CSPS Virtual Café Series: The Future of Work - A Conversation with Armine Yalnizyan and Gary Bolles (video)
Description: On October 22, 2020, the Canada School of Public Service was joined by two distinguished experts on the future of work: Armine Yalnizyan, Economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, and Gary Bolles, Chair for Future of Work at Singularity University.
Date: February 23, 2021
Good Morning. I'm Taki Sarantakis. Welcome to another virtual café at the Canada School of Public Service, where you have a real coffee but virtual conversation. Today we're talking about something that impacts all of us and that's the future of work. The future of work is one of the most important topics that we deal with as Public Servants and today, you have a real treat. You have two profound thinkers on this subject. The first is Armine Yalnizyan, who is a fellow at the Atkinson Foundation, which is one of Canada's top, kind of, think tanks especially in terms of things like social policy and work and family and the like. And she is joining us today from Ottawa. And then we have Gary Bolles, who is the Chair of the Future of Work at Singularity University. Gary normally lives in San Francisco, but today he is joining us from Washington.
So today, we're going to go for about an hour. You can ask questions. There's a little icon on your screen, kind of the raised hand and you can ask questions and then they will go into a feed and we'll get to them at natural points during the course of discussions and then after that, we'll just basically try to learn and have a little bit of fun. So, again, virtual café, remember the rules are: we talk about policy, but not politics and we talk about ideas and not partisanship. We have about 1500 of your fellow public servants on the line today, which is a testament to how important and how relevant this topic is to all of us. So, with that, I will turn in over to Armine to give us a few thoughts and then Gary and then we will go into our conversation. Armine, the floor is yours.
Thank you so much, Taki. And it is an enormous pleasure to be with you again. I've been part of this school before and I have to just say, one of the things I loved about working in the DMO at ESDC during the MTP process, the medium term planning process, was how senior public servants and the world of people that supported them were looking around the corner with data and with a remarkable intelligence at how we could stress test the future. And one of the things that I think we often don't think about when we think about the future—normally, we think about, you know, the robots eating all of the jobs, but what we don't often think about when we think about the future of work is the big predictables. The number one predictable part of which is demographics. The global North is aging and population aging is introducing a new series of stresses and, actually, opportunities to our labour markets. Going into the global pandemic, we were looking at half century lows in unemployment and that was partly because we have fewer people coming into the labour market and more people exiting. That's a combination of aging workers and falling fertility rates. And that's been happening for decades.
So we can see that train moving at us very consistently over the decades. We haven't really prepared for it. We seem to be surprised by slowth, which is slow or no growth, which is part of this story. And we seem to be constantly surprised by what appear to be endemic labour shortages. And I guarantee you it might be difficult to think about anything but unemployment for the next year or two, but on the other side of the pandemic, that is what every part of Canada will be dealing with is endemic labour shortages. And that leads to policy response that requires crossing lanes ministerially. It involves immigration. It involves skills development. It even involves trade policies. And it involves a coherent policy mix, which we, at the moment, do not have.
There is an unpredictable element to this policy response, which is: what is the tighter of responding to labour shortages between upgrading our own people, so skills development, and immigration? And, just when it comes to the skills, I want to say that population aging represents a remarkable opportunity to put flesh on the bones of the laudable ideal of inclusive growth. It's an opportunity to bring marginalized populations into the mainstream and provide better learning and earning opportunities for everyone. But our history is to import the solution to our labour shortage problems and there, immigration is not the only answer. Newcomers come in two flavours. They come as permanent residents that settle and build their lives in Canada and as temporary foreign workers. And over time, it's not just the temporary foreign worker program at ESDC, but our range of international mobility programs that we have built up over the years. And, currently, we bring in three temporary residents for every one permanent resident we let into the country. For a country that wants to build its future on newcomers, that is a very tough way of building community. You might be addressing labour shortages, but you're not building community doing that. So we really need to have a frank conversation about how we are going to deal with building the future of Canada.
Now, I've mentioned two things: demographics and labour shortages that demographics entail and two policy responses—temporary and permanent... new comers and skills development. What I haven't mentioned is the totally big unpredictable, which is the impact of technology. Technological change always reshapes and recomposes the underlying industrial and occupational base of an economy. And all technology ever does is unbundle tasks from jobs. This time a whole host of digital technologies is changing. Supply chains, how you outsource or insource work, how you actually substitute for labour, and for the first time, occupations thus far insulated from globalization are no more insulated. So, technology is climbing up the skill and the pay ladder to occupations like translation, medical diagnostics, and even professionals like accounts, lawyers, engineers, architects. That has huge implications for what we're telling our students to study for. And the way we're studying is likely to change too through credentials to long-term post-secondary education or through training on the job. All of that is a chapter as yet unwritten. I look forward to discussing these huge implications for how we design great public policy to build a better Canada in the coming years.
Thanks Armine. Great opening. Gary, try and top that.
Well. I mean, you have given us a breathtaking view of the landscape. So all I can do is gild the lily a little bit. So, I also want to thank you for the invitation Taki. I'm disappointed I can't actually be at the school in Ottawa. I think the last time I was there was when everyone was dealing with biblical rain and the river was overflowing and so it was quite a unique time. I guess you could say here in the US we have the metaphorical similar example. You might have heard there is an election coming. I don't know if you guys heard, but...
Yes. Yes. It's... we don't talk about it much. So, I think I will maybe add to the table setting in a slightly different ways. Back in March, I wrote a piece called The Great Reset, and—published in Techonomy.com—and, essentially, what I was trying to get across was that if you look at some of the previous wacks to the side of the head that we've had economically and societally, it sort of seems to go through three phases. There's the, sort of, falling off the cliff phase. We don't know where the bottom is, just deep uncertainty. There's a riffling along the bottom phase and trying to sort of rebuild and then there's hopefully a third phase of building better, but normally it's building different. It's not getting back to normal. It's a new normal or in the current case probably a new abnormal.
So what I said in phase two, which is where I think a lot of economies and societies around the world are experiencing right now, that it was going to be, essentially, a set of different heuristics about the ways that we are going to be reacting. And in places—some places they were going to overcome the virus. They were going to basically rebuild their economies very quickly. They were going to ensure that people stayed employed, a lot of businesses stayed open, and so on. And then there are others that were going to be at the other end of the scale and we get into this constantly changing set of heuristics. The lights go on. No, the lights go off again, you know. And so because of all those differences, you see all these massive ripple effects in businesses being opened or closed and work being available or not available. And what's happened in the past, of course, is that, you know, the gap only widens. That is the least advantaged are the ones that are the most disadvantaged. They stay the longest unemployed. They become the most discouraged from looking for work. And so you get these really substantial mismatches in supply and demand.
And then on top of it, you've got these accelerators as Armine was talking about. So technology that's, you know, where Singularity University that's kind of where we live. We've got a bunch of brainiacs around the world that are all experts on everything from next generation medicine to artificial intelligence. And I get to sort of pull from their thinking about some of the impacts of their arenas on the future of work, future of learning, and the future of the organization. What's pretty clear is that the great reset had some pretty substantial impacts on us. I just hosted, actually, for Singularity yesterday, a salon with the World Data Lab on the world in 2030. And we did a bunch of back casting based on the data they've got, which is pretty breathtaking. And it's pretty clear we've lost at least two years against global poverty if not more. About three and a half trillion dollars of global GDP, which is, of course, not my favourite measure, but not that we have any that are much more effective. You pretty much knew there was going to continue to be geographical mismatch that is... the impact on demand that Armine was talking about. There are going to be places where there's lots of people that might be available to work, but the work is over here.
And so what we've seen in the reset, that I hope will be one of the take-aways, is that actually there's talent everywhere and you can actually, if you reject this whole model of what I call management by surveillance, and if you can actually have talent in the place that it could actually contribute and leave people there. You could actually have some really, hopefully, substantial impacts on the meeting of the needs of the demand. Where things fall off the rails is if you don't have a good flow of immigrant talent because that actually is it sort of allows you to sort of factor for this. We didn't shut off the spigot, we took a hammer to the faucet. So that's going to be one of the great challenges in figuring out how we would solve that. Not just in terms of the raw talent pool, but where the talent goes.
And then with education, you know, I produced a conference—I co-produced a conference on the future of higher education 10 years ago. I wrote a piece called Unbundling Higher Education seven years ago. Our basic premises was, again, much as Armine was talking about, there's a lot of unbundling going on. There's a lot of things that used to be, you know, jobs and degrees and things that we used to bundle together and say that had economic value. When you start to atomize, there's some very, very clear impacts on what happens to work, what happens to learning, and so on. As a recovering journalist, I've got plenty of examples of what happened 25 years ago when we basically documented the unbundling of our entire industry. And it turns out that maps pretty closely and very well into other industries. And what you see over and over again is that the internet evaporates the middle. That is, there's increasing returns in the work effects that have benefit and those with the capital and resources at the top and the base of the pyramid, there's a growing gap.
And so I think we'll, I'm sure that Armine and I will have things that we'll disagree on, but I think we are in general agreement about many of these things. That these are flywheel effects and we have to have the combination of policy and practice that helps us to overcome them or else we kind of know what we're setting the table for in five years, which is, you know, even greater impact.
Yes. So, that terrific. So, that hits on most of the big things that we want to talk about. I want to park COVID and the pandemic a little bit, as much as we can in, you know, October 2020 because it kind of permeates all of our conversations. We'll get to COVID, but a lot of these themes, as you both mentioned, were happening before COVID and a lot these dynamics were already playing out. And so, I want to start a little bit with the notion of the gig economy and that's a relatively recent phenomenon, but if you think about it, it actually goes back to almost the beginning of time. The gig economy is a little bit like on demand labour. It's almost like the day labourers of the past where you would kind of show up somewhere and people would say "Yes, I got jobs for you today. Its eight bucks. You can, you know, go to a moving company or you can pick crops at agriculture or, you know, we can shovel driveways or do landscaping." Etcetera.
So, what's really happened in the gig economy is it's kind of done that and put it on steroids and it's the unbundling and the atomization that you talked about, Gary. But, Armine, it also has profound public policy implications. So, we kind of blinked and as we sit here today, roughly 10 percent of the Canadian economy is... or the Canadian workforce is in the gig economy. But I think it's a stretch to say that kind of 10 percent of our public policy framework for those people is in the gig economy. Like, we still... a lot of our public policy, I think it is fair to say, is based around the notion of attachment to the workforce, is based around the notion of you have an employer, a singular employer, that you have worked X number of weeks before you can get unemployment insurance. So maybe talk to us a little bit, Armine, about what you see in terms of the gig economy and public policy and then Gary, I'm going to flip it back to you to maybe give us a little bit of an American view or a global view as well, but Armine, let's start with you.
Yes. Thanks for the question, Taki. As you say, the gig economy is both new and old. Certainly the rules for workers in gigs are harder to enforce. So labour protections are worse and the amount of turn that is associated means that you're very unlikely to be able to make a good living or ask for more and also organize. So, like it's a bit of a dead end.
There are so many different ways of measuring the gig economy that it might be 10 percent. It might be two percent. It might be 40 percent. We have different measures depending on how you define the term gig. But what is true everywhere and throughout history is, in the wake of every recession, you see a spike in the demand for on demand labour. And this time, everybody's got an app in their pocket. So, we don't have policies that are ready for this growth in this aspect of the work and we don't actually even know what the baseline is that we are starting from because we measure it so poorly. This isn't just Canadian, by the way. This is like the world is struggling to measure this new phenomenon. And where... as we have relied on our national official statistics, like Statistics Canada, to tell us everything about the labour force. We're not even asking the right questions.
So much about the gig economy is about the side hustle and so it is about how you make your... how you earn your living. It's not just what is your job. Even when you capture it through multiple jobs, you may not be capturing what the gig economy does because it atomizes. It does unbundle jobs into tasks. So your example, Taki, of day labour and hiring hauls, while true and while platforms, apps on your phone are a version of a temporary agency, they also are not a job. They're a task. Everything is broken down to tasks. Some tasks are microtasks. You get paid pennies to identify what is in a picture to train AI. Every time you say "this is not a banana. It is an elephant." You get paid a penny. And you can do many of these, but like you're being paid by the microtask.
So, we are dealing with two things with the gig economy. The potential for the explosion of its growth without having a public policy architecture that deals with the income volatility and the employment volatility of a growing number of people, probably. Though we don't even know that. And we also don't have mechanisms for not blue collar jobs. These are, like, increasingly, as I mentioned before, these gigs are climbing up the skill and income ladder and we don't have... we have rules for outsourcing labour. We have rules for insourcing labour through temporary foreign workers. We don't have rules for "I need a video done. I'm going to get it done in—or a website built. I'm going to get it done in India or Bangladesh because it is a fraction of the cost." And by the way, I know people who work in the government that have done that. That don't think twice about it.
So, we are training our software engineers for what jobs in the future? Like, there is over a million new engineers that are churned out in India every year. I'm not even going to talk about China. If you can speak English, if you can do the task, you've got the credentials or the training to do the task, you can undercut our best and brightest here. So, we have a real issue going forward, which is not just how do we protect these people, but whether prices will fall faster than wages or wages will fall faster than prices and that will make all the difference to our quality of life in the coming years.
Gary, what are your thoughts on gig?
So, I actually... I guess it is kind of ironic that I talk about the future of education and I've got a bunch of courses on LinkedIn learning with about a third of a million students because I never really spent any time in college. I don't have enough to stuff into a thimble. And when I didn't go to college, I was a temporary worker. So I was actually a Kelly girl. I worked for Kelly Services. I did a range of really mind numbing jobs in my late teens and early twenties. And so I knew... I was a part of that economy. And so, yes. It's been around for quite some time. It's been... we call it alternative work. And, there are a couple of things that are true. After the great recession, almost the entire net new work that was created in the United States was alternative. 97 percent of the total new work roles that were created. Google, up until the great reset, over half of the people that worked for Google were alternative workers.
And so what that gives the employer is a ton of flexibility. And all of the indicators right now—I was just on a call with the Gardener Group—all of their indicators are that the demand side, that's basically what a huge number of Chief Human Resources Officers are doing is they're just amping up their alternative work hiring. The problems, as Armine was saying, are multiple. So, I would say, for instance, the app-based. You know, when you pull out your digital distraction machine and you hit a button and suddenly you're driving a car to take somebody from point A to point B. Those businesses all have very, very similar design mechanics. There's three players. There's supply, the driver. There's demand, the customer. And there's the platform. Two out of three win all the time: the customer and the platform. And there is constant downward pressure on wages. There's the completely non-standard shifts. There's a whole bunch of challenges to that individual worker. The problem is that in our mindset and the way that we track the data and the way that we think about these things, from a policy standpoint, we tend to be very binary. That is, we think of it as being you either have a full-time job or you're a gig worker and nothing in between. And the challenges that that creates are multiple. The gig worker that is driving six days a week, 12 hours a day just to feed their family can look an awful lot like the student who just left college and just wants some work in between when they've got a job starting in the fall. And so, we don't have ways of tracking that well. In the United States, we have really even worse labour data than I think Canada does. And because it's, again, it's very binary. Literally, you're not... if you get a job that works, allows you to work seven hours a day versus eight hours a day, you're not tracked in a bunch of labour statistics. If you haven't looked for a job, you just say "Hey. You know, I haven't really been checking around for the past six months." Even if you say that you think of yourself as unemployed, you're not even counted on the rolls.
So, we need new measures. And I say we have to go from binary thinking to fuzzy stat thinking. That is we have to have this mentality of the degree of membership of any worker in a work role. And the problem is policy doesn't have... policy is a big bludgeon. We have AB5 in California, which was an attempt to try to actually put some structure around this and, you know, basically did what, unfortunately, you know, a lot of policy, you know, at that kind of scale does. It didn't please a whole bunch of people on either side of the coin. And so these are... I think we have to have a complete rethink of how we're trying to track this. And I think that's actually an opportunity, but the problem is we're not, certainly not in the US, we're not making the moves to be able to understand the complexity of the topic.
So, if I'm hearing you both correctly, you're saying something that is simultaneously terrifying and kind of liberating. And that's the... on the relativity between kind of jobs and tasks or skills that jobs are disappearing but skills or tasks are increasing. And that's terrifying from the notion of kind of the traditional way that I have an attachment to the labour force, which is I go to school. I learn something. I attach myself to the workforce through an employer or at least to an area of employment. Like I become a truck driver even though I might drive for different firms. But then it's liberating in that I can bring the best of what I have to the job market whenever I want, when it suits me. Not necessarily at the price that I want, but I kind of auction off my labour on demand. Where do each of you land on the liberating or terrifying spectrum on the gig economy and maybe why. Armine, why don't you start us off?
Well, okay, Taki. I don't know, right? Like everything else that COVID has revealed, it's kind of our choice. How we decide to collectively put rules around the sandbox that is getting bigger, we think. And what we want to know and what we don't want to know. How we inform ourselves. So, to Gary's point about fuzzy stat thinking. I would add there's official statistics, plus real time statistics.And we have an allergy to incorporate a dashboard that has proprietary data or even asking companies to share their proprietary data. I mean, I would say that since these platforms operate in our jurisdiction, within or beyond the employment standards of the jurisdictions in which they operate, they owe us the data. Like it's not just... it's not a negotiated thing. We shouldn't be paying for it. Show us what's going on. That should be the quid pro quo for operating.
And then we should have, because CRTC is the regulatory body for every... for the pipes and what goes through the pipes, we should have an arm of this that is looking at contract law. What are these terms of service that are out there? It's like the Wild West. It's almost entirely unregulated. Who gets what? And the only people protected by the terms of service are the apps, like the platforms, the providers of the app. Customers aren't protected and, certainly, workers are not. So, I think we've got a lot to learn about regulating and civic tech. Using technology to protect ourselves and to help us design public policy because there's so much we don't understand.
But with respect to your question of: do I lean in the direction of flexibility or in the direction of terror? I think there's a lot going on in the world right now that would normally push me in the direction of terror because I see the first world, whatever you call it, the global north, right? Being in a position of seeing the wage differential with the global south narrowing very rapidly and it's not going to narrow because their wages are climbing as fast as our wages are going to fall. So I think that's going to be potentially discombobulating because what do we tell our kids to study for, right? Like when the answer has historically been go into the professions and now maybe you can't make a living. Maybe you can't find any work, let alone make a living as a professional. And there will be exclusions to that, but it makes it much harder to give guidance to our own children, much less design public policy.
So that's the terror part. The hope I take is that we are seeing this unbelievable spirit of rising up and resisting the status quo that grinds people down and we are seeing it all over the world. It is not unique to English speaking countries. It is not unique to rich countries. It is happening everywhere. And so I think we're in a kind of weird zeitgeist of a democratic demand for better and I don't know where it's going to lead. And certainly there will be for every step forward we are likely to see a step back, but I think there's going to be a very abundant conversation about what it is we're creating together. Not just what you can do for yourself and what can you tell your kid to do for themselves, but what are we creating together, through public policies and through our collective work.
So I think it is going to be—it's a great time to be alive because I think we're going through one of those moments that Gramsci calls the interregnum. The status quo is over. We're finished the way capitalism used to work, but the new thing has not yet arrived. So we're in the middle of this how are we going to deal with everything. We thought that moment had come after the global financial crisis. It did not. We brought back the status quo bigger than ever. What we do just after COVID is unclear, but COVID has not finished with us and what it will leave in its wake is something we have never anticipated. So the rebuilding is going to give us at least opportunities to literally build back better.
So, Gary, are we done with capitalism as far as the gig economy is concerned or are we going in to capitalism on steroids?
Which is a fully, fully efficient economy where you have driven up every possible inefficiency and supply meets labour and, as you said—demand meets supply, and as you said, two out of the three always win.
So, you've hit a number of different sort of facets in the diamond here. So let me just hit those. So, sort of in terms of the dynamics in the work space and then capitalism or rather, our peculiar form of capitalism that we practice in the global north. So, first off on the work side, so and Taki and some of the folks at the school, I think, have heard me, sort of, with some of this framing before, but just for the benefit for those on the call. So a young person comes out of college or trade school or high school today and they get a day job but then they're also driving for Lyft at night and they're working on a start-up with their friends and then they take a gap month with their friends and then they get another job, but they're also learning online. It's a constantly changing landscape of work and education and leisure. And I call this a portfolio of work.
And so, this is a rational response to an exponentially changing world. Young people, now your parents are asking me all the time "why won't my kid get a real job?" This is actually a rational response to an uncertain world is I'm trying to have these hedge strategies. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know if I'm going to keep my job. I don't know if the start-up is going to go well. I don't... but the people who are going to benefit from that, from that unbundling are the ones with the combination of the best agency and the best access, right?
So the challenge is that not everybody has agency or access and because we've got these, sort of, flywheel effects. The ones that can actually crack the code and figure it out are going to benefit in an outsized manner and the ones that cannot crack the code, in the past the penalty for that was actually relatively low. You could be working at the factory for decades. You could be working in the mine for decades. You would... it wasn't an exponentially changing world. And so the challenge is, if you can crack that code and you can understand the design heuristics and then you also, in addition to all of that, you have access. Access to capital if you are going to start a business, access to work opportunity, then you're going to do just fine, but we can't design a system for the people who are going to do just fine.
And so the answer is it's both flexibility and terror. I always talk about three futures of work: anabundance scenario, the jobpocalypse scenario, and then one where there is both. And that's actually, the both, is what's most likely, is that if we don't build better, as Armine is saying. If we don't actually hack these markets for good in ways that change the fundamental ways that we, you know, capitalism functions. I'll just give an example, here in the United States, we reward capital over labour. How crazy is that? If you have money, you're going to make more money. If you work harder, you're not going to make more money than the person that has the money.
Now that made a ton of sense back when we didn't have a lot of factories and roads, but the last time I looked, I think we have a lot of factories and roads. So, yet, we still have these design heuristics for our economy and ways that are guaranteeing the flywheel effect that the middle is going to evaporate. So, that's why I would say cautiously optimistic. I think Armine is right. We're going to look back in 10 years and we're going to say this was the reset button. This is when we actually finally had the opportunity to get a whole bunch of people, especially from a policy standpoint to accept the fact that we have designed a system that is guaranteed to give us a future in 10 years that we don't want, or at least that hopefully most of us don't want.
Yes. So one of the things that we've actually been talking about indirectly and maybe this will get us a little bit into COVID is we've been talking indirectly about physicality and how in the past there were labour markets, but they were ascribed to certain geographical, physical spaces and you have like a good labour market in this physical space and you have like a not so good labour market in that physical space. And I remember in the late 80s when I was an undergrad at university, and I forget which one of my professors said this and I quote it a lot and I'm sorry to the professor that I can't remember his or her name, but I remember the professor, and it hit me like a ton of bricks in the back of my head when he or she said it. They said "in the future, if you have third world skills, you're going to have a third world lifestyle, regardless of where you live." And they said, "in the past, where you lived had a great determinant on your lifestyle. If you were lucky enough to be born in Canada or in the United States or in Europe, that you had a kind of a birth lottery and that that birth lottery in the future will disappear because you're... the determinant of your life will shift from where you were born to what you know and what you can do, regardless of where you live."
So that leads us, kind of, nicely into a skills discussion and I know you're both—you've thought profoundly about skills and learning and I'm going to start with Gary on this one. And Gary, I'm going to quote back to you something that you said that also hit me like a ton of bricks, but because I'm older, I actually remember who said it and when they said it. You said at an event we had at the Canada School a couple of years ago, you said "in the future all learning will be just in time and just in context." And I'd like you to kind of elaborate on that a little bit. Does that mean that I should pull my kids out of school? That I shouldn't send them to university? That, you know, I just... learn what you need to know a couple of moments before you need to know it and don't bother with kind of skills and learning and growth. Is that what you were telling us, Gary?
So, I'm sorry if that was the take away. I, again, I don't have any moral authority here having, you know, spent so little time in college, but I'll tell you the model as far as I'm concerned. So, first off, you wave a magic wand, you give absolutely everybody the opportunity to have this amazing experience of going off for 4 years, the young adult launch pad that we currently call college, to grow up, to build relationships, to learn how to think, to be able to build these connections with great mentors and teachers, and then to be launched into the world of work. We could wave a magic wand and give everybody that experience. That's a wonderful world.
In the United States, a liberal arts degree at a private college will run you about 250 000 dollars. So, there's a vanishingly small market of middle class families that can afford that and it's one of the reasons we have a 1.6 trillion dollar overhang in student loans in the United States. So, hopefully the message is not all learning will become just in time and just in context, but more that the work market asymmetries that we're talking about, that is there's a whole bunch of demand over here for skills and there's a whole bunch of, you know, messy expensive humans over here that hopefully can develop those skills. I think the example or the story that I've told before is a woman that I know, her 15 year old son had a summer job lined up at a small business went to go to the office manager, say, "here, I'm ready to start my job" and the office manager said, "I'm sorry, the head of IT you were going to be working for, he quit" and so, kid starts to walk away and the office manager says, "wait a minute, there's these—security software needs to be installed on all these PCs. Can you do that?" and so the kid goes home, studies on his digital distraction device and during the entire summer installs that software on all the PCs. So, didn't say "I'm going off for a 4 year IT degree." Just in time and just in context. That is, the problem I needed to solve was right in front of me. So, not all learning will be that way and I certainly hope there will always be serendipity. There always will be exposure to things that we're curious about because we know increasingly a lot of the value we create will be the intersection between a certain skill set and a certain set of knowledges. It's just that as the shelf life of knowledge continues to shrink in so many industries, you cannot guarantee that the knowledges that you have gathered today are going to be useful tomorrow.
And so, all the takeaways have to be that we have to be life-long learners. That education itself has to change as a complete and entire business model. That all of us have to have a completely different mindset, a learning mindset, have learning agility, and so on. And these are critical for everybody. There will be always some jobs that it's not going to be all that necessary for. Like in media, we still have radio, believe it or not, but we are increasingly going to have a whole bunch of work that will have this more in demand skill set that will need to be trained for much more rapidly.
Armine, talk to us a little bit about learning and skills and education in this world. Like what do we learn? What do we grow? What do we train for?
You know, there are so many ways to tackle your question. I have three different, kind of, entry points. I'll start with the personal, because you made it personal. Should we tell our kids to go to university or not? The difference between... I've got three kids. The youngest is 28. The eldest is 33. And the difference in their experience with post-secondary education is like night and day in those 5 years. My youngest, who is by far the smartest in our family, could not get in to engineering in the school to which he wanted to go. Went to a different engineering school, was appalled at the level of education he was getting, dropped out. Got a job without any degrees, is learning everyday on the job, is a project manager in IT doing some really crazy wild things way out there. I think he is a bit of a bellwether for 'can you develop skills on the job', just in time, just in context. Damn straight. Does that mean that my older two children wasted their money and time going to school? Absolutely not.
So, we have got one knowable, which is that if you have credentials, you are likely to do better than if you don't have credentials. And that is likely to be the case later because a lot more people like my son will be dropping out of the credential game because it is too expensive and too time consuming. But there will be people with the luxury of time and money to be able to do it and they will become some form of an elite. Don't forget the skills are human capital. So, there's that bundle of tension, social tension. This has got nothing to do with the skills, it's the way we value, how we ascribe value to what people do. And leisure will be an issue. Leisure and having money is never a bad thing, right? So, people that have got the leisure and the money to get a big degree is not a bad thing.
Second thing is: what is a skill? Are we only talking about employable skills? Is it a skill to know something about ancient philosophers? Is it a skill to know something about human history? Is it a skill to be really well versed in the science of engineering? These are not marketable skills necessarily. Do we need people that have these skills? Damn straight. But do we pay them? No, we don't, by in large for those skills. So, that's another discussion of what do we mean by skills.
And I'm going to add a third element to it, which is COVID revealed so many things, but one of the things it revealed was that in the essential economy... one of the things it revealed is that the essential economy cannot function without the caring economy, and that the caring economy is increasingly unpaid. So, we've got people that used to have a job of teaching kids in school and they're being homeschooled by their parents. We used to have people that provided childcare and childcares are shuttering because they're viewed as a business, not as a public... a form of critical public infrastructure. And mommies are pulling out of work to provide full-time, unpaid childcare.
So, if the mix between skills that are paid and unpaid, how we view these skills are extremely gendered and they are extremely... they revolve around care. And we cannot send our working age people to work without somebody taking care of the people that are too old, too young, and too sick to work. Now, we pay our doctors really well, but we don't pay our long-term care providers really well. So it's not that the long-term care providers are unskilled. It's just we view their skills as not worth paying a lot. So, there is no natural and incontrovertible, scientific 'you have a skill worth paying and you don't'. It's a political exercise and what are we going to value? And what are we not going to value? What are you going to pay for? And what are we not going to pay for? How is that going to fall down gendered lines? And what skills are we going to value?
I'm going to add one last thought, which is what just in time, just in context learning does in a global labour market for the professions is: I don't know. That is literally the chapter that is... we have never been here before. So making a global labour market, to your first point about labour markets being physical, but cerebral thinking does not require physicality. As we are seeing 38 percent of people can work from home. They don't need to be in a work place. They could do it from anywhere. Increasingly, while that's still the minority of work that needs to be done, increasingly we are aware that we can do certain work from anywhere. Why would you stop in Barrie, Ontario or Delhi—Saskatchewan? Why not go to Delhi, India to get your work done? That is going to be the next shoe to fall and I don't know how that's going to play out.
Can I just add something to that really quickly? So, Armine, I'm totally in agreement and then what it also takes is not just a change in mindset on the supply side, us messy expensive humans, but on the demand side. So, what unfortunately there's just so much of the system that is still biased around the old rules of work, right? There's a job description that has a set of tasks that it describes and an amount of experience and a degree that's required. And these things are all completely orthogonal to what the real skill set that's needed, right?
And so, the demand side. So, if you're a hirer, you have to change your mindset. What you really have is a set of problems to solve. That's what it is. You've got a set of problems to solve. And so, there is a range of skills that could be applied to it, but if you don't understand the problem that you're trying to have solved, you can't actually better specify what you think the skills requirements are. And that should actually be a collaborative process. It's normally... I mean, sure there's a lot of, you know, work that is actually fairly prescribed, but there's increasing amount of work that's very creative requires actually an understanding of developing what that problem is.
And so, the demand side, the hirers, have to change their entire framing so that they're looking for problem solvers. They're looking for a skill set to solve problems. And then these things like... one of the things that we did in the United States is those non-standard roles that I talked about, we up‑required. We took jobs that only required a high school degree before and we said now it requires a four year degree because guess what we can get the same type of person for at a much higher, you know, at a much lower price who also has a college degree because there's more supply than there is demand. And so, we actually have to have a completely different mindset on the hiring side to actually change this calculus.
I want to tag team with Gary's point. I couldn't agree more and I think what we're seeing already is some businesses could give a slip of what your credentials are but then those are the businesses that are hiring based on word of mouth and networks, right? Because you're not going to pull somebody out of the blue. Credentialism was short-hand for I don't know who you are but it shows me that you've like actually done the work to narrow it down.
It's a risk reduction mechanism.
100 percent. It's a risk reduction mechanism. As you enter the next three decades where population aging is going to see... In Canada, a quarter of the population are seniors and we've got the lowest number of entrance to the labour market that we have ever seen in our history because of falling fertility rates. We are going to have endemic labour shortages. People are going to be accepting anybody that says, "I can do this job." And there will be a short test to prove that you can do the job and they will do it, but they will do it from wherever it is possible to do the job.
I just want to get us back to basics. The majority of the labour market is physical. The majority of the labour market is not cerebral. 38 percent of people were able to work from home during the pandemic. This is almost uniformly the case in every labour market. The majority of the labour market needs a person in a place. So when we fret about the professions, it's not because they are the most important people out there or because their wages are highest and losing incomes of that group has got huge macro-economic... a cascade of macro‑economic effects. Though all of that is true.
What is really important to understand is that we are not paying the people that can't move properly. We are not valuing the skills of the people that we are deeming essential. Again, a COVID revelation. These people are essential, but they're disposable. They're essential, but we're not going to pay them. They're essential, but hey, you know, anybody could do that job. Of course, not anybody's doing that job. But the reason why anybody could do that job is because they're so poorly paid. So, we've got this real tension between getting the cheapest labour we can find wherever and the fact that we need certain workers in certain places at certain times to be able to just get on with our day. It's the essential economy and it is place based.
So, Armine, you've mentioned a few times about how we have imminent labour shortages coming and let me kind of take a contrarian point of view. I know that we have declining populations and we've talked about that a lot at the school. We've had John Ibbitson who just wrote a book on... Empty Planet was kind of the first bellwethers of this. Talking about how in developed worlds or industrial societies, populations are, they're not just declining, they're falling off a cliff. We're having countries that won't be able to reproduce themselves in the future, including many European countries. Canada is not like that. Canada is actually one of the few countries that are growing, but population for sure, from what we know today, is declining. But let me take the opposite point of view to what you're saying about imminent labour shortages, which is technology is getting better and better and better, both kind of the physical technology, like the kind of the... like the technology that cost my father his job in 81/82 when globalization closed down his factory. So that was kind of... my dad was a physical worker, but he lost his job in that recession and he never really got another job again. And that was globalization, but now there's a second wave coming which is... which I worry about... which is will AI do to my children what globalization did to my father, which is to say kind of the cerebral worker. Will there be fewer and fewer tasks—because we've learned already during this conversation that, kind of, to stop talking about jobs, but to start talking about tasks. Will there be fewer and fewer tasks to do in the future that will require humans?
No. There will be more tasks that we recognize that we need done by somebody. Whether we will pay them or not, we don't know. There is a real gender split to the conversation that you are talking about. So, Hazel Henderson in 1981 or something, she's a futurist that I'm sure Gary knows about and a feminist economist, described the economy not as a pie, but as a layer cake. And I encourage you to take a look at the National Film Board animated short that I was lucky enough to be part of to describe the big reset. You used the term Taki. It's like so great. The big reset in economics is how we imagine the economy. And what she was showing is that, and frankly anybody that thinks twice about it will see, whatever we're talking about when we're talking about GDP and what needs to be done, happens first of all in the foundation of the planet. It is the raw materials from which we draw our inputs but gives us sustenance. Then there's the caring part, we have to replicate the population. You're indicating that there's a population decline. That is the flip side of saying we need more skills in society and as women get more educated, they opt to have fewer children, if they have any say in the matter. So, fertility rates around the world are falling, including in places where fertility rates were high because people are getting more educated. That's a good thing. We've got this push-pull between population aging in the global north and not enough jobs that pay well in the south, some of which can be intermediated through platforms. But some of which will require more migration between the north and the south. And that's one of the reasons why we're growing is because we're getting more input. But the physicality of everything is the dominant feature.
And so, it really is up to us to design systems that value work—that put a premium on decent work. All of the work that's done. And if it's going to be unpaid to provide people the income support where they don't fall into destitution so that they can do that important unpaid work. We have to redesign our entire social architecture of public policy to understand that humans are more important than capital, which is a point that Gary made about half an hour ago.
So, first off, just to fill in the rest of the blanks if you folks haven't seen the video. So, Armine also talks about that on top of the planet and taking care of people then you build infrastructure and you build an economy on top of that, which is essentially you're making decisions for society first and economy is second, right? Which is, which is the thought exercise I ask audiences to do all the time. Unfortunately, what we keep thinking we can do is to design economies without anchoring them and the needs of the society. A couple of things. First off: robots and software don't take jobs. Humans give them away. Simply because all those tasks were automated, there's a human that decides if those tasks add up to a job and you lay off that person and then you have to go hire a completely different skill set. But that zero sum mentality we have to leave behind us because what it works on the assumption is that here's the supply, here's the demand. Not only is the pace and spread of change so rapid that these people are being left behind and we just got to discard them. Oh I have all these in demand skills I can't hire for.
What if instead, we trained these folks to continually meet the needs of tomorrow, solve the problems of tomorrow? That would be a great solution. Oh and by the way, this doesn't have to shrink because of robots and software. That is, you don't have to have all these jobs go away. There's all these new problems to be solved. What we have to do is have a completely different mindset about how we approach the characterization of the demand. And oh by the way, we can make different decisions about how we create new demand. You know, Travis Kalanick when he started Uber, he could have given stock to every single Uber driver and we wouldn't be having these discussions about how you classify a gig worker. So these are decisions that we can make. These aren't laws of nature. These are laws of our economies and our societies and we can make different decisions, we just need to make collective commitment to them.
Alright. So, you've both made references to National Film Board and some other links. So, what we're going to do is we're going to collate all that background reference and material and we're going to send it out to the 1500 viewers on this thing today so that they can continue to learn and grow. We're down to our last couple of minutes. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to ask each of you—first, I'm going to quote a great American philosopher, Gary, because you are joining us from Washington, D.C. And the great American philosopher is Yogi Berra, and Yogi Berra said that "making predictions is really, really difficult, especially if you're making predictions about the future." And so, but keeping that caveat in mind, I'm going to ask each of you, we're having this conversation 10 years from now. Make a prediction. What are we talking about in 10 years from now? Are we talking still about, kind of, labour shortages? Are we talking about skills? Are we talking about... Tell us what the future of work is, if you're looking back on it ten years from now. So, maybe Armine we'll start with you and then we'll close with you, Gary.
No, don't start with me. Start with Gary.
Gary, let's start with you.
Alright. So, with a title like 'the chair for the Future of Work,' you'd think I'd call myself a futurist, but I'd say more sort of possible-ist. So and I always talk in terms of scenarios, right? Which is why I talked about, you know, the abundance scenario, the jobpocalypse scenario, and the sort of...
Yes. You're the two armed economist.
Yes. So, that's right. So, but I'll give you a couple of trend lines that I think you can map for yourself. So, first off, as I said, we—with the great reset, it's pretty clear, globally, we've lost a couple of steps. We've lost a couple of steps on poverty and lost a couple of, oh I don't know, trillion dollars in GDP. What we've gained is some acceleration of the unbundling. So, what I'm going to argue is pretty likely is that we're going to start to see markets—there's going to be more opportunity and a range of markets that have had informal economies—more informal economies in the past and they will have the opportunity to instantiate more formalized economies. That is, more jobs, hopefully sparked by a lot of entrepreneurism and by hopefully different design heuristics of the economies where actually they want them to be far more inclusive.
We're also going to see, I think, much more rapid responses in the future to things like the global pandemic. So, you're right. So, today is the virus, tomorrow it could be generalized AI. I think you're going to see more rapid responses because, just to give an example, we're creating a vaccine in the most breathtaking time in human history. I mean, it's the fastest we have innovated around pretty much anything globally in human history. So, that makes me cautiously optimistic that if we just agree on what the problems are, we actually have far more collective will and collective action. What I think is likely we're going to be looking back in ten years, we're going to say we hit the reset button. We changed a substantial amount of the way our work markets worked. We certainly have a very, very different education economy, especially young adult launch pad and beyond. I don't think we'll have changed K-12 as much as we anywhere need to. So, we'll continually be putting our youth at disadvantage. But I think you will see work markets will be much more fluid. Will that be beneficial to all? No. No. Without changing the education paradigm, we can't—the learning paradigm, we're not going to get the workforce that we need for the future. So, that's where we, one of the areas we have to focus.
Okay. So, if the timeline is ten years, I'd say geopolitical frictions and climate chaos means shorter, more unpredictable supply chains and that will result in more self-reliance in our own markets. But markets aren't the be all and end all. The question is: what will governments do about more volatility in earnings? More unpredictability of earnings? Perhaps more loss of high wage earners. And the jury is out there on how we will learn to do the big reset in addressing collective challenges because we've been so neo-liberal and libertarian for the last 40 years. It's basically been everyone for themselves.
So, that's where I don't know where things are going to go. I think where markets go is it's going to come—more stuff is going to come home and we will be more creative, but we will only be more creative if we actually invest in every young person, every young person's learning potential, now. Because we will reap what we sow. So, change is coming, by revolution or by the plan, but change is coming. What we have gone through in the last 40 years is being upended. And what we will decide the tighter of reliance on capital versus labour. On the reliance between paid and unpaid work. On people coming to our country on permanent or temporary terms. All of those are chapters as yet unwritten and they are up to us to write, including all of your audience who are going to be the future DMs of Canada.
So, I want to thank you both because I think what you've both said in different ways with a lot of eloquence and a lot of passion is that the future is in a little bit... it's ours to write. That these things aren't just about technological progress or software or manufacturing or demographic trends, but really public policy will be a big determinant of the future going forward and if we get public policy right, we can build on the good things and buffer against the bad things. Our hour is up, much to my chagrin. Armine, Gary, thank you so much for sharing your insights, your time, and your passion with us, and most of all, thank you for being friends with Canada's public service. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. All our best. Stay safe.
Alright. Be well. Thanks.
Thank you for inviting me. It was great being with you, Gary.
Alright. Talk to you guys soon. Thank you.
Complete your census today!
Help your community make choices about education, employment, transportation, health care and housing services.
This website is continually being updated in response to your feedback.