What is Informal Employment?
Informal employment represents a large part of the labor market in terms of production, employment creation and income generation. Being an informal worker means not having much safety. There is no employment contract or a regular flow of earnings.
The informal economy includes minibus drivers in Africa, market stands in Latin America, and the hawkers at markets and traffic lights all over the world. In Western economies, informal workers are gig workers, seasonal construction workers, and domestic workers—frontline workers.
Five in ten of the world’s working-age women are not in traditional employment according to the International Labour Organization. The ones in the informal economy are more likely to be in the most vulnerable and low-paid informal employment positions. Women make up 80% of domestic workers globally, and 72% lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, 41% of women-owned businesses shut down, compared with 34% of those owned by men.
So, What is Work?
But imagine what could happen if we stopped surveying and reporting on these issues? Perhaps we would understand these are not more of the same problems to be solved? This may be our time to focus on regenerative opportunities as billions of dollars have already been thrown at trying to solve these problems? Maybe this is our wake up call to examine the whole notion of work by creating holistic systems that support us instead of trying to solve humanity’s biggest problems over and over?
The truth of the matter is that we don’t know what work means anymore and yet everyone is predicting it. And debating the structure of work—remote, hybrid, office—when we need to question why work matters when we construct a new, healthy world with ways to support ourselves. We don’t need more of the same.
We are in the midst of a major transformation. As my dear friend Magatte Wade shared with me years ago, any society that has made it from poverty to prosperity had to rely on small and medium enterprises to get there. They are what create the jobs.
A Much Needed Perspective on Africa
In a new economy, there will be new types of jobs. But at the end of the day, people need to find ways to make money so they can provide for themselves and their basic needs. There’s excitement for people to buy from co-ops in the developing world, but no one is pushing it further. It’s time to move things vertically, where vertical markets connect businesses around their specific needs so that people can learn better skills that have more value.
People are staying below the poverty line. Micro-financing really hasn’t done much. According to micro-finance recipients’ responses in surveys, more than 85% say they’d rather have decent jobs if given the choice. On the one hand, you have micro-financing mobilizing so much money and energy. And on the other hand, you have multinationals who have access to the bond markets and private equity funds. And we know that neither actually creates jobs. In the middle, there is nothing, and there are not many job creation programs.
Magatte shares that the main reason many Africans are poor is because they lack the institutions of justice that would enable them to create prosperity for themselves. Celebrities don’t help by reaffirming ignorant stereotypes of Africa as a barren, dependent, hopeless continent. In Bob Geldof’s case, for example, he could’ve made a stronger positive impact by focusing on singing about property rights, rule of law, justice in courts, and entrepreneurship.
Beyond Informal Employment
There is an abundance of theories on the changing world of work but no one knows much of anything. We keep leading with structure instead of charting a healthy world where work is part of our lives.
What we do know is that how we make a living has been changing for the last few decades. And that we have an opportunity to frame, define, value and streamline “work” for the next 20-30 years in a much more holistic way. But the foundation won’t build itself.
I’ve talked to many people who have scaled back and do work that allows them to live within newly defined means. Many simply want to make enough to live a healthy life in all parts of the world. Everything is being questioned to the core when we step into our power. It’s no longer about what is being allowed or provided for us but what do we create for ourselves and future generations?
This is definitely a time to define what the role of the public sector is moving forward and what does social protection actually mean. How do we create systems where we don’t have hopelessness and provide more opportunities to more people who simply want a way to live? One that includes a way to respect people, our environment and our communities.
That is what we need to consider—how do we truly create and customize humane systems that support all of us in our desire to live meaningful lives that matter?
Conscious Thinking is Needed
Maybe we will have 72 different careers in a lifetime with different projects and income streams?
We are already starting to create more purposeful, decentralized and self-managed communities and guilds. This is the time for entrepreneurs to find new ways to collaborate and co-create. Once we are clear on why we are here and what we want to create, we can build supporting structures—not the other way around.
This is a time for us to tap into our imagination and be creative. Open dialogue and gatherings become much more important as we experiment with possibilities. Our most important opportunities are right here when we co-create conscious communities fueled by a deep desire to embrace a healthy way of being.
Imagining Spurs Co-Creation
Imagine mom and pop 3D printing shops in local communities that bring people together like independent bookstores did years ago. And maybe, they will also create a return of bookstore cafes or juice bars where we gather and talk with each other. And each country and region will have its own flavor that is grounded in human dignity and respect when it comes to how we support ourselves.
What if we bring children into these conversations and have them create the future of life and work, side-by-side with us? Can you imagine having young people learning how to be designers and creators by trekking into the unknown from an early age? We might be able to stop asking them what they want to do when they grow up as they define what truly sparks their spirit and co-create what has yet to be imagined.
What if we build systems that allow all of us to thrive in our own way? Where can we begin building healthy supportive communities that are at the heart of creation? What will we call work? And will we continue to divide it into categories like informal employment? Isn’t it time to embrace another way of living while we are here and shift our energy from fighting or saving a dying system to creating one that serves us to the core?
Our most important work is beginning when we choose to care and create. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”