The Changing Nature of Work in Canada

By Frank Graves, MRIA Emerging Leaders Blog, February 2017

The idea that jobs would be displaced by information technology was at the core of Rifkin’s End of Work[1]One needs only to scan a fraction of recent coverage to note that jobs are fairly plentiful but progress is scant.[2] There are also apocalyptic claims about how automation and IT will be destroying reams of jobs (40% in the next five years, according to the recent Growth Council Report).[3] Rifkin had argued that information technology was going to destroy jobs and hollow out the middle class. What was unexpected is that jobs are relatively plentiful, but progress—the idea that individuals and society will advance economically with the application of effort and skill—seems to have halted.

As the economic outlook erodes to the worst we have seen in 20 years, the one positive glimmer is that job confidence is actually much stronger today than it was two decades ago. It’s not our job security, but rather the sense of progress and optimism for the future which seems to be in critical condition. Some have called this the “crisis of the middle class” and “the end of shared prosperity”.

The notion that there are no “permanent” jobs and that workers will migrate from job to job doesn’t line up with our tracking data. Job tenure (length of being in one’s current career) is the same today as it was 20 years ago. What has dramatically changed is the proliferation of inadequate jobs that are incapable of providing a living wage. Non-standard, part-time jobs have burgeoned, and pensions are increasingly rare. At a macro level, the portion of the economy going to wages has dropped dramatically as the returns on capital and rent have swollen. The good jobs based on a strong back have largely disappeared due to automation. Perhaps 85% of the manufacturing sector job losses that Trump will restore through protectionism were actually lost to automation, not free trade.[4]

Photo: Robots assemble Chrysler and Dodge Minivans in Brampton, Ontario – Bill Pugliano/GettyImages[5]

The critical question is: will the end of progress and the digital revolution finally produce the end of work, and will this be a good or bad thing? Will this be the happy society of leisure in which people are freed from the need to work, which David Riesman had in mind when he first coined the notion of postindustrialism? Or will the logic of capital accumulation, so clearly evident in the work of Piketty[6] and others, signal an economic collapse if uncorrected?

In our book Redesigning Work: A Blueprint for Canada’s Future Well-Being and Prosperity, Graham Lowe and I find that workplace values, morale, and quality of work have all declined. Of great importance, the level of skill confidence has declined, as has the incidence of job training in the workplace. It appears that the eroding incentive system underpinning the era of shared prosperity has generated a new ‘hunkering down’[7] where innovation and skill investment are eschewed in the belief that they won’t be rewarded. The problems are much worse for younger workers. Precarious work is on the rise and there is overall wage stagnation with men actually faring worse than in the past. All-in-all, the overall drift is from an inclusive economy to an extractive economy, which Acemoğlu[8] has noted is a harbinger of national failure.

With this rather gloomy trend line, there are many notable exceptions, and the ingredients that produce healthy and prosperous workplaces are pretty clear[9]:

  • Relationships: with co-workers, supervisors, senior management, and customers or clients
  • Tasks: challenging and interesting and a sense of pride and accomplishment
  • Environment: safe, healthy, flexible, and enabling work-life balance
  • Economics: pay, benefits, security, and advancement opportunities

The overall trends lean more to the decline—rather than the strengthening—of these desirable workplace attributes.

In search of a smarter workplace and a more agile labour market

In the mid-‘90s, there was a fierce debate about how to move the economy forward. Former Canadian Minister of Human Resources Development, Lloyd Axworthy, championed a model of active labour markets, stressing lifelong learning in the world of work. In broad terms, there was a large public consensus that the key sorting mechanisms determining individual and national success would be knowledge and skills. An alternate model, steeped in mounting fears of a fiscal crisis, argued for a more neoliberal model stressing tax cuts, deregulation, cuts to social programs, and an aggressive path of deficit elimination. The latter model, championed by Paul Martin, won out. The active labour market models (for example; skill investments, relocation assistance, and self-employment assistance) were largely abandoned in pursuit of fiscal rectitude. It is increasingly clear that neo-liberalism, which began in the last two decades of the 20thcentury, is no longer working—if it ever did. It might be prudent to dust off the thinking on active labour markets. Within the panoply of strategies included in active labour markets, nothing was more resonant than the idea of stronger skills and knowledge and a smarter, more agile workplace.

If the shelf life of jobs is diminishing dramatically, doesn’t it make sense to equip workers with flexible skills that can be refreshed in the workplace, to meet the challenges of this age of exponential change? Research shows that reskilling works best in the workplace, rather than in institutional settings. Sadly, this past consensus about the need for a smarter, more agile Canada contrasts with many of the key, measurable trajectories that have been observed in EKOS polls.

A few selected indicators make this point. In 2002, the public gave the highest scores to increased federal investment in education. This support has dropped in half since then and the sense that a university education is a good investment has also weakened. Based on sketchy data from Kijiji, Macleans featured a cover story noting approvingly that only four in twenty jobs of the future would require a university education.[10] Moreover, the ‘jobs to beware of’ included geologists, physicists, and computer information system professionals. Ironically, the dumbed down jobs of the future such as grocery shelf stockers and gas station attendants will all be lost to automation and robotisation (for all those who aspire to such heights).

A smarter Canadian labour market is a clear public preference and a touchstone for public buy-in to an innovation agenda. It provides a clear sense of participation in an innovation agenda, otherwise difficult to discern. The public strongly support innovation as a foundation for creating a blueprint for renewing shared prosperity. In the EKOS trade-off analysis (above), skill investment is tied as the best way to improve innovation. Increased access to post-secondary education and more emphasis on science and research are highly popular, but post-secondary education and science and technology are down sharply from 2001. Canada appears to be dumbing down at precisely the same time that it should be smartening up.

Frank Graves, FMRIA, is a leading Canadian social researcher and media commentator who founded EKOS Research Associates Inc. in 1980. He recently co-authored the book Redesigning Work: A Blueprint for Canada’s Well-Being and Prosperity (University of Toronto Press, 2016).


[1] Rifkin, Jeremy. “The end of work: the decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post-market era”. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004.

[2] Quinn, Greg, “Slumping Wage Growth Mars Unexpected Surge in Canadian Jobs”, Bloomberg Markets, February 10, 2017. Available online at: goo.gl/AkxXTN

[3] Huffington Post, “Automation Will Take 40% Of Canada’s Jobs, Liberals’ Economy Czar Warns”, February 7, 2017. Available online at: goo.gl/mpNFBb

[4] Michael J. Hicks and Srikant Devaraj, “The Myth and Reality of Manufacturing in America”, Center for Business and Economic Research, Ball State University, June 2015. Available online at: goo.gl/FCiNO2

[5] Bill Pugliano, Getty Images, “18 Gorgeous Images of Job-Stealing Factory Robots,” Gizmodo. 26 July 2013. Available online at: http://gizmodo.com/18-gorgeous-images-of-job-stealing-factory-robots-760092140

[6] Thomas Piketty and Arthur Goldhammer, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. Print.

[7] Lowe, Graham S., and Frank Graves. “Redesigning work: a blueprint for Canada’s future well-being and prosperity”, pp. 36-37, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

[8] Acemoğlu, Daron, and James Robinson. “Why Nations Fail the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty”, New York: CROWN GROUP (NY), 2012. Print.

[9] Lowe, Graham S., and Frank Graves. “Redesigning work: a blueprint for Canada’s future well-being and prosperity”, pp. 195, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

[10] Macleans, “Infographic: Where are all the jobs?”, Amanda Shendruk, January 31, 2013. Available online at: goo.gl/OxiAFe