Photo of wooden supports for a dock. The sun is shining above the water at the end of the dock
What supports do we need for a brighter future?
March 20, 2017

By David Lindsay

We have been #futuring for almost six months now, and a lot of our focus has been on what Ontario will look like five or 10 years down the road. Our survey asks Ontarians to tell us whether they think our economy will be strong and growing and whether our arts and cultural scenes will be vibrant in five years’ time. In these blog posts, I’ve written about what robots might be capable of in five or ten years and what jobs humans might be doing then as a result.

But the future is not just an end point, it’s a process. We can aspire to the destination, but we also have to pay attention to what it takes to get there.

Right now, for many Ontarians, the transition to a tech-driven economy, to a more sustainable future, to an increasingly digital world is proving to be a turbulent one. A recent long-term economic report from the Government of Ontario highlighted how too many residents of our province have not seen gains in income that match the growth of our economy. Ontario is transforming, but we’re at risk of leaving too many Ontarians worse off or struggling to get ahead.

The turbulence is likely to continue for a number of years. I’ve written previously about the consequences that automation might have on our own workforce. In a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine focused on the future of work, one article highlighted how today’s working class is increasingly made up of service industry employees who receive lower wages and less job security than the unionized manufacturing workers of the past. Meanwhile, those manufacturing jobs are on the decline, leaving many workers in those industries struggling to transition to new sectors.

In another recent New York Times article, one policy leader argued that making “the forces of technology and globalization work for people and not against them is the biggest public policy challenge in America.” And if the details are different in Canada and Ontario, the overarching challenge is the same.

A recent panel discussion on TVO’s The Agenda featuring Sunil Johal of the Mowat Centre and economist Armine Yalnizyan got to the heart of why we must think long and hard about how we will get through the transitions we are experiencing. While Yalnizyan is more of an optimist when it comes to technological change and Johal more cautious, both emphasize that if we want the outcomes of these transformations to be equal and fair, we have to fight for it.

Johal and Jordann Thirgood’s report for the Mowat Centre, which I’ve written about before, gets at some of the tools we might use to ensure a smooth transition and a fair future. One of the more transformative options they put forward is a basic income, which Ontario is currently considering exploring through a pilot project.

For many, the policy’s benefits go beyond economics. Dr. Danielle Martin proposes a basic income in her book, Better Now: Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for All Canadians, and argues that “if you can’t afford good food, your rent or safe housing, it’s harder to be healthy, so we need a basic income for basic health.” It’s a key proposal from one of the candidates for the leadership of the federal NDP.

But others see trouble in basic income’s simplicity. As Noah Zon recently wrote for the Maytree Foundation, “people in different situations, of different ages, and different parts of the country have different needs. A single transfer is alluringly simple, but one size does not fit all.”

Part of our challenge today is supporting young Ontarians as they try to embark on careers and start families in an increasingly precarious world. “Today’s younger generations must deal with larger government debts on salaries that are lower, while paying housing prices that are higher, and simultaneously adapting to new environmental realities,” Prof. Paul Kershaw writes in a report for Generation Squeeze. But we can’t dismiss the fact that “long-term poverty is greatest among unattached people aged 45-64, single or lone parents and those with activity limitations,” as a recent C.D Howe report notes.

These are challenges for different ages and different situations, to repeat what Zon writes. Ensuring we have the social supports to face both will require the same expansive and creative thinking I’ve written will be necessary to develop a robust workforce and a comprehensive innovation strategy. And it will also take, as Johal argued on The Agenda, coordination among many social policies – coordination that requires partnership and collaboration among different kinds of service providers, policy makers, researchers and social innovators.

Meeting these challenges will prove anything but simple. But there may be a place for simplicity in our mantras. One that we have come upon during our #futuring is “save people, not jobs.” It was said at a one-day working group on skills and innovation put on by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, and it helps pinpoint a central challenge we will face in the coming years: Technology can create new opportunities that were once unthinkable, but it will be up to us to use those tools to create a better future for all Ontarians.

We as a society have worked in the past to create opportunity out of new technologies. A common example we hear comes from the agriculture sector, which employed 40 per cent of the workforce at the beginning of the 20th century and now employs less than two per cent. Facing such disruptions, we have worked as a society to develop safety nets and opportunity for our citizens. As Yalnizyan said on the The Agenda, “we’re producing more food with fewer people. This is good news.” The shift in labour helped significantly expand, not limit, the scope of possibilities open to Ontarians.

Our challenge today is not to do what we have never done before, but to continue innovating and creating new social structures and new opportunities for all Ontarians as the nature of work changes across the province. Ontario’s universities want to be partners in creating this better future and are eager to hear your thoughts about how we can do so. You can fill out our survey or write to us at insights@ontariosuniversities.ca. To follow the #futuring conversation on social media make sure to look for us on Twitter and Facebook.

David Lindsay
President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities

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