in a tremendously disruptive time, lessons to improve working lives around the world. 

Disruptive. If any word perfectly summarizes this year, this is the one. We’ve experienced tremendous disruption in the way we work, the way we live and the way we connect. Not in my lifetime have we witnessed so much change in so little time. And as we head into a new year, the wish of billions around the world is to see less disruption and more normalcy return.

We may get there in 2021, but I’m reminded that disruption and change aren’t always bad, and there are lessons we can learn from recent events.

It was, of course, disheartening to see millions lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. According to the OECD, the employment gains of its member states for the past 10 years were wiped out by the ensuing economic crisis in just two months. On the other hand, governments, private employers and labor groups coordinated their efforts to create the single largest social welfare intervention ever, with upwards of $10 trillion earmarked in G20 countries for everything ranging from income support to securing testing and personal protective equipment. The OECD reported that job retention schemes enacted by member states supported about 50 million workers as of May of this year, or about 10 times the total provided during the financial crisis of 2008-09. 

The labor market is also responding to the needs of millions of workers. The rapid acceleration of digital transformation has forever disrupted most sectors and made irrelevant many legacy and transitioning jobs. Some workers who had spent decades serving their industries suddenly found themselves displaced due to COVID-19’s unforgiving fallout. Almost overnight they woke up to a global economy that had seemingly left them behind. Fortunately, the market is coming to the rescue of millions through new jobs and redeployment of skills.

In a process known as creative destruction, replacement of the old with new jobs has been accelerated by the pandemic. These changes may have taken years to occur on their own, but under today’s extraordinary circumstances, transformation is taking place in just a few months. Recognizing this, many governments and private employers are considering more resources toward reskilling the global workforce than they would have otherwise focused on. This is a good thing as the World Economic Forum has found that 2 out of 3 employers expect a return on reskilling investment within just one year’s time.

Many roles that disappeared as a result of the pandemic were already slipping into endangered status in recent years. The unabated march toward digitalization, the growing adoption of automation and the diversifying nature of work (rise of gig work and the human cloud) have been driving profound changes in the job market for some time. Under normal circumstances, the number of workers affected by market shifts would be manageable. COVID-19, however, tremendously amplified this dynamic.

So how can the global economy absorb this huge disruption and bring order and assurances back to the lives of many? There are a number of critical considerations.

a concerted and coordinated effort to reskill

The pandemic has created a huge skills gap, so reskilling will be key to recovery. Private and public sector leaders have repeated this mantra for many years, but COVID-19 may be the change agent that elicits the necessary investments. What may be different going forward is instead of a piecemeal approach, governments along with industry will have compelling reasons to coordinate their efforts. The Harvard Business Review suggests that innovations, such as sector skills councils which are created through government and business partnerships, may help accelerate this effort.

better connect talent to work

With reskilling comes the question of how do we best redeploy reskilled workers? Early on in the pandemic, we witnessed the redeployment of airline crew to serve as health care aides. And there are many other instances. As reskilling takes place across a number of jobs and industries, we need to better find new roles befitting these new skills, and with greater urgency. I believe new forms of public-private partnerships involving all relevant stakeholders, such as labor groups, NGOs, private employers and regulators, can make a tremendous impact on workforce readiness.

create a new social contract

One of the gaps exposed in the social safety net across many markets during the pandemic is the vulnerability of independent or gig workers. With a growing number of people around the world engaged in gig work, regulators need to ensure these workers are supported with social safety nets, such as social security and protective rights. In many markets, social contracts have failed to keep up with the evolution in the labor market, so it’s time to take a closer look at making sure everyone has access to decent work and pay.

You can learn more about a new social contract from this recent OECD Forum virtual event, 'A New Societal Contract for the Recovery' In this hour-long discussion featuring my colleague Annemarie Muntz, the managing director of Randstad Global Public Affairs, the OECD panel explains how we can build a better future through sustainable actions and public policy.

You can also learn more about how the future of work is being shaped by the pandemic in Randstad’s forthcoming Flexibility@Work report, which will be available next month. In the new edition, we will explore the development of work over recent decades and showcase views from the leading voices in human capital looking forward.

With vaccines now rolling out across the globe, I believe we are nearing the end of a very challenging time in the world’s history. We, sadly, can’t reclaim the lives lost, but we can learn how to make people’s lives better by better preparing them for the future of work. A lot of momentum has been gathering for this movement. I hope as a global society we can make the most of it.


about the author

Jacques van den Broek

ceo and chair of the executive board

Randstad's Global CEO, leading our mission of supporting people and organizations in realizing their true potential.