Precarious work may well be an important part of the future labour market. It’s time we figured out what it really means.

A significant body of research has surfaced in recent years about precarious work in Canada. These reports reveal that a large and growing share of Canadians is ending up in jobs that are insecure, volatile and uncertain. This shift ─ referred to as the fourth revolution ─ is characterized by the use of new automated technologies, which are encroaching on sectors that were until now insulated from their impact. The use of this technology is likely to escalate in the very near future and may put a sizeable share of people working in knowledge-based industries at risk of falling into more precarious work.

Debates are focused on how best to rethink programs needed to support this labour force of the future, but there is a surprising oversight here: the fact is, we do not know how many people are truly affected by precarious work. As my recent paper on this topic points out, like most advanced nations, Canada does not have a formal definition of precarious work and no targeted data that distinguish these workers. This is a serious barrier to good policy-making: how can we rethink our social safety net if we do not know to whom we are specifically targeting these programs?

In fairness, precarity in work is not easily defined. Precarious situations can range dramatically – from an older, low-wage, part-time recent immigrant hired through a temp agency to a newly graduated, short-term continuous-contract worker. Finding common ground among these situations is difficult. To compensate, we use the descriptors I employed at the beginning of this article: words like uncertain, insecure and volatile allow us to avoid excluding anyone. But this is also unhelpful: what exactly does “uncertain” work imply?

Most researchers have used data on what is referred to as “nonstandard work,” which covers part-time, temporary and contract employment. They use this data in the understanding that precarious work impacts mostly those who fall into one of these employment categories. But these data were never designed to capture the nuances of employment precarity. Nor do they allow us to distinguish among those who face precarious work conditions – certainly not all part-time or temporary workers face precarity in their work.

Consider a part-time worker who also happens to be a post-secondary student trying to pay for college. This individual’s working hours and income are volatile and making the rent is problematic. While more hours of work and more stable hours would be preferable, this person cannot commit to full-time work owing to their studies. Now, consider also a well-off pensioner who works just to keep busy. This individual may have the exact same volatile working hours and income as the student, but we would probably consider only the student to be precariously employed.

But without any way of distinguishing between them, both workers would be categorized as having precarious work. This situation is frustrating for researchers. Data on nonstandard work allow us to draw interesting insights, but we simply cannot identify who is truly precariously employed.

It is perhaps surprising that nonstandard work is, in aggregate, not as big a problem as some might suggest. Part-time employment, for example, has not grown as a share of total employment since around 1993. Meanwhile, temporary work’s share of total employment has grown only by a modest 2 percentage points in the last 20 years, and its share remains small at around 13 percent (figure 1).

But the devil is in the details. Over the period in which part-time work as a share of the workforce remained flat, the share of part-time work actually declined in most sectors, but rose significantly in three: information, culture and recreation services; educational services; and accommodation and food services (figure 2). The 2 percentage-point increase in the share of Canadians in temporary work (figure 1) is more broad-based, but those same three sectors recorded the largest increases.

This is disconcerting: information, culture, and recreation services and accommodation and food services pay some of the lowest wages in the country, while educational services have the lowest average hours worked of any sector.

So while nonstandard work may not be a rapidly growing problem overall, it seems it is becoming more prevalent in sectors that feature more precarious characteristics.

Certain demographic groups are also increasingly affected by nonstandard work relative to other groups (figure 3). For example, even though part-time work has remained a relatively constant share of total employment since the early 1990s, for women aged 20 to 24 the proportion working part-time has grown by approximately 10 percentage points over the same period. For young men in the same age cohort, the increase was approximately 5 percentage points.

These are just a few examples. The point I am making is that there are demonstrable shifts that show nonstandard work is a growing problem among certain cohorts of Canadians, yet we still cannot conclude with certainty that what those groups are facing is truly precarious work.

We have reached the limits of what we can learn from the existing data on nonstandard work. What we need now is a definition that researchers can agree on that breaks down precarious work into its most basic, concerning elements, along with hard data on the issue.

I propose that a starting point for a definition should be anchored to what is most damaging about precarious work – namely, the potential for people to fall in and out of low-income status and their inability to save and plan for the future. Our proposed definition lies at the intersection of a low earnings threshold, a level of income volatility that prevents those in precarious work from being able to plan for the future, a preference for additional and more stable hours if they are in part-time work, a measure of uncertainty for contract workers, and a fear of speaking out for employer misconduct. (For more about this definition, see my recent paper on the topic of precarious employment.)

To do better research and design better policies, we need more targeted data, and the federal government should fund Statistics Canada to collect that data.

Precarity could very well be a defining feature of the future labour market. It is about time we figure out what it really means.

 Photo: Shutterstock, by Icatnews.

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