Most conversations about the future of work tend to focus on the potential impacts of automation or other technological trends. While these trends will certainly impact employment in the future, what is less talked about is how broader environmental, social and political developments could converge to drive change as well. What if Canada sees a rise in wildfires? What if mental health issues associated with technology continue to proliferate? How will these rising trends impact Canada’s labour market? This type of “what if” inquiry is a useful exercise for thinking about the range of possible futures.

To support future-focused dialogue and help leaders avoid blind spots, the Brookfield Institute’s recent report Turn and Face the Strange outlines 31 broad trends with the potential to impact employment in the next 10 to 15 years. This report, the first in the institute’s new Employment in 2030 project, provides a glimpse into a range of mature, emerging and weak signals of change and explores what could happen if various trends interact and evolve over time.

Turn and Face the Strange is not a prediction of the future or a deep analysis of any one trend. It uses a strategic foresight method called horizon scanning to draw broad connections between a range of changes currently at play. While it is impossible to say exactly which trend will be the most important to watch or the most impactful, the following sample draws attention to the breadth of possible impacts driving change.

Working retirement

Canadians, like people in many advanced economies, are growing older as a population. In fact, the number of people who celebrate their 100th birthday is on the rise. A World Economic Forum white paper highlights that while individuals may live to see 100, they likely can’t afford it. Accordingly, it’s no wonder that the most recent census found that 53 percent of Canadian men aged 65 were still working. Will there be a “retirement age” in the future? How will employers accommodate a workforce that spans multiple generations? How will 75-year-old workers impact demand for products and services currently used by retirees? Working retirement is a mature trend likely to put pressure on job vacancy rates, while impacting industries such as health and wellness, housing, transportation and education.

Climate refugees

Climate change is a global challenge, creating devastating circumstances for people everywhere. As Canadian communities struggle to cope with wildfires, flooding and landslides, people further afield are experiencing even more dramatic consequences. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an average of 22.5 million people are forced to leave their homes each year due to flooding, storms and other extreme weather. Meanwhile, the United Nations suggests that anywhere from 200 million to 1 billion people will be displaced due to disaster, conflict and climate by 2050. Currently, climate-related displacement is outside of the legal definition of a refugee, but what if that changes? What if Canada welcomes climate change refugees from all over the world? How might this impact labour supply? How might Canada’s green economy grow, driven by talent with first-hand knowledge of the impacts of climate change? In 2017, New Zealand explored the creation of a visa program for climate change refugees, signalling the potential reality of this emerging trend.

Suburban boom

Half of the global population lives in cities. In Canada, cities are our main hubs for economic activity — a fact highlighted by a recent Neptis Foundation study showing a hyperconcentration of knowledge economy jobs in downtown Toronto. As cities continue to grow in economic importance, they also create growing problems of affordability for residents, forcing Canadians to settle farther from city centres. In fact, two-thirds of Canadians now live in suburbs, a number increasing faster than Canada’s overall population growth. As employers continue to relocate offices in urban centres, and workers continue to move to suburbs, what will be the impact on overall productivity? How will this mature trend drive demand for infrastructure investments and economic activity in related industries?

Humans augmented

A start-up called Kernel is developing a “neural prosthetic” that will expand human cognition by uniting our minds and bodies with machine interfaces. Meanwhile, American scientists recently connected the brains of three people through BrainNet, enabling them to share thoughts with each other. What could happen if technologies like these become widely adopted? Currently, 66 percent of Americans say they would “definitely not or probably not” want to get a brain chip implant to improve their ability to process information. However, as more forms of brain enhancement become available, will people become more open to it? Imagine the potential disruption that education programs might experience if you could upload information directly. Could this make it possible for older workers to enhance their mental capacities to continue working longer?

Personal data ownership

With our every online click and transaction recorded, concerns over personal data collection continue to grow. As a result, new models of data ownership are being explored. Central to this conversation is the idea of third-party governance systems, such as data trusts, which may move ownership of personal data from the hands of private companies to public institutions. Data trusts are being explored in Zurich, the UK and recently Toronto. If Canadians gain control of their data and potentially have the option to monetize them, what new products and services would emerge? How would data-reliant business models, such as Facebook or Amazon, be disrupted? Could this push even more people toward disconnecting from technology altogether?

International tensions

International tensions are not new; however, they continue to evolve. Today, acts of conflict are taking new forms, including cyber warfare, autonomous warfare and the immediate recall of students and foreign workers. The 2018 Global Peace Index found that global levels of peace have deteriorated by 0.27 percent in the last year alone. Canada could see a 70 percent increase in defence spending from 2017 to 2027. Will this result in a booming tech-defence sector in Canada? Will Canadians be less likely to travel to other countries because of potential conflict? This increase in public spending could have significant impacts on Canada’s defence and security industry, while potentially incentivizing further investment in AI and robotics.

Cannabis economy

Canada’s legalization of cannabis in 2018 has sparked the growth of an entirely new market (at least, a legal version of it), forecasted to be worth up to $22 billion. As we watch companies such as Molson develop cannabis-infused products and see a tripling of cannabis-related jobs in the last year, it is clear that Canada’s cannabis economy is booming. Early signals suggest changes for Canada’s food and beverage industries, but what about health care, insurance and entertainment? While cannabis may not be embraced by all Canadians, legalization will no doubt open up new types of economic opportunities.

In order to prepare fully for the future of work, it is critical to understand the broad range of potential changes on the horizon. Turn and Face the Strange paints a complex picture intended to spark exploratory and imaginative thinking, pushing leaders from all sectors to consider the potential for different trends to interact in ways that are not always obvious. This research serves as a framework for the expert workshops taking place across the country as part of the Brookfield Institute’s multi-stage project on employment in 2030. We’re also sharing this work with broader audiences so that we can collaborate to build upon these ideas and explore how strategic foresight can be applied to other areas in Canada’s innovation economy.

Illustrations by Jesseca Buizon. Buizon is a Toronto-based illustrator and graduate of OCAD University’s illustration program. She creates her illustrations by merging traditional and digital mediums.

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Jessica Thornton
Jessica Thornton uses human-centred design, strategic foresight and design research to explore policy topics at the Brookfield Institute. She currently leads two major projects: Employment in 2030 and Digitally Lit.

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