What will the workplace look like in 2030?

‘AI everything,’ resource scarcity most cited Canadian trends, finds report

Artificial intelligence (AI), automation and technological change are very much top of mind for Canadian employers as they prepare for the next decade.

But the adoption of new tech will be slow and uneven across Canada, according to Signs of the Times: Expert insights about employment in 2030 — the second report out of the Brookfield Institute’s “Employment in 2030” initiative, looking at how experts believe employment may change in 10 to 15 years.

“There was some consistency across the country and some divergence in terms of which trends were rising to the top for experts, in terms of their potential to really change employment and skills demand,” says Sarah Doyle, director of policy and research at the Toronto organization, noting that “AI everything” and resource scarcity are the two most popular trends nationwide. 

“It’s not just about tech; it’s about our traditional engine in the economy.”

Trends for the future

The report summarizes feedback from more than 120 workplace experts to flesh out trends affecting the future of work. 

Environmental sustainability, including resource scarcity; demographic shifts, such as the aging population; and the reconciliation process and safeguarding of Indigenous rights were all recurring themes in the workshops. Political uncertainty driven by upcoming elections was also a much-discussed topic.

The labour experts were invited to “think expansively and imaginatively about how these different trends might interact, as opposed to defaulting to some of the leading trends that get talked about quite a bit in media and policy conversations,” she says.

The trends affecting the future workplace are much greater than technology, according to Doyle.

“We tend to hyperfocus on things like automation and technological change,” she says. “But those are far from the only factors that are influencing the nature of skill demand — both now and into the future.”

Technological change

Technological change may be experienced differently in Toronto versus Whitehorse, says Diana Rivera, economist and project lead at the Brookfield Institute.

“In a wider sense, these trends will affect the whole country,” says Rivera. 

“However, there are definitely regional differences… in how people approach the potential effects of technology.”

But plenty of work remains to be done when it comes to predicting the future, according to Elizabeth Dhuey, associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto and a member of the school’s FutureSkills initiative.

“We know less than we think we know about how to prepare for the future of work,” she says. “Most of what we think is new is based off of speculation and not data and not empirical analysis. We need to be moving more in that direction so that, as a country, as an economy, we’re better prepared.”

The high prevalence of AI within conversations about future skills actually refers to the broader topic of technology as a whole, says Dhuey.

“When people think of any technological change, they’re thinking AI, even though most people don’t understand what AI actually is.” 

And industrial change has been a common fear through generations of workers, she says.

“Every decade, people were worried about technology,” says Dhuey. 

“The words are different. We’re talking about AI versus computers or versus the internet, but I think the same issues apply. We’ve been automating for the last 50 years or more… so I don’t think that’s particularly new.”  

“We still need to worry about advancing technology, but we need to get a better handle on what that is actually going to entail and what it means for the labour market.” 

Advice for employers

Employers need to look at all the workplace trends, says Doyle.

“Consideration of what skills an organization or company might need in the future is, in some ways, just as important as the skills that it needs now.”

For now, employers would be wise to consider some of the more non-traditional trends when strategizing about future workforce planning, says Doyle.

“It’s really about resilience — thinking ahead to consider skills that may become more important to an employer as businesses shift, as markets change.”

HR should think about screening applicants for skills that are more difficult to screen for — such as adaptability, collaboration and problem solving, says Dhuey.

“Somehow, companies are going to have to get around to figuring out how to get the best employees that have the skills that can’t be automated.”

“We still don’t know what skills are needed,” she says. “And then how to train for them — or how to teach them — is going to be a whole other set of questions that we just started working on.”

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