The accounts of the reckless behaviour of our senators, the allegations of corruption among the highest ranking officials in Quebec’s largest municipalities, and the behaviour of Canada’s most infamous mayor, Rob Ford, have distracted us from the important current issues confronting the nation and that demand the full attention of government and the cooperation of a wide range of stakeholders.
One looming issue is the need to ensure that Canadians have full-time and quality jobs that will sustain our current standard of living and provide meaningful participation in the workforce.
There are already many indicators that full-time remunerative work may be out of reach for many citizens in most developed countries. For example, more than 40 million workers in advanced economies are currently unemployed and, as important, tens of millions are underemployed or have become discouraged and dropped out of the workforce. To confound the issue, the high levels of unemployment are happening at the same time as many business leaders point out that they cannot find workers with the skills that they need.
An example of the uneven impact of job creation in the overall economy shows that job growth is currently in those jobs that require problem-solving skills and job experience while the losses have been in those jobs that are transactional and routinized and in production. Furthermore, youth unemployment stands at about 18 percent in developed countries, with Spain and Greece experiencing rates of more than 45 percent, translating into more than 75 million youth unemployed in the developed world in 2011.
Generally, the labour market dysfunction is symptomatic of the structural changes that are altering the nature of work and shaping employment opportunities in advanced economies. As a result of these technology-driven changes, income growth is very low for households at the lower end of the income distribution. Moreover, the gap between the median income and the mean income has grown by nearly 50 percent since the mid 1970s, indicating that the returns to labour have been skewed disproportionately toward the top wage earners. As evidence of the widening gap between winners and losers, while the size of the economy has doubled over the last 30 years, the median family income in Canada has grown by only 15 percent and the average household in Canada now owes a record high $1.63 for every dollar of disposable income that it earns.
These data indicate that increasingly jobs are more knowledge dependent than ever before and there is considerably less demand for jobs that could be characterized as repetitive or manual such as manufacturing or farming. In fact, a recent study by two Oxford University professors indicates that about 47 percent of total employment in the U.S. could soon disappear due to computerization. Since wages and educational attainment have a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerization, those workers who are already in the low wage and education distribution of the population are particularly at risk.
In light of the introduction of technology in all sectors of the economy, the challenge of creating full-time quality jobs in Canada is begging for some serious discussion. At a minimum, we need to address how Canadians will adapt to the advances in technology, especially robotics; the widening gap between the current mix of job skills and those skills that are needed now; the geographic mismatch between where the jobs are disappearing and where they are needed most; the growing pools of untapped talent among the youth; and the widening disparity in income growth between those who work in the new economy and those who do not.
All nations, including Canada, need to find innovative ways to stimulate more economic growth, build consumer and business confidence, and exercise sound monetary and fiscal policy while maintaining various support programs to deal with the inevitable transition period. These are daunting challenges where the remedies are going to be difficult to determine and, more important, extremely difficult to implement in the absence of a national consensus.
However, simply doing the basics may not be enough to bring back pre-recession employment levels and will not prepare the workforce for the new jobs that are being created as a result of the introduction of new technologies. As a result, our parliamentarians and political leaders need to address this issue by governing and working in the national interest.