Future of work about much more than technology, automation: Report

Employers must prepare for broader trends impacting labour market – including a possible rise in wildfires, floods and mudslides

Future of work about much more than technology, automation: Report
Calgary endured its heaviest flood in decades in 2013. A new report from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship says employers need to prepare for more natural disasters in the future. Reuters/Andy Clark/File Photo

When predicting the future, employers have much more to worry about than technological change and automation, according to a new report by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Toronto.

Demographic change, environmental sustainability, political uncertainty and globalization are all factors employers must consider when forecasting what skills will be needed as of 2030, said Jessica Thornton, senior projects designer for the Brookfield Institute.

“A lot of the research around the future of work to date has really focused on quantifying the potential impacts of automation, which is important for us to know because automation is definitely driving a lot of change within the labour market,” she said.

The Turn and Face the Strange futures research report is part of a broader project entitled “Employment in 2030” and aims to push people to consider non-traditional trends to avoid blind spots in the planning process.

Without adequate preparation for trends such as older workers, environmental disasters and lifelong learning, employers’ current successes may be challenged in the future, said Thornton.

“No one knows the future and it could look lots of different ways,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about preparing for technological change in the form of building up the digital literacy skills of our workforce. What there’s been less focus on is how should employers be preparing for the impacts of mental health? How should employers be preparing for multi-generational workforces?”

What if?

The report offers up a variety of questions for employers to consider when contemplating the future, said Thornton.

What if Canada sees a rise in wildfires, floods and mudslides? What if cases of mental health issues associated with technology continue to multiply? What if artificial intelligence (AI) becomes capable of performing creative tasks?

The economic burden surrounding natural disasters — such as the Calgary flood in 2013 or more recent forest fires in British Columbia and Northern Ontario — is an issue employers need to be grappling with, she said.

“As we see these instances happen, there’s a strain on Canadians as they respond as they potentially are displaced from their homes, as well as community responses to being able to deal with this,” said Thornton.

Additionally, climate change disruptions across the globe could eventually lead to more refugees. Canadian employers should prepare for an influx of foreign workers into the labour market as a result, she said.

The major trend employers should currently be focused on is demographic change and its effect on the workplace, according to Thornton.

Seniors may continue to work into their eighties and nineties, and employers will need to know how to respond to changes in accommodation, as well as impacts on products and services, she said.

Technology’s effect on mental health is another topic of high importance, said Thornton.

“Younger demographics have never been more connected online, but actually feel more lonely than ever before. And so, we're seeing a rise in sick days in Canada. We're seeing a huge impact of an economic burden related to mental health.”

Employers will need to encourage work-life balance for employees, including adequate time for disconnection — a trend that has been the topic of legislative efforts in some jurisdictions recently, she said. 

Identifying skills

Improved technology typically increases productivity for high-skilled workers, reducing the availability of employment for the lower-skilled, said Joel Blit, economics professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

“In the short run, you will get unemployment in those that are worst hit,” he said. “In the medium to long run, they’ll be hired again, but it’ll express itself in changes to relative wages.”

AI and robotics will continue to make some skills more productive, while others will become less valuable as technology begins to do it better, said Blit.

Identifying the skills that best pair with technology will be key going forward, he said, noting communication, critical thinking and emotional intelligence will very likely be on that list.

“These machines are going to give us a ton of information,” said Blit. “We're going into an era where there's going to be a lot of upheaval. It's hard to predict… because the pace of change is so fast.”

Industries may completely change overnight, he said.

“I'm a little bit worried about programs that are training students for specific jobs or skills, because those skills might not be there five years from now.”

That’s where lifelong learning factors in, said Thornton.

“An education is no longer something you finish in your early 20s,” she said. “It's an ongoing process that Canadians are going to need to partake in throughout their entire careers as they shift multiple careers.”

Employers need to play a role in training and development, said Blit.

“Employers are going to have to start playing a bigger role in that, making sure that their employees are always learning,” he said.

“Employers are going to be really important because, with the pace of change and the fact that we can’t predict the future, employers can't expect our education system to prepare them upfront for the jobs that are going to exist.”

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