It’s usually taken for granted that the world of work is being fundamentally transformed by the irresistible, tectonic force of technology. Automation and artificial intelligence will destroy some jobs and create others. Digitized business models and on-demand platforms will convert jobs into gigs. Huge gains in productivity could usher in abundant leisure time — or could create a world of digital sweatshops.

Some observers are optimistic about the economic and social benefits of these changes. Others fear a more frightening, polarized world in which the benefits of new technology are captured by a small elite while the rest of society suffers mass unemployment and pervasive precarity. Either way, it is typically assumed that the driver of change is technology itself.

But that popular narrative about technology and the future of work needs to be re-examined. There is growing evidence that work is not actually changing as fast or as dramatically as some dispatches would have us believe. New work arrangements and employment relationships heralded as “innovative” and “revolutionary” (like contracting out and digitally mediated gigs) are in fact hundreds of years old — it’s just that they’re now organized through smartphones rather than gangmasters and hiring halls. And where change is occurring, it isn’t clear that technology is the main driver: rather, the conscious decisions of employers, investors and policy-makers are what determine how work evolves.

Consider the macroeconomic evidence regarding the advent of labour-replacing technology. Canadian businesses, like those in many other countries, are actually investing in new machinery and equipment at a very slow pace. Business capital investment has declined markedly, relative to both GDP and corporate cash flows. And labour productivity is not accelerating, as would be the case if automation were truly spreading. To the contrary, productivity growth has slowed — largely because of the failure of businesses to invest and innovate.

And at ground level there’s more evidence that the world of work is not changing enough rather than changing too fast. Low-wage, low-productivity jobs in domestic, retail, hospitality and personal services constitute an outsized share of new employment. And just because these workers are now hired (and often fired) via new technologies, that doesn’t make their work any better paid or more productive.

Equal skepticism should greet the standard complaint that Canadian workers don’t have the skills needed for this high-tech future of work — and that investing in the right skills is all that’s needed to help individual workers and the labour market as a whole navigate this brave new future. In fact, Canadian workers are the best trained in history and among the best trained in the world. Yet millions don’t use the skills and capacities they have — because the labour market continues to churn out large numbers of mundane, low-tech jobs with low pay and chronic insecurity.

Technology is neither our friend nor our enemy as the world of work changes. And workers face far more urgent problems than being made redundant by automation. Today they confront pervasive precarity, stagnant and unequal incomes, and an absence of voice in their work lives. These challenges cannot be fixed either by the automatic working of market forces or by the advances of digital technology. Instead, they demand quick and powerful responses from policy-makers and other labour market stakeholders.

By focusing on the demand side of the labour market, not just the supply of skilled workers, we can ensure there are fulfilling, productive jobs for future well-trained graduates to fill. By giving workers more protection and more say over technology and how it is managed (rather than leaving those decisions solely up to employers), we can attain a better balance between the goals of profitability and the goals of decent, secure work. By building more representative and participatory structures and processes to address both existing and future workplace challenges, we enhance our collective capacity to manage technological change more successfully and fairly.

Labour market stakeholders — workers, employers, policy-makers, educators — should reject the idea that the future of work is fundamentally determined by technology and hence largely beyond our control. Human decisions, not algorithms, decide how and where technology is applied and how its costs and benefits are shared. By equipping ourselves to make better, more inclusive decisions, we can shape the forces of technology, productivity and creativity to build a great future of work.

This article is part of Skills Next, a series of eight reports released in January 2020 by the Future Skills Centre, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and the Public Policy Forum.  Skills Next seeks to identify the most important issues impacting the skills ecosystem in Canada, and build a strong foundation intended to help support further research and strengthen policy-making.

Photo: Shutterstock by vs148

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Jim Stanford
Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, based in Vancouver, and Harold Innis Industry Professor of Economics at McMaster University.

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