Work is changing. The old days of steady jobs followed by comfortable pensions are long gone. Jobs these days are far more likely to be precarious, temporary, and part-time. Globalization has created pressure on companies to keep labour costs low. Automation has led to the loss of well-paid jobs in a variety of sectors. Technological advances have given rise to the gig economy and its multitude of independent contractors.
The flexibility of the modern job market suits some of us. But for those who need steady hours and a predictable income, it brings uncertainty and stress. So what’s a worker to do? Initiatives such as Ontario’s basic income pilot program may eventually offer part of the solution to the increasingly precarious world of work.
But there are still a lot of questions around the effectiveness of such programs. Until they’re answered, there’s no escaping it: most of us have to work. And for that matter, most of us want to.
On May 25, The Tyee is hosting an event called (In)secure: The Future of Working, which will dig into the questions around the changing nature of work. The Tyee checked in with three of the event’s speakers to find out where they see the biggest challenges, the best opportunities, and the most promising solutions.
Rod Mickleburgh: journalist, author, and former labour reporter.
On the role of unions in a changing labour market:
“The income gap that’s happening now has never been wider. As many people have pointed out, the rich are just getting so ludicrously rich. And at a certain point, people are not going to stand for it anymore. Maybe. And unions have a role to play in that.”
“They just have to find a way somehow to engage younger workers. And that’s not easy because younger people don't know about unions, they hear about them and they don’t think they like them, and often the leadership is older.”
“Some unions are setting up youth committees and trying to engage younger workers. And unions are trying to get their message out rather than just looking at a specific bargaining unit and trying to sign them up.”
“The McDonald’s strikes are interesting – the day off for a better minimum wage, which doesn’t result in any union certifications. Unions support that and it’s growing in the United States. They’re lending their voice to these social movements around the nature of work and the low minimum wage and how younger workers are exploited.”
“It’s hard to roll back the clock to the old days. I don’t see how it’s going to happen. But I think they just have to keep up the message, getting younger people involved, and onto social media more.”
“It might be like vinyl. Maybe unions will come back and be seen as hip. You can’t rule that out.”
Ashley Proctor: founder of COHIP (Coworking Health Insurance Plan) and executive director of Vancouver’s soon-to-open coworking space 312 Main.
On the future of work:
“Most people will be independent workers, whether that be freelance, contract work, part time, self-employed. And because of the numbers that we’re looking at, the populations that are shifting over to that type of work, we’re going to run into a unique set of consequences.”
“One of [the potential solutions] would be the co-working movement, the collaborative workforce, people working together to achieve more than they could on their own.”
“The most important part for the coworking movement to me is not just the increased productivity and the access to facilities you see in a collaborative workspace, but because of the network, you’re making meaningful human connections, you’re building community.”
“We’re also going to be looking at the needs of these independent workers and trying to solve them collectively and independently in ways which we have with something like COHIP, the coworking health insurance plan for independent workers in Canada.”
“We’ve been doing it without any governmental support for 15 years and been very successful. But a success story for COHIP would be if in five years we don’t need it anymore. Because why should it be up to me to provide this service to independent workers in Canada? It should be fully available to us all across Canada anyway.”
“There’s a lot of advocacy work to be done. And it could be something as simple as demanding some kind of legislation to ensure that independent contractors get paid on time or that there’s some form of system in place that can assist if they’re not.”
“With the numbers that we’re seeing now and the sheer volume, we have a lot of negotiating power that we didn’t have before.”
Henry Siu: RBC Research Professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at UBC.
On the effects of automation on the labour market:
“Clearly automation and digitization is changing the kinds of work that people will be doing. It is removing job opportunities for some, improving job opportunities for others, and this is a process that’s been going on for many years.”
“Automation, mechanization, digitization, these are all different incarnations of technological progress that we’ve been experiencing for hundreds of years. These processes have replaced human workers in certain spheres of the workplace and it’s always brought about newfound opportunities that you never could have imagined at the time.”
“There are going to be more and more opportunities in areas such as computing, computer science, and in creative fields. Exactly what those occupations and those job opportunities are going to be, it’s really anyone’s guess.”
“One thing that is important is to understand the value of education in today’s society. Not simply to say that everybody needs to get a university degree, but certainly individuals need to understand that, more so today than in the past, learning and education and improving one’s abilities and skills is a lifelong pursuit. It’s not just something that ends at the age of 16 or 21.”
“I think it’s also important to understand the value of creativity and the ability to problem solve in novel ways. Those are skills that are becoming more and more valued in the economy.”
“The other thing that robots and computers and machines can never be better at than us is in terms of genuine human skills like the ability to communicate, to empathize. And so those sorts of tasks in the workplace are becoming more and more valuable over time.”
Join The Tyee and partners for (In)secure: The Future of Working on Thursday, May 25 in Vancouver. Get your tickets now.
This event is proudly co-presented with SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement, with support from United Steelworkers, Vancity, Community Savings, SFU Public Square, Urban Worker Project, BC Federation of Labour, and Changemakers Vancouver.