When we look into the future of work, are we asking the same questions?

Jennifer Hollett
Jun 8, 2016 · 4 min read

By Jennifer Hollett

Work. Photo by Anthony Auston

I like to check Twitter’s trending topics a few times a day. For many, it’s become the modern day equivalent of grumbling “what’s on the news” and turning on the evening newscast.

The other day, I saw the #futureofwork was trending. As someone who is very interested in juicy policy discussions around decent work in a winner takes all economy that is squeezing people out in all directions, this surprised and delighted me. So I clicked on the hashtag, only to discover a much different conversation.

People were talking about work culture, trends, and innovation, for people who have jobs. Or companies that want to retain “talent” and grow. The hashtag was coming out of an event in Toronto hosted by MaRS Discovery District. Participants were asking questions like do #millennials have career ADD? And … Robotics, big data, AI, fintech, VR & more are redefining the #futureofwork. Are you ready?

I don’t think we’re ready.

These are important and intriguing questions. And as someone who has been working in tech since 1997, as well as a kid who grew up watching the Jetsons, I’ve been waiting anxiously for the robots to arrive. But in downtown Toronto, home to two universities and a college, the young people I speak with frequently are grappling with a “gig economy” without guaranteed hours or benefits, wondering what happens if they’re riding their bicycle, get hit by a car, and can’t work. They’re also questioning if moving back home and taking on more student debt for a second degree would help, and if they’ll ever be able to own a place in the city they call home. Their parents are equally freaking out.

Photo illustration by cisc1970

Armine Yalnizyan is a fireball economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She recently schooled Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank fame in a radio debate over the Panama Papers and the ethics of tax shelters. I asked her why when we talk about the future of work, there are two separate conversations.

She tells me there’s three.

“The precarious work and the future of work for kids, the next generation of workers vs. basic income because we’re fucked and the robots are going to take all of our jobs vs. how do you attract and retain the best of the best,” she explains.

“All three conversations are happening because all three things are happening at the same time.”

While it usually takes decades for issues to come up in policy, in the last six months the idea of a basic or guaranteed income has exploded, which Armine notes is odd. “I think it’s a lot of government ducking the future of work issues.”

Or perhaps it’s because Silicon Valley, once described to me by an entrepreneur as a city with wheelbarrows of cash, is curious and/or feeling bad. Earlier this year Y Combinator, best known as the brand name start-up incubator, put out a request for research to study basic income for five years. Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator explains his interest via blog: “We have some examples of something close to a basic income in other countries, but we’d like to see how it would work in the US. I think it’s good to start studying this early. I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale.”

Armine is soon hosting a series of panels on “full employment,” which used to be a public policy priority of governments everywhere, in the post-war period. It fell off the map in the 70s, and by the mid 90s we stopped talking about it entirely.

Critical of the lure of basic income, Armine argues it is difficult to scale. “It’s not going to happen at a level that will unshackle people from the need to work.” Where full employment is everyone who wants to have a job, can have one. And then, this is the critical point she stresses, that it’s a good job.

I hope this is where all the conversations overlap. Be it precarious work, basic income, or innovation, these questions, panels, and hashtags should push us to figuring out a way to ensure the lives of everyone are better off.

Jennifer Hollett is a Canadian journalist who has reported for CBC, CTV, and CHUM. She is passionate about digital storytelling and community building and is an associate with the Atkinson Foundation. This story is part of the foundation’s commitment to decent work.

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