The onset of COVID-19 has presented economic challenges on a scale not seen in decades. As entire economies shut down to contain the virus, millions of workers were unable to return to their jobs, some temporarily, some permanently. Significant shortcomings in some countries’ public health and welfare systems have been exposed.
But the pandemic has also shown how quickly governments and employers, including insurers, can act to protect working people. Policies to address huge and complex issues that were previously assumed to take years, if not decades, to design and implement were put in place within a matter of weeks. Even countries such as the UK and Ireland with no prior history of offering state-sponsored job retention schemes were able to introduce support packages swiftly.
However, these are short-term and costly responses to an immediate crisis. There is an emerging consensus that long-term solutions are required to foster an environment in which all workers can fulfill their potential, knowing that they and their families will be protected and secure, through good times and bad.
Shaping a brighter world of work: The case for a new social contract, our latest report, proposes sustainable solutions with benefits for workers, employers and government. It draws on insights from the Zurich Insurance Group’s five-year research collaboration with the Smith School of Enterprise at University of Oxford. These are based on responses from around 19,000 workers across 17 countries, 1,200 businesses, consumer surveys and in-depth interviews with Zurich business customers on the future of work amid a pandemic. Throughout, Zurich Insurance Group has advocated broad co-operation to shore up fraying social safety nets worldwide. COVID-19 has made the case for a new social contract stronger than ever.
The pandemic has accelerated changes in the role of government in insurance provision. It seems inevitable that the state can no longer be the insurer of last resort, particularly due to rising debt levels. At the same time, a more risk-averse workforce will have a greater need of, and appetite for, protection. The report advocates new partnerships between governments, employers, and benefits providers to mitigate risks and protect workers against the enhanced risks of a post-pandemic economy. Robust, mutually reinforcing programs to protect people’s income will be needed – for individuals and families at risk, for retraining over people’s working lives, and for financial security through their careers and beyond.
Professor Gordon Clark, Senior Consultant and Emeritus Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, has been at the heart of our research project for more than five years. He said COVID-19 had caused a profound shock to the global economic system and dramatically accelerated changes in the world of work.
Prof Clark said: “The pandemic has brought home the need for significant investment in education and training and social support systems. It has also reinforced the need for better protection for people when they are unable to continue working. People typically want to stay in work for as long as possible; but they often need support from employers and government to do so.”
“The pandemic has brought home the need for significant investment in things like education and training and social support systems.”
High unemployment wrought by COVID-19 has revived interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) schemes. The evidence we have so far does not support the effectiveness of such schemes, so we believe that while popular support for UBI schemes will remain high, the political will to implement them will wane after COVID-19 crisis.
A more sustainable outcome would be the adoption of compulsory unemployment insurance. This and related types of insurance, including health, disability, and income protection, along with protection for dependents, make it possible for people to take time to make a better match between their skills and the jobs available to them. Without it, they are forced into taking the first available job, thereby damaging the human capital they have to offer in a more suitable role. These types of insurance schemes need to be compulsory because those most at risk are those who ought to be given every chance to adapt and adjust in ways that sustain their own wellbeing as well as societal welfare. At the same time, we should make it easier for people to adjust their insurance coverage to find products with the best match to their changing needs.
Raising retirement ages should still be on the agenda but will now entail greater risks. In many countries, the official retirement age is still around 65; experts increasingly recommend raising this to at least 67. Our research points towards a phased withdrawal from the workforce to help older workers manage the demographic and financial transition to retirement. Rather than simply being extended, retirement ages could be staggered, with a multi-year, phased withdrawal from the workforce. This would recalibrate what pensions do: rather than replacing earnings they would supplement reduced earnings. Education about retirement must begin earlier. Our research shows that workers want to be equipped with knowledge and understanding of the implications of their choices.
Stefan Kröpfl, Global Head of Life Business Analysis, Life Technical Functions, Zurich Insurance, said: “I would stress the importance of education. Financial planning and protection are complex topics and we need to help people in work understand what options they have and the impact of their decisions. For example, people often overestimate the cost of insurance because of the complexity of the products. We need to do more to break down these barriers.”
“I would stress the importance of education. It is a complex topic and we need to help people in work understand what options they have and the impact of their decisions.”
The will and optimism are there for people to enjoy the benefits of social protection. Now it is up to us to move from ambition to action. We must act together, as employers, insurers, governments and communities, to build fairness into the world of work and to ensure that the future of social protection is more flexible and secure to support people throughout their working lives, regardless of where and how they choose to work.
Find out more about these emerging global societal risk trends in the latest Zurich-Oxford report HERE Shaping a brighter world of work: The case for a new social contract.
Read more HERE in Shaping a brighter world of work: The employer outlook report, where we ask what role employers can play in helping workers navigate these challenges while also adapting to ongoing changes in the world of work, including the speed of technological change and flexible work arrangements.
Learn more on the Zurich Knowledge Hub
Shaping a brighter world of work: The employer outlook report (PDF)
Shaping a brighter world of work: The case for a new social contract report (PDF)