Lost in Transition? Mind the Gap in Digital and Green Policies

In OECD countries, about 8 out of 10 adults with low levels of education do not participate in formal and non-formal learning; 68% of adults with low levels of education in the EU do not have basic digital skills or do not use computers; 33 million of youth were unemployed in July 2023 in the OECD area. These data underline why countries should focus their attention on education and labour policies, with a particular emphasis on strengthening skills for equity and sustainability by providing effective up- and reskilling opportunities for all.

Emergence of Megatrends

Today’s world is beset by many megatrends: climate change; demographic shifts, particularly population ageing; global movement of people; urbanisation; Civil, Civic and Equality Movements; the emergence of digital technologies; and inequalities – that are affecting economic, social and environmental outcomes.

Behind the data and descriptors are multi-layered agents at work. A trend indicates a direction of change in values and needs which is driven by forces and manifests itself already in various ways within certain groups in society. It is, therefore, essential to upskill and reskill the most vulnerable groups in the context of the sweep of these megatrends. For example, countries need to have skills systems that support, not just their own deprived sectors, but also are geared towards the education and integration of migrants and refugees. The focus needs to be on the development of skills for the future world of work – including strong digital, socio-emotional and green skills.

Winners and Losers

Climate change continues to flex its muscles, striking indiscriminately in the form of floods, droughts, widespread fires, tornados and hurricanes. The threat of deteriorating climate change will require changes in the ways in which we produce, consume, and organise our societies. The EU’s response to climate change and the much-needed, fundamental transitions, is the European Green Deal. Many questions still hover however. Can its implementation roadmap achieve the EU’s climate targets? Can European societies grow in quality, rather than quantity, and in a more equitable way? And who are the winners and losers of the transition?

The digital transition is also at the heart of these megatrends: how can digitalisation be moulded to benefit the climate and society – and not enrich and empower the tech giants that are entrenched around Europe? The pandemic has further highlighted the importance of digitalisation and spurred many developments in this area – with important consequences for work and social policies and thus triggering responses from a variety of social stakeholders.

EU’s Social Rulebook

European Commission spokespersons are in unison when emphasising that improving and adapting the EU’s ‘social rulebook’ is at the heart of Europe’s response to these changes, in accordance with the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Digital Agenda. This includes fostering an economy that works for people; investing in education and training, enhancing skills and equipping people for new green and digital jobs; promoting social progress and strengthening social protection; and promoting just transitions and ensuring solidarity between generations, leaving no one behind and providing access to essential services for all.

Who can afford the green and digital transition? Who are the likely winners and losers? To ensure widespread acceptance of the digital and green transition, lower-income and more vulnerable parts of society should also actively benefit from the transitions. Those who face energy poverty and lack digital skills or connectivity are at a heavy disadvantage. The transitions should improve their situation instead of bringing additional hardships. This will require more collaboration across borders, but also diverse voices able to determine what is best for their own communities.

Ensuring the Right Policy Mix

On the other, and more positive, hand, the digital and green transition is likely to create new employment and different engagement opportunities if supported by the right policy mix. Ensuring from the beginning that these new opportunities are in line with the workers’ values, public health, working conditions, fundamental rights, living standards is key. In addition, the acquisition of skills that would enable people to be part of the transition must be supported through different instruments and EU and Member State level.

The different European Trade Unions will have a watchful eye, and hopefully active voice in the rapidly changing digital and green industries. In this dynamic time of profound and rapid transformation, it is vital that workers and their trades union representatives are involved, engaged and have their voices heard in change management at all levels and at a very early stage. They need to ensure that the green-digital twin transition is not only geared towards climate neutrality and economic competitiveness but also towards social fairness. In an integrated process, they need to make sure, together with social partner counterparts and policymakers, that the transitions will leave no one behind and that there will be balance between the economic, the environmental and the social.

Education and Training Reforms

In recent publications the European Training Foundation (ETF) has highlighted the challenges ahead. As nations across the world face up to the processes and consequences of the green and digital transitions, they are facing enormous challenges to adapt and anticipate the skills needed by labour markets. New technologies and innovations in clean energy and sustainable practices require not only the development of new skills but the updating of existing ones due to the transformation of existing professions, as with the agricultural and automotive sectors.

To meet this demand, education and training systems need reform that ensure that all people are equipped with the knowledge and competences to support and engage in these societal transitions. In addition, targeted actions are needed to ensure the opportunities of the green and digital transitions are equally available for women, young people, and other workers who are at risk of being more excluded without them. To achieve a successful and just transition, we need a combination of very good foundational skills, social and emotional skills, cognitive skills, and a whole range of technical skills.

Tom McGrath


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