A recent study suggests Canadians are worried about technological change and how it will change work. Governments must acknowledge this anxiety.

Every day we are bombarded with news about how technology is revolutionizing our entertainment, our work, our communities, our relationships – in short, every aspect of our lives. As we absorb a bit more of this intelligence, it shapes our views on what the future holds.

Through our IpsosCanadaNext study, we presented 2,000 Canadians with over 50 scenarios for change in areas such as artificial intelligence and robots, the Internet of things and autonomous vehicles. The representative online survey was conducted in May 2017 and supplemented in August 2017 with a series of online focus groups. We found that when Canadians look toward the future, their views can best be described as cautiously pessimistic.

About half of Canadians (mostly younger men) believe that the good from technology will outweigh the bad. The other half are at best skeptical, and at worst very concerned about issues such as data privacy, data ownership, declining social cohesion, and the notion that technology will create greater inequity causing immigrants, Indigenous people, older and lower-income Canadians to fall further behind. But their biggest area of concern by far is the future of work, specifically their work.

They are concerned about their jobs, about being left behind, about how they’ll manage the transition, and what it means for them and for their children’s economic prospects. These worries are casting a large shadow over the bright and shiny future often touted by tech-pundits and politicians looking to attach themselves to progress.

Here are some key findings from our study. Of the respondents:

  • 58 percent said that advances in technology are going to lead to mass unemployment
  • 48 percent said that they expect that their personal economic situation will be the same (28 percent) or worse (20 percent) in 10 years
  • 42 percent said it is likely that artificial intelligence will replace their job entirely within 10 years

Let’s assume that the McKinsey Global Institute is correct in saying that by 2030, 800 million people will lose their jobs to automation (one-fifth of the global workforce), and that a further one-third of the global workforce will need to retrain if they want to keep their current jobs. Let’s further assume that researchers at Oxford University are on the mark with their findings that 47 percent of US workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years. Faced with these kinds of headlines, Canadians know our economy and our jobs are not immune to the impacts of technological change.

Some of us are already looking for new opportunities. Thirteen percent of survey respondents (27 percent of those 18 to 34 years old) say that they have participated in the gig/sharing economy, and 59 percent (73 percent of those 18 to 34 years old) describe the sharing or gig economy as a positive thing for our society, encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour. But older Canadians (55 years plus) are less certain, and 54 percent of them (representing 41 percent of all respondents) describe the gig/sharing economy as a serious threat to jobs in traditional businesses that will erode employment standards for workers.

Canada has survived (and indeed thrived) after other periods of work disruption – during and after wartime, during and after recessions, and following the introduction of assembly lines that increased production and changed entire industries.

But Canadians appear to feel differently about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It feels bigger and continuous. It’s not one thing driving the change, but rather a combination of many issues (demographic shifts, polarized politics, declining economic prospects and the march of technology) and people feel overwhelmed.

Here are some other findings of note from our study:

  • 76 percent of respondents said there will be a massive personal data link leading to the demise of a top ten company
  • 73 percent of respondents said we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly
  • 71 percent of respondents said the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful
  • 53 percent of respondents said it is likely that within 10 years robots will replace 80 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Canada
  • 51 percent of respondents said technology is changing so quickly these days and I am having a hard time keeping up

At Ipsos we work with a lot of marketing experts, and I am surprised at how they almost always see the glass as half full. While it is somewhat true that wherever there is change or disruption there are market opportunities, from a public policy perspective, the current environment points to a few key challenges to be addressed.

First, we need to instill a culture of continuous skills upgrading and get more young people real work experience. This is hard to do when people are uncertain and pessimistic about the future. Yes, there must be more opportunities, as the Canada Business/Higher Education Roundtable recently called for, but we also need to have an ongoing educational campaign that recognizes that continuous learning and skills upgrading is the new normal.

We need solutions that are implemented with citizens and the private sector, because Canadians do not trust governments to manage this disruption on their own. In most future scenarios that envision the impact of robots, AI and changes in commerce, the public expects governments to play a limited role, along with individuals and businesses.

There will be increased pressure on government to increase support programs for displaced workers, at a time of decreasing tax revenue. Almost two-thirds of survey respondents supported a technology tax on automation and robots, because they seem to recognize that technology will create value and not necessarily employment. Balancing the need for tax revenue with the need to spur greater innovation will be an ongoing challenge for governments.

And where there are policy challenges, there are also political challenges. Addressing the future of work requires cooperation, coordination and consistency over the long term. This is at a time when we are increasingly seeing a polarized political environment, and when reversing the previous government’s decisions is used as a tool for telegraphing to voters that you are making progress.

The general angst and concern about economic wellbeing will linger. No matter what the economic data of the day shows, the apparent feelings of impending economic dread and fear of an unhappy future that Canadians are feeling will make governing more challenging and make it harder for incumbent governments to stay in power.

Finally, there are a handful of big issues (notably health care and climate change) that have been debated for so long and, in the public’s eye, progress has been so slow, that the public does not think that governments will ever be able to adequately address the issues, let alone lay out a path for the future. And if business and government do not come together to take meaningful action, the public is likely to believe the same regarding government’s ability to address the issue of the changing labour market.

This article is part of the Preparing citizens for the future of work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By MsToryGory


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.