For now, we want to explain what they are, why they matter, and how leaders can begin thinking of ways to seize this opportunity to build not only a better working world, but a world that works better for everyone. While the root causes of the inequalities are complex and deeply embedded in the economy and society, organizations can take actions now, which will create long-term improvement and value for our world.
Since the great recession of 2008, wages and real income growth has stagnated globally while costs of basic goods and housing have increased.
In March 2020, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated up to 8% of the world’s people1 could be forced into poverty as governments shut down economies to control the spread of COVID-19. In May 2020, the ILO predicted 1.6 billion informal economy workers will be out of work completely or have dramatically reduced hours. The closures in the second quarter of 2020 could be as much as 305 million full-time jobs.2 Combined with the fact that only one in five workers are eligible for unemployment benefits globally3 and the situation is truly dire.
Parts of the economy already limited in opportunities (for ethnic minorities, people of color, women, young or older workers, refugees and migrants, LGBTQ, and other under-represented groups) are disproportionately affected by this economic downturn. Nearly half of the world’s employed population works in the service industry, with an overwhelming majority of these workers coming from these under-represented groups.
When low-wage earners, such as restaurant workers, lose their jobs during business closures forced by the pandemic, short-term policies such as the direct cash payments from the stimulus package are helpful, but real structural change is needed to provide long-term benefit.
Stagnant income and wage growth, combined with increased costs for housing and other basic needs over the past 20 years, pushed larger portions of people into lower income brackets in every Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country. The setbacks from the 2008-2009 Great Recession were not regained before the pandemic started. Individuals with higher levels of education and greater employment prospects recover more quickly in economic crises than those with basic levels of education, resulting in a 5% decline, on average, in employment at the bottom of the economic pyramid even five years after the crisis ends.4
The majority of people in the world don’t have savings or financial reserves, even in the richest countries. In the US, up to 25% of people say they do not have sufficient savings and funds to cover three month’s of expenses.5 Despite headlines indicating household savings rates are growing, the average household globally does not have the ability to withstand a prolonged economic recession.
Over the course of their lives, women have fewer financial resources due to wage inequality, and interrupted or limited employment. Retirement savings and investment accounts are on average one-third lower for women compared with men. The pandemic and economic shutdowns have increased the likelihood that 30% of both men and women at retirement age will face poverty. 6
On average, the poverty level across OECD countries for people older than 75 is about 15%–-35% points higher than those aged 66 to 75. Under existing laws and regulations, globally, only 42% of future pensioners can expect to receive some form of financial retirement assistance from the public sector.7
The private sector has a key role to play in helping to close the income gap. Examples of specific actions include:
- Review remittances and rewards programs for the bottom of the organizational pyramid, including those who support the organization, and yet are not on your payroll, to ensure cost of living or other increases are proportional
- Review promotion, remuneration and reward programs to ensure wage gaps are eliminated at all levels and stages of the employee life cycle
- Consider progressive or differential benefits to help offset costs of care (child, dependent, elder, etc.) for workers at the lowest earnings levels
- Consider requirements in supply chain services agreements that demand adequate levels of remittance and similar benefits for those workers supporting your organization
- Review retirement and pension programs’ actuarial structures to ensure women and under-represented groups are equitably covered
- Review internal messaging for themes and content of interest and importance for women and under-represented groups about retirement or pension planning
- Remove financial jargon and assumptions that the individual would be looking primarily for high rate of return investments
- Review philanthropic and social-enterprise-based investments to ensure housing, transportation, digital and other infrastructural efforts locally are addressed
- Provide reskilling and upskilling opportunities for all workers, including basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills as part of regular duties
- Review organizational roles for essential or mission critical status within a broader stakeholder context, including the community and suppliers
Far more than access to, attendance in, or completing basic education levels, online or remote programs, reskilling, vocational and other alternatives are essential to improving opportunities for life-long employment.
As debate continues about whether to reopen classrooms and universities around the world, uncertainty about how and when a generation of young people will be able to get to their studies continues to be present. This uncertainty does not seem to include a recognition that, for many around the world, education is not a given nor easily accessed. Globally, more boys than girls complete secondary level education. Only in a few countries do we see equality in terms of boys and girls graduating from secondary levels and moving to tertiary programs.
There are a variety of approaches to address the costs of tertiary and university tuition, but there’s increasing evidence showing those who complete university programs have greater life-long earning and greater employment opportunities compared with those without a university-level degree.
Before the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, children in lower-income households had fewer educational opportunities beyond formal schooling – including lack of access to the internet or a computer to participate in distance learning – even later in life. In developing nations, poor educational infrastructure leads to the few physical schools being closed and no additional learning or mental enrichment is possible. Since the shutdown, this is creating significant gaps in students’ ability to retain and build upon content learned to date. The very people needing the support the most to increase their employment opportunities are the ones suffering the most.
Public spending on education is uneven at best and the quality of instruction is highly variable across locations and grade levels. Most OECD nations have minimum standards for students to progress to secondary or tertiary education levels. Unfortunately, these standards and requirements are not future-fit and focused on the skills and knowledge needed for these children to use in their lives. Part of this is due to a lack of value associated with teaching as a profession in most countries, and the view by governments that education is an expense, not an investment.
Early childhood education (meaning before formal schooling starts around age 6) is a critical success factor for long-term health, well-being and economic independence. The opportunity for young children to gain exposure to reading, numbers and other topics early in development was limited in many locations and is further constrained by the shutdown of childcare facilities and schools as a result of the pandemic.
The apprenticeship programs typically supporting trades and skilled labor roles are being reinvented to support technology and technical roles. These and other programs for school leavers provide alternatives for individuals to learn and gain valuable skills.