Can increasing global employment help bring about world peace? Before I spent a week this September with the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders in Beijing, the thought never crossed my mind. Now? I think it can.
I was chosen to be in the group, along with more than 200 Class of 2014 Young Global Leaders from a huge variety of fields, because of my work in the area of technology and employment. The World Economic Forum's 2014 Risks Report found that unemployment and underemployment are two of the biggest issues facing the world this year. My experience left me with a firm conviction that employment can be the solution to worldwide problems such as violence, gender inequality, global economic instability, and of course, poverty.
As we mark National Work & Family Month, I would take that one step further--and note that it is not just employment, but flexible employment. Employment that focuses less on when and where something gets done, and more on how it gets done.
Overcoming Adversity Around the World Through Flexible Work
Workplace technology is enabling jobs and companies to be geographically-neutral, thereby opening up job opportunities in locations that previously were not feasible. It allows people to work at different hours of the day, which supports productivity and worker satisfaction. And it provides a faster way for companies to expand and grow, which is crucial for global economic stability.
Technology and employment play a huge role in shaping world events. Countries with high levels of internal strife and conflict also have high unemployment rates. For example, the unemployment rates in Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Republic of the Congo are 35 percent, 35 percent, and 53 percent respectively (source). Without dependable employment, people have nothing to lose, no foundation to grow from, and become desperate and frustrated.
One of the most impactful statements I remember from my time with the WEF Young Global Leaders is this: Work is honor. For individuals, for families, for societies, for countries, and for the world, work gives people purpose, meaning, hope, and self-worth. It focuses our minds, lifts up our communities, and provides an alternative to crime and conflict. And workplace technology can bring opportunity to even the most remote, conflicted areas.
In conflict zones and in countries with high unemployment rates, there's another huge issue--gender inequality. Employment supports the equality of women and men throughout the world. In regions where there is a huge disparity in the labor force participation rate for men and for women, there's also a huge amount of conflict.
For example, Arab women have the lowest labor force participation rate in the world at 22 percent (source). Much of this has to do with the severe restrictions placed on women leaving the home. However, in Saudi Arabia, companies are starting to offer telecommuting jobs to women to alleviate this issue, with great success. Smart companies-- and smart governments-- are already opening themselves up to the benefits of employing more people through flexible work.
Benefiting from Work Flexibility in the U.S.
Here in the U.S., work flexibility will help us compete with changing global business structures, expand our economic reach, adapt quickly to a changing workforce population, and reap tremendous benefits in productivity, cost savings, environmental impact, and emergency preparedness.
The structure of when, where, and how business gets done has changed--it now happens anywhere and everywhere, 24/7. Companies should leverage tools like flexible schedules, remote work, and freelance projects to be nimble and agile enough to compete.
Formalizing and Normalizing Flexible Work
It's already happening in most white collar jobs, whether it's five, 50 or 100 percent of the company. But either employers or employees don't acknowledge it for what it is. Flexible work arrangements lack a formal, consistent structure, but they're already part of our lifestyle and work style. That's why I founded 1 Million for Work Flexibility--to start a national conversation, bringing together all involved parties, to acknowledge the flexible work that's already being done, and to encourage its formalization and normalization.
The U.S. is a world leader in innovation and technology, and we need to lead the way in work flexibility for the rest of the world. The impacts are small and large, from the increased productivity of a single employee, to the economic revitalization of a rural community, to bringing out a more peaceful world. Work flexibility is too often dismissed as a perk in the United States, but we need to stop thinking about it as an option, and start acknowledging it as being central to our standing in the global economy, and imperative for the future of the world.
--Sara Sutton Fell is the Founder of 1 Million for Work Flexibility, an initiative dedicated to promoting flexible work options for all. She's also the Founder & CEO of FlexJobs, an award-winning service that helps job-seekers find professional opportunities that also offer work flexibility, such as telecommuting, freelance, part-time or alternative schedules. Most recently, she was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.