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Future jobs: How we’ll earn a living 150 years from now

Will AI and robotics erode or enhance the labour market for humans? (Shutterstock)

Future jobs: How we’ll earn a living 150 years from now

Will AI and robotics erode or enhance the labour market for humans? (Shutterstock)

Editor’s note: Canada Day 2017 marks the sesquicentennial of Confederation. While the anniversary is a chance to reflect on the past, The Conversation Canada asked some of our academic authors to look down the road a further 150 years — or “Canada +150”. Sunil Johal considers how we’ll be earning our keep in 2167.

Canadians have seen the world of work rapidly reshape itself around them in the past 30 years. Globalization, technological change, declining unionization rates and new business strategies are among the forces that have combined to create a labour market characterized by stagnant wages and eroding job quality.

Will technological advances in areas like Artificial Intelligence and robotics exacerbate these conditions or provide pathways to more equitable distribution of profits throughout the economy in the decades to come? How will unions rethink their role in a de-industrialized economy with gig workers spread across the globe? How can workers ensure they’re getting a fair share of the economic pie?

Answering these questions over a five-year time frame is challenging enough. Anticipating what the world of work will look like in 150 years is orders of magnitude harder.

But with the supreme confidence that comes with knowing nobody will be able to prove me wrong for a very long time, I would like to propose five defining characteristics of Canadian jobs in 2167:

  1. We won’t make things anymore – we’ll all be in the service industry. The proportion of Canadians who work in goods-producing sectors has been in a steady state of decline for decades – down from 35 per cent in 1976 to 21 per cent by 2016. Traditional stalwarts of the economy like farming, oil and gas, mining and manufacturing will be all but completely automated over the course of the next century. By 2167, we can expect fewer than one per cent of Canadians to work in these areas, and those who do will be managing complex automated systems which perform the day to day work.

  2. Professions with a highly social element will continue to be prevalent. Whether as nurses, home-care workers, nannies, teachers or therapists, Canadians will still be able to find work in areas that have a high human-touch element. Technology will soon be capable of replacing many of these jobs, but as social animals we will choose to prefer a person teaching young people or taking care of elderly parents. However, technology will continue to play an increasingly important role complementing those who work with people in the caring professions.

  3. The vast majority of Canadians will not have an employer. They’ll be engaged in virtual forms of work routed through technological platforms and peer-to-peer channels, with no regard for geographical borders. Companies or individuals will send out micro-task requests that anyone in the world will be able to bid upon and execute instantaneously. Trust and performance ratings carried from task to task will grant high-performers the edge when it comes to competing against tens of thousands of others.

  4. Commuting to work will be a relic of a bygone age. Virtual reality will enable those few Canadians who do have a consistent place of employment to do their work from their own home or wherever else happens to be convenient.

  5. The supports that workers will have in 2167 will look completely different than today’s social architecture. Instead of large, cumbersome programs like employment insurance delivered through bureaucracies, workers will have immediate, digital access to services that they carry with them throughout their lives. Radical changes to taxation laws (think robot taxes and corporate taxes focused on extraordinary profits) at the national and international level generate sufficient revenue to fund social programs like a guaranteed annual income and life-long skills training allowances.

But, this is just one plausible future scenario. Another plausible future could see a Mad Max style descent into madness, with climate migrants battling over dwindling natural resources in a bleak hellscape. Yet another could see the advent of wide-scale Dickensian virtual factories, paying pennies per task to a desperate underclass.

How can we shape the type of future we want to see? Designing regulatory frameworks that promote competition, protect the public interest and pay workers fair wages is the defining challenge of the 21st century digital economy.

A nurse cares for a swine flu patient in Ukraine during an outbreak in 2009. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Success will hinge on concerted action by governments across the world. Governments that are currently struggling to come to grips with the rise of dominant digital platforms that don’t need to abide by the rules of any particular nation and have a knack for bending regulatory and tax frameworks to suit their preferences. Digital firms will only get more pervasive in the future, and the rise of super-monopolies that can dictate terms to suppliers and crowd out competitors is a serious threat to both consumer and worker interests.

Economic systems that privilege corporate interests are increasingly less likely to produce positive knock-on effects for workers where those workers are faceless commodities in another part of the world. When half of all workers could find their jobs automated by the middle of this century, the challenges of finding space at the table for workers gets more challenging still.

Canadians in 2167 will be engaged in many new forms of work we can’t even imagine today. But, starting today we can lay the groundwork for the fair treatment of workers in a digital economy that promises to unlock huge productivity and quality of life improvements. Our challenge is to ensure those gains are distributed equitably throughout society and not the spoils of a winner-take-all economy.