From education to employment

Global Deliberations on The Future of Work, Education and Skills: The Saudi Phase

Paul Grainger, Co-director of the Centre for Education and Work, and Head of Innovation and Enterprise for the Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL

#G20SaudiArabia – The world is witnessing not only a change in the nature of work, but also in the nature of employment #FutureofWork #FutureofEmployment

The G20 is an odd organization. Each summer it brings together the leaders and senior ministers of the world’s most advanced economies and considers matters of global importance, issues on which collaborative and sustained international action is required to counter global threats and uncertainties.

The G20 has no power, but the supporting papers (lightly organized around the global economy) and final communique carry considerable authority.

Since the 1990s, the G20 has evolved from a loose set of meetings of finance ministers looking for solutions to global debt and financial crises, to the present strategic voice of the developed world.

The ‘20’ is made up of the 19 most advanced economies plus the EU (UK’s position now ambiguous).

This membership covers 90 per cent of global economic activity and two thirds of the world’s population.

Member nations take it in turn to preside over the process and the host nation sets its stamp upon perceived priorities:

  • 2016: China’s presidency focussed on building an open world economy, migration, terrorism and climate change.
  • 2017: Germany added digitization, health, women’s economic empowerment and development aid.
  • 2018: Argentina identified four ‘pillars’: the future of work, infrastructure for development, a sustainable food future and gender mainstreaming.
  • 2019: Japan supplemented the growth agenda with trade and investment, innovation, environment and energy, employment, development and health.

As the agenda widens, so specialized groups have been established, present strands include:

  • Global business community (B20)
  • Labour unions (L20)
  • NGOs (C20)
  • Science (S20)
  • Think tanks (T20)
  • Women (W20) and
  • Youth associations (Y20).

I have become involved through the T20 ‘Think Tank’ strand.

Each presidency cycle involves a handover process and an early inception conference to determine summit priorities for the coming year. I have just returned from the inception meeting in Saudi Arabia, which has the 2020 presidency of this increasingly liberal forum.

There were some tensions.

The first meeting of the cycle determines the focus of the summit discussions and starts the process that will produce the eventual communique. Various task forces commission policy briefs on the topics selected – in my case on the Future of Work.

It is clear that within the discussions of the G20 as a whole the climate emergency has taken over from financial stability as the major concern of the moment.

Other topics being considered this year include:

  • Multilateralism for a prosperous world
  • A future of prosperity
  • Sustainability and inclusion
  • Energy transitions
  • Principles for inclusive climate action
  • An inclusive society
  • Empowering women, and
  • Preparing youth

To be fair, these global issues were all given a good airing. On the other hand, some of the presentations, and resulting discussion, were highly parochial.

The irony of discussing carbon recycling in this major oil producer was lost on few. ‘Empowering women’ was given significant prominence in the conference chamber, if not yet outside on the street.

The Ecology of Inter-related Issues

Given the chance to reflect, it becomes obvious how inter-related the G20 issues are. Youth, and work, emancipation, economic development and climate change are all part of the same ecology.

Moreover, the iteration between host nation and global participation is interesting to observe. This early meeting in the cycle is generally top-heavy on formal contributions (the time for networking and debate comes later in the cycle).

These formal, and sometimes hesitant, presentations tend to focus on local and regional issues. For example, Argentina was looking for fiscal stability (they were negotiating an IMF loan), Japan was concerned about how to deal with an aging population (the average age in Japan is 43).

In Saudi Arabia there is an urgent and lively interest in my own field, the future of work.

This oil rich nation had already anticipated a need to restructure its economy over the next 30 years, as oil reserves become depleted. However, timescales now need to be revised downwards drastically.

An economically active future for the Saudi workforce underpinned by education


Elsewhere in the conference a carbon free future was being discussed, and the implications for the Saudi economy were not lost. While Saudi Academics sought to promote a ‘circular carbon economy’, this was unconvincing, and the consensus is that fossil fuel extraction must be sharply reduced.

It is now widely understood that when this happens, there will have to be a wholescale restructure of the Saudi economy, with a knock on impact on the skills, the teaching of skills, and the underpinning education required for an economically active future for the workforce, and a civic identity that can embrace and enrich individual lives.

However, any such development in vocational expertise will also require a significant cultural change. The word ‘work’ in the energy rich nations of the Middle East does not have the same ring about it as it has in the sweat shops of the developing world.

Indeed, these wealthy countries could be described as having introduced a sort of ‘universal basic income’, which some have seen, internationally, as a potential social response to jobs being replaced by artificial intelligence.

However, this universal income has proved to be no panacea, it has become, in itself, destabilising. This is because work not only provides us with an income, but also with an identity, and a place in the social fabric.

What experience in the Middle East has shown is that an income, without the constraints and discipline of work, can produce rudderless young people and a culture lacking in moral compass.

Predicting the future, of course, is notoriously unreliable

There will be new circumstances as yet unforeseen. Nor is there any consensus that there will be less work.

‘Digital’ is to our society what steam was to the industries of 200 years ago. Some jobs went, but increasing prosperity brought new and unforeseen ones, with far reaching social consequences.

Change is already happening, technology is underpinning new forms of work. My grandson wants to be a You-Tube star. He had to explain it to me.

In this respect, the Saudi presidency could be interesting. As a major part of the economy rapidly closes down, what can be done to replace it?

The world is witnessing not only a change in the nature of work, but also in the nature of employment. People are now operating within platform economies, becoming ‘gig’ workers, or choosing to be self-employed.

What we shall be discussing this year as the cycle moves in to debate and analysis is:

  • How can these be embraced within supportive and inclusive social systems?
  • What anchor institutions are needed to promote economic and civic coherence?
  • How can the skills be developed to form the basis on which to lead fulfilling lives?

Saudi Arabia is witnessing the rapid break down of one social order supported by one economic model. This G20 year will give world leaders and their advisers some time to speculate on how this might change within the complex global scheme of things.

Paul Grainger, Co-director of the Centre for Education and Work, and Head of Innovation and Enterprise for the Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL

FE News caught up with Paul just as he was preparing to jet off to Saudi Arabia for the 2020 G20 taskforce summit to discuss the future of work. You can listen to his podcast here:

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