Over the past two years, Canadians have engaged in a national debate about skills, training, job vacancies, and the mismatch between post-secondary education and careers for young workers. This conversation has produced more noise than insight, and has occasionally been hijacked by a political furor such as the one surrounding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Yet despite the spotlight on jobs and skills, there is little sign that national and provincial policy efforts are focused on the massive job-related opportunities — and challenges — connected to the rapid expansion of the digital economy.

Be clear about what is at stake. Canada has excellent initiatives, including the work of Waterloo-based Communitech and the Information Communication Technology Council of Canada in Ottawa, which promote the training, recruitment and retention technical specialists for the Information Age economy. But the big question is not about how to train more programmers and digital technicians, whose work ironically is also threatened by the same technological advances that may displace many of us. It is whether we are alert to the rapid, creeping changes being wrought by digitization, and if we have the insight and the will to take the steps necessary to prepare for a very different future.

The changes are seismic. Algorithms are proving to be extremely valuable in determining everything from medical diagnoses to marketing decisions. Push technologies replace telephone operators. Automated systems substitute for factory workers, and digitized processes have eliminated thousands of jobs in fields such as banking, finance, government services and customer relations. The rapid destruction of jobs in journalism, the music industry and now retailing, due to online and digitized solutions, portends a future when a great deal more economic activity can and will be done through technology than through human intervention.

The rapid destruction of jobs due to digitization portends a future when much more economic activity will occur through technology than human intervention.

Observers around the world have begun to notice the hugely disruptive elements of the Internet and speculate on their implications. Economics commentator Moises Naim (The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefield and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be) explores the implications of the digital revolution for politics and democracy, offering critical assessments of processes like the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and the long-term impact of digital politics on governing. Nicco Mele follows a similar path in The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, offering provocative scenarios for the likely impact of digital technologies on everything from the remaking of journalism to political organizations, recreation, government, the armed forces and post-secondary education (see also Mele’s article in Policy Options, January-February 2014).

Perhaps the most important work in this emerging genre is The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT (see the excerpt in Policy Options, May-June 2014). In this highly original study, the authors go beyond the standard business models to consider how this new technological order based on digital communications is likely to disrupt the foundations of contemporary society.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee arrived at three conclusions:

The first is that we’re living in a time of astonishing progress with digital technologies — those that have computer hardware, software and networks at their core…

Our second conclusion is that the transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial ones…

Our third conclusion is less optimistic: digitalization is going to bring with it some thorny challenges…Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. [9-10]

These observations are culled from events already occurring. In the daily lives of Canadians, for example, on line banking, self-check-out systems, on line income tax submission and the like have already eliminated thousands of jobs. Digitized factories, government services and industrial processes are cutting into the workforce in dozens of sectors across the country.

There has been little conversation about the absolute loss of jobs through mass digitization.

And while much of the focus of national debate has been about issues such as outsourcing — the Internet-enabled loss of jobs to other countries — there has been little conversation about the absolute loss of jobs through mass digitization. And as these analysts have shown, extending perspectives offered many years ago by Jeremy Rifkin in The End of Work, new technologies do force profound restructuring of jobs, careers and, ultimately, the foundations of the national economy.

Digital Canada 150, the government’s long-awaited digital media strategy, released earlier in 2104, was supposed to be our national response to the growth of the digital economy. The document is largely Ottawa’s catch-up plan. Canada has languished in such basic areas as intellectual property rights, digital government and high-speed access. But Digital Canada 150 (punchy name!) has so far failed to capture the national imagination. In large part this is because the major financial commitment it contained (extending rural broadband) was long overdue. But it also fails to inspire because it lacks any vision for what Canada may look like — economically and socially — in the digital economy.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, one of Canada’s leading commentators on the digital environment, described Digital Canada 150 in April 2014 as “a modest vision of Canada’s digital future that frequently focuses more on what the government has done than on where it wants to go…Given the remarkable possibilities created by the Internet and new technologies, many Canadians were likely hoping for more.”

He’s right. One searches Digital Canada 150 or any national or provincial job creation strategy for a systematic evaluation of the disruptive potential of the digital economy on the Canadian workforce. No national or provincial government has taken a thoughtful look at the implications of, nor planned for the rapidly expanding dislocations associated with, mass digitization, even as the effects are being felt across the country.

And with continued innovations in the offing, the potential for real and widespread disruption is substantial. Will remote-controlled mines be coming soon? How will and how should digital technologies change teaching and learning? The list goes on, crossing disciplines and careers. Some observers believe that hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost, requiring fewer workers to sustain and expand overall economic activity.

In The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee — who have thought about the implications of all this — argue for government action to absorb the social impact of the economy’s digital transformation. Their analysis focuses on the need for broad structural changes in Western societies, including national income assistance programs. In chapter 13, they specifically suggest that governments address the following:

Teach children well through a commitment to primary and secondary education, including by using digital technologies for better teaching.

  • Focus on the promotion of startups and general entrepreneurship as the foundation of ongoing innovation.
  • Emphasize the importance of job creation by promoting better match-ups between job seekers and employers, as a means of meeting personal and economic needs.
  • Broaden and strengthen support for scientists and for basic research, including reforming the intellectual property rights system and offering prizes for transformative innovations.
  • Upgrade the digital infrastructure to ensure long-term competitiveness and widespread access to leading-edge technologies.
  • Open borders (they are writing primarily about the United States) to more immigration as a way to meet talent needs, at least until the education system improves.
  • Reform the tax system to respond to the realities of the digital economy.

Having charted a short-term priority list for government action — a set of suggestions that is, quite frankly, standard and hardly dramatic in approach — Brynjolfsson and McAfee then offer some longer-term suggestions, based largely on what they see as the manner in which technology will disrupt work and employment.

  • Avoid efforts that constrain or limit technological innovation or application, even if they do so in the interests of protecting jobs and companies.
  • Revisit the basic income system within the country to ensure that all people, including those unable to find work due to technological and workforce changes, have decent lives and can remain active -consumers. This is the path to avoiding Voltaire’s three great evils: boredom, vice and need.
  • Consider applying the negative income tax to supplement the incomes of low-wage workers who would otherwise fall into poverty and would no longer contribute to broader economic well-being.
  • Capitalize on the potential of crowd sourcing and the peer economy to create economic opportunity.
  • Support and encourage “wild ideas” through a variety of capital funds, tax incentives and other support in order to sustain innovation. (chap. 14)

Changes to the way we think about the economy are coming and are inevitable, they conclude. To ensure that the future is sunny rather than dystopian, they urge preparedness.  “By maximizing the flexibility of our systems and mental models, we will be in the best position to identify and implement these changes, “ they write.  “A willingness to learn from others’ ideas and adapt our practices — to have open minds and open systems — will be the hallmarks of success “(279).

In its 2010 annual report on the digital economy, the Economist Intelligence Unit observed that substantial national commitments are required if countries are to remain competitive in the digital age. The basic elements are straightforward: ensure affordable access to the highest quality fixed and wireless data and voice connections possible; establish information and communications technology (ICT) as a focal point of education; make the wide-scale provision of goods and services available online; encourage ICT-enabled change to filter through the economy; and create a legal regime that avoids unduly shackling technology and protects people and organizations from abuse.

Their recommendations, in sum, differ little from those of Brynjolfsson and McAfee. These are strategies for national economic competitiveness, not focused on job creation and workforce management in the face of change. The emphasis is not on improving coding skills, it is on the importance of realizing that the major changes will be outside the so-called high tech areas, as digital technologies sweep tsunami-like across the entire economy. The Economistis advocating for broad steps such as restructuring the tax and income-support arrangements. When it comes to the shop floor, it apparently surrenders in the face of technological transformation, accepting that massive job losses are a given, and that workforce strategies will not mitigate these losses.

Canadians must broaden the skills debate into a bigger conversation on the next economy and the workforce emerging from this new digital ecosystem.

It is vital that Canadians similarly broaden the current skills debate into a bigger conversation on the next economy and the workforce that will emerge from this new digital ecosystem. It is safe to assume, if only because it is already happening, that many routinized tasks and jobs will disappear, as everything from online banking and digital income tax forms demonstrates. It is harder to appreciate that digital systems, based on complex but reliable algorithms, could easily replace many jobs currently handled by humans. Canadians adjusted quickly to digitized accounting, dropping accountants for Quicken and TurboTax. Will they be as comfortable swapping their doctor for a statistically reliable, fast and virtually free smartphone application? Certainly there will be resistance in some quarters and rapid adoption in others. We need a sense of where and when the changes will come.

And while it is understandable that it’s the lost jobs that will get attention, careful consideration must also be given to the growth opportunities and new vocations made possible by the coming upheaval. The Canada Scholarship Trust Plan’s Careers 2030 is an effort to alert young Canadians (and their ever-so-anxious parents) to the career possibilities of the future. It has identified a number of new jobs that are on the horizon: SmartCube technician, nostalgist, telesurgeon, localizer, neighbourhood watch officer, simplicity expert, robot counsellor, media remixer, gamification designer and ecosystem auditor, among others.

Whether these new or expanding fields can replace the jobs that will be lost in the traditional sectors remains to be seen. Reimagining the future of work is no small challenge. The current jobs, skills and training debate shows how tough it is to the get the issues of the 2010s right, let alone prepare for the 2020s and 2030s. And the track records of governments on long-term forecasting is not encouraging.

But since drift is not an option, there are significant steps that can be taken now to prepare the country, its citizens and its educational and training systems for what lies ahead.

Canada requires a national evaluation of the current, anticipated and potential impact of digital technologies on the existing workforce. We need to know the current state of the dislocations and develop preliminary forecasts of what the jobs and income levels of the next economy might look like.

It is vital that Canadian businesses share with governments, post–secondary institutions and the public at large their plans for workforce management and digital retooling over the coming two to three decades. A sector-by-sector profile — are remote-controlled mines on the agenda and will the medical system become digitally enabled and less physician dependent? — would help a great deal in developing a national workforce strategy.

Canada’s leading thinkers on the future of work and business should evaluate areas where digital displacement is likely to occur and where new approaches to training and workforce development will be required. And those findings need to be promulgated into the public consciousness if we are to avoid nasty surprises for current workers and avoid now the mistakes that could damage the prospects for coming generations.

Canada should be come a world leader in the development of new jobs and careers based on digital technologies. Digitization has been destroying, and will continue to undercut, existing jobs. But there are many places where digital systems could create thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jobs. Gamification, typically associated with video games, has the potential to network Canadian workers in a vast array of new businesses and commercial ventures.

Canada needs to be an astute observer of global work patterns. We lag well behind the leading nations — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Finland, Germany, Israel and Singapore — in the contemplation of the job and business development possibilities of the digital economy. If Canada is to compete globally in the digital sector, it will be based on a sophisticated understanding of what is happening in other nations and other sectors. At present, the country does not have either the capacity or the inclination to do this.

Following Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s advice, Canada must begin to examine the nature of the socio-economic dislocation associated with the loss of traditional work through mass digitization. The potential exists for a national workforce that is divided between those who have the skills and talents for the next economy, a sizeable service sector, and those who are separated from both. The current debate about income inequality could easily accelerate in the coming years if more people are dislocated from high-paying, often medium-skilled jobs and find themselves unemployable in the new workforce. It is vital that we start thinking about and planning for the health, pension and other implications of major changes in the composition of the workforce and the nonworking population.

The future is a messy place, with many visions of what might unfold and an inherent reluctance to embrace change, even when the need to do so is obvious. Mass digitization is already changing commerce, government services, politics, entertainment, marketing and social relations. The pace of transformation is accelerating. But if Digital Canada 150 is an indication, our governments are being reactive rather than proactive, and they have failed to rally public interest or support for a bigger discussion.

Left on their own, companies and governments will innovate, typically incrementally and occasionally disruptively. Like the frog in slow boiling water, the country will only realize there is a major crisis when the problem becomes too great to handle through normal social and workforce management processes. Digital technologies could well be a force for positive and constructive change and could continue to contribute to major advances in wellbeing.

In the end, however, people want and need jobs in order to support themselves and to make substantial contributions to the country as a whole. Canada’s success in developing a workforce for a world that is digitally empowered and transformed will, ultimately, be a mark of its success or shortcomings as a nation. To this point, the trajectory is not promising.

Photo: Shutterstock by Africa Studio

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Ken Coates
Ken Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and co-director (research) at the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan.
Carin Holroyd
Carin Holroyd is an associate professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan and holds degrees from universities around the world, including Sophia University in Japan. She is currently studying national innovation systems and the role of government in the development of environmental technologies, including a project on the environmental technology policies of the Government of Japan.

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