"We have come to an inflection point in the history of work and have a chance to control the coming change if private enterprise, government and the community are willing to prepare for it.

That’s the message brought by Linda Nazareth, economist, author, broadcaster and Senior Fellow for Economics and Population Change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, to 130 attendees at a breakfast event Wednesday, part of Communitech’s speaker series on the future of work and learning. The topic —  “Work Is Not a Place: Our Lives and Our Organizations in the Post-Jobs Economy” — allowed Nazareth to range widely, from the social upheavals of the early Industrial Revolution to the splintered work environments and work forces of the future.

“Change is scary. Change has always been scary,” said Nazareth.

Host Simon Chan, Communitech’s Vice-President, Talent, Academy, and Future of Work, used the session to announce a remedy to disruptive change: Waterloo Region’s Future of Work and Learning Coalition, the culmination of a year-long discussion among “a cross-section of government, industry and academia who are all committed to collaborating on how we might prepare our region for the future of work, by future-proofing our workplaces, and hopefully making this community much more resilient.""

Chan said that with capstone partner Manulife and many other agencies and firms, Waterloo Region will become a “lighthouse community in Canada for being future-of-work-and-learning-ready.” He said the best practices developed here will be syndicated across Canada through government and private-sector partners.

Nazareth took the audience on a brief tour of economic history, from what could be called the early “gig economy” (where skilled workers might shoe horses or make barrels for a variety of employers), to the factory work (and the destructive resistance of the Luddites to what they saw as job-stealing technology), to the dependability of the weekly paycheque.

“It’s what we got used to as a society. Everybody coming to work, everybody getting a paycheque.” And now, the world is entering the second gig economy, where contract and part-time work is the norm, paycheques are intermittent and employment benefits are rare. 

Governments, she said, are having difficulty reacting to the coming changes: “Government is struggling with how to implement policy properly because something has changed and we need to figure out the policy. We are very much at a point where everything is new and everyone is scrambling.”

Nazareth said that “Work is less of a place than it used to (be). I think we are going to see that get intensified. . .For one thing, every time we have an economic slowdown, we change things up in the labour market.” She cited as an example Canada’s recent energy recession when firms innovated to reduce costs. When oil prices rose again, “you went from needing, literally, 30 workers on a platform, to needing two.” 

Demographics are a factor in Canada’s ability to grow. “We are an aging population, and aging populations don’t grow as quickly.” The U.S., Japan, Germany and China are in somewhat the same boat as their workforces age, while India and the Philippines have lots of young workers coming onstream. 

“Power is going to be reshuffled in the world. Some countries not particularly powerful in the past are now growing as quickly as their populations are growing. North America was punching above its weight for a long time.”

Add to that the tech revolution, which Nazareth said “is changing the playing field so quickly that a lot of players can’t keep up . . .” 

She noted that gig work is appealing to business because full-time employees are expensive. 

But the core of any business will still be “amazing” employees, because of the human skills required, and “the war for talent will heat up even more.”

She often referenced the “Hollywood model” where actors or crew may work for a while and then don’t work for a while. “As a society, we’re not used to this. We’re used to getting paid and going to work every day. If we move to this model, there’s a lot of things we have to rethink.”

They include: 

    • Protection for gig workers.

    • Acceptance of the side-hustle economy. (She drew some laughs for citing Queen Elizabeth as a champion side-hustler, for her investment in race horses over her career that has netted her about $9 million. “She is really sharp, perhaps sharper than her children.”)

    • Not looking to government to respond to this. An enhanced safety net might lead to a discussion about a basic income, but society will have to make hard choices about what will be cut to cover this cost. (“Do we close libraries?”)

    • Business has to look at the long term rather than trying simply to meet quarterly targets.

    • Considering how to manage the new remote, gig team. (“We’re used to everyone in the office. How do we recreate the “water cooler effect”? 

    • Portable benefits could allow contract workers to buy into a benefit package that can be moved to different workplaces.

    • Planning for income volatility should begin early, even in schools, where young people can learn about financial planning.

“This is a seismic shift,” she said. “This is an industrial revolution and we are part way through it. We absolutely need to control it — this is a crossroads for us.”

She said Canada is well-placed to benefit from this shift. “We have some strengths and we can lead. I think this also is a great opportunity for workers if we get this right.

“I have faith that Canada is one of the countries that will get this right. We have been a leader in many areas. Canada can be a leader and can be an example.

“The future of work is a splintered future and we can choose to control this if we want to.”

Some further thoughts from Linda Nazareth: 

    • Look to private sector to solve many of the issues: “I think government can get out of the way.”

    • Government is unsure how to react to economic changes. Right now, unemployment is at a historic low, but the Bank of Canada appears on the verge of lowering interest rates. How does that make sense when unemployment is so low?

    • The likelihood of a recession in the U.S. is rising, and “if that happens, Canada will definitely get hit, too ... I am not optimistic that we can be unscathed in the next few years.”

    • The benchmark of the middle class is having a little bit of money left over after the essentials. Money to buy a car, money to buy lipstick. It may be the ability to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. By 2030, the worldwide middle class is predicted to hit 4.9 billion, but much of that growth will not be in North America.

    • Mental and social isolation have to be addressed. Our society is built around work. Baby boomers have tended not to have hobbies. “We need to rethink this.”