibility that is required of workers, the more employers must see to it that they provide predictability and protection.
  • A Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers to help working parents and carers to combine their family lives and their professional careers on the basis of equal opportunities for men and women.
  • A European Accessibility Act, harmonising requirements across the EU on key ICT products and services.
  • The European Labour Authority, enhancing administrative cooperation to facilitate the free movement of workers.
  • A Council Recommendation on access to social protection to align our 20th-century social security systems to 21st-century new forms of work. As many people as possible, including the self-employed, should be covered and have the possibility to build up rights against contributions.

As part of the future long-term EU budget (2021-2027), the European Commission has proposed the Digital Europe Programme. The ambitious yet realistic goal is to use €9.2 billion to align the next long-term EU budget with arising digital challenges. The proposal focuses on reinforcing Europe's capacities in high-performance computing, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

The Commission proposes that several instruments will contribute to address the digital skills gap that Europe is facing. These instruments will intervene to support the development of both basic and advanced digital skills, in accordance with their mission and specificities.

On 9 April 2019, the Commission President hosted a High-level Conference on "The Future of Work: Today. Tomorrow. For All" to openly discuss the main changes taking place in the world of work.

Bridging the evidence gap: New JRC research

Policy challenges remain, and robust evidence is essential to design future-proof policies that fully grasp the new opportunities offered by technology while tackling the emerging challenges. However, the evidence base to inform policy decisions in these areas is sometimes still incomplete, for example in the area of platform work, job automation or the polarisation of employment.

The JRC is carrying out new research to address this evidence gap. A forthcoming report on the changing nature of work and skills in the digital age will bring together new policy-relevant evidence on the labour market impact of technology. The report will:

  • Assess the most recent estimates of job automation in Europe and show evidence that occupations in the EU requiring high autonomy of workers have a lower risk of automation. The report will include new JRC-Eurofound evidence showing that the use of computers has already changed work organisation, paving the way for further automation and creating new job opportunities. It will also underline the importance of work organisation for future job automation.
  • Discuss how skills needs are evolving in the EU towards digital and non-cognitive skills, showing evidence of an increasing shortage of these skills in the EU, which education systems are not fully tackling yet.
  • Review the opportunities and challenges related to the recent upwards trend in new forms of employment in the EU, focusing on the results of the second wave of the COLLEEM survey on platform work in the EU. This was done in cooperation with DG EMPL, and the first wave was published in summer 2018. This showed that 1 in 10 people in the EU have used online labour platforms to provide a service at least once, and it is already the main form of employment for 2% of the working age population. Platform work currently provides unclear employment status and flexible, but often arduous, working conditions.
  • Finally, it will include results from a new JRC-Eurofound study on the patterns of occupational change in EU regions in the last 15 years which will show that low-wage jobs have increasingly concentrated in peripheral regions while higher-wage jobs are becoming more and more concentrated in capital regions, leading to increasing territorial disparities.