The future of work not so scary after all

Many economists and social advocates are fretting these days about the job market. It seems that more Canadians are working in low-paying, part-time jobs. Benefits and pensions are becoming less common, and job security is eroding.


The concern is understandable. In the language of philosophers and anthropologists, the 21st century labour market is in the liminal space. It’s at a threshold. The old patterns and rituals are rapidly passing, but the new has not yet fully arrived. It is that point between chapters of a person’s life when all seems ambiguous, confusing and even terrifying.


The old economic model of work was born in the Industrial Revolution. Shift work, where you punch-in and punch-out at regular hours each day, is a relatively recent idea in the history of humankind. It was translated into the service sector and office economy in the 20th century. As Dolly Parton belted out in 1980, “Working nine to five, what a way to make a living!”


The full-time, full-benefits, full-pension model of work is gradually fading away, making many feel anxious or angry. There is legitimate concern over the working poor who are struggling economically by piecing together two or three part-time jobs. The hours are unpredictable, there are few or no benefits, and a pension is a pie-in-the-sky dream.


The 20th century version of employment is now morphing into something new, and it’s normal to feel anxious about it. We are in the liminal space where the old is passing but the new has not yet arrived.


But if we can set aside our biases and longings for the good ol’ days of full-time employment, we can start to glimpse the job market of the future—and it may not be as discouraging as some may think.


The future of work is evolving into a series of tasks or activities that we do in exchange for something else. It may be cash, as it was in the 20th century. But it may be something else, like shared accommodation or transportation. The sharing economy—exemplified by things like Car2Go and Uber, is the 21st century response to those less interested in accumulating physical assets. The Toronto Tool Library allows users to sign out tools just like library books, recognizing that every house does not need a drill sitting idle almost all of the time.


The Gig Economy, as it’s called, fits well with Millennials and their general ambivalence to what the Baby Boomers or Gen X’ers considered a good job. A corner office, a dedicated parking stall, a secretary to pour our coffee, a gold watch at retirement—for Millennials, it seems about as strange as living on Mars.


Stringing together a series of tasks or “gigs” makes interesting new demands on workers. Skills must constantly evolve. You’re always meeting new people, encountering new ideas, and adjusting to changing conditions. Nothing is static, everything is fluid and evolving. Loyalty to corporations is replaced with connections to other human beings.


For millions of full-time workers in the 20th century, none of this applied. It was a beige cubical, mundane tasks, and unreasonable bosses. The occasional long weekend or two weeks vacation offered the only relief. Thirty years ago, everyone knew precisely what Belinda Carlisle meant by Manic Monday.


But in the Gig Economy, Monday will become just another day, no more or no less manic than any other day. Shift work will become part of a steady flow for people quite capably juggling a series of tasks. The panicky phrase “The boss is coming! Look busy!” will lose all meaning.


Gen X’ers have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the Gig Economy. Where’s the economic security? Where are the health benefits and pensions? How can these kids ever expect to retire wealthy? These questions make perfect sense to those of us raised between 1950 and 2000 because that’s all we ever knew.


A common reaction has been to lobby governments for policies to promote more full-time work and benefits. But rather than focusing on our 20th century notions of employment, we’d be better to concentrate on equipping young people with the skills they’ll need to surf their way through the Gig Economy. Creative problem solving, social skills, the ability to learn on the fly—these will be more important than showing up at work before the boss does.


We don’t know precisely what work will look like in the future. But that’s OK—we’re in the liminal space.



Reprinted with permission from Todd Hirsch. Todd is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of “The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline”

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