But I am more skeptical about the spectre of a future without work.
And if the future isn’t scarred by massive, widespread technological unemployment, a basic income would be neither outrageously expensive nor the be-all and end-all of the policy measures that society needs.
The reasons for my skepticism about a future without work rests in the evidence to date.
Don’t get me wrong. My skepticism about a jobless future driven by automation doesn’t ignore the substantial disruption each and every technological wave has introduced. Jobs are displaced just as new jobs are created. Older workers in established occupations often bear the brunt of this progress, as the long history of the displacement of factory workers by machines and robots illustrates.
Research in the United States explains the wage stagnation of less educated workers in terms of shifting job opportunities. More specifically, the research classifies jobs as low, middle and high skill. It finds that middle-skill production, office and sales occupations of non-college-educated workers have disappeared and been replaced by low-skill manual and service occupations, particularly in urban areas where wages are higher.
For college-educated workers, on the other hand, the disappearing middle-skill jobs have been replaced with high-skill professional, technical and managerial occupations. My preliminary research matches this skill classification by occupation to Census microdata from 1971 to 2016 to see if there are comparable developments in Canada.
Situation less grim in Canada
Interestingly, there’s no evidence that middle-skill jobs are disappearing in Canada, according to my findings. Rather, I’ve observed a steady decline in low-skill manual and service occupations throughout the period from 1971 to 2016.
This decline is coupled with a decline in middle-skill production, office and sales occupations between 1981 and 2001 that reversed between 2001 to 2016, and a steady increase in high-skill professional, technical and managerial occupations, especially up to 2001.
Low-skill jobs have fallen in Canada from 38 per cent to 25 per cent of all employment between 1971 and 2016, and high-skill jobs have correspondingly increased from 20 per cent to 34 per cent of all jobs. Middle-skill jobs have remained steady at about 42 per cent of all employment in the Canadian economy throughout the period, a better scenario than in the U.S.
Middle-skill jobs, including skilled trades in manufacturing and construction and white-collar secretarial and administrative jobs, remain accessible to all education groups. The proportion of middle-skill jobs for workers without post-secondary education actually rose from 41 to 45 per cent while falling only modestly for workers with a university degree.
‘Marked and steady’
What’s more, my initial research has found that the decline in low-skill jobs is more marked and steady for workers without post-secondary education than for college workers, and the small decline in low-skill employment for college workers occurred entirely between 1971 and 1981.
Both workers with university degrees and workers without post-secondary education have experienced growth in high-skill jobs; the dichotomy found in the U.S. does not show up in the Canadian data, perhaps simply a reflection of differing industrial structures.
Whatever the reason, these more optimistic findings, especially for workers with less education, may account for more moderate income inequality in Canada. But they also point to significant changes in employee skill requirements that must often be dealt with mid-career.
Rather than obsessing about mass technological unemployment, of which there’s scant evidence so far, we’d better make sure that our education and training programs, as well as our income support programs, are up to the task of preparing Canadians for the more sophisticated job requirements of the 21st century.