A number of complex issues are emerging from the background that need the government’s attention. There are so many “wicked problems” to concentrate on, but central to any discussion about future challenges should include a comprehensive look at the long-term employment situation in Canada.
Employment is a multifaceted and complicated issue since it is also intimately related to job creation policies, technology developments, demographics and the changing nature of work. All policy analysts are aware of the impact that information technology and globalization have had on the structure of the job market in Canada and every other country that is engaged in international trade (in effect, every country).
Now that technology and globalization have been absorbed into most of the world’s labour markets, there are new drivers redefining employment. These drivers include advances in robotics, the high mobility of foreign workers, efficiency gains due to new business processes and the increased use of outsourcing that deploys the latest developments in communications technology.
The evidence about the importance of the new drivers is irrefutable. We are now at the point where robots can “readily substitute for labour in a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks” and where advanced robots are “gaining enhanced senses and dexterity, allowing them to perform a broader scope of manual tasks.” According to a recent study, it is estimated that 47 percent of all the jobs in the United States could be automated over the next decade or two. Of great importance is the view that the next round of computerization will be principally confined to low skill and low wage occupations (since the hollowing out of middle income jobs has already taken place).
Moreover, the unemployment data are less illustrative than previously since it is increasingly difficult to identify the actual number of working age people who are not attached, on a full- or part-time basis, to the work force in any meaningful way. A disturbing example of this trend is a recent Harris poll, in April 2014, identifying that 39 percent of unemployed people have given up looking for work and, therefore, the number of unemployed in Canada is grossly underestimated.
In aggregated terms, the data suggest that the next year is going to be a hard one for those looking for work. Not only is the number of unemployed Canadians growing but Statistics Canada reports that job growth has stalled. In fact, the most recent data from June indicates that 9,400 jobs in Canada were lost that month and more than 34,000 jobs were lost in Ontario during the same month. As a consequence, the unemployment rate went up to 7.1% from 7.0% at the same time that inflation also moved up to 2.4% on an annual basis.
With these numbers it is not surprising that this past year, the Canadian economy only created 72,000 jobs. Added to the slow job increase is new evidence that public sector jobs will grow at half the pace that they did during the past decade when the private sector was struggling to create new jobs in all but the resource sector.
These data are a very simple indicator of the way in which employment issues are being played out in a number of different sectors of the economy and for different subgroups. In particular, there is a huge swath of underemployed young people (including Millennials who are entering the work world for the first time), a dramatic increase in the number of short-term and contract work without benefits instead of full-time jobs that usually provide pension and medical benefits, and a growing number of discouraged workers who have left the job market and are no longer captured in the employment data.
Many people caught in any of these groupings are well aware of the precarious nature of their own attachment to the job market. However, the unemployed and underemployed are relatively invisible to decision makers since they do not have a national voice and are dispersed throughout the country.
The plight of the unemployed and underemployed is a very real “wicked” problem that needs the attention of decision makers. The future is happening faster than we can see and it is changing important parts of our existence. Let’s see if we can move beyond the scandals and short-term issues and address a problem that has implications for all Canadians.