The future has arrived in Toronto, for better or for worse. Whether you call it “the end of work,” the “gig economy” or “precarious employment,” the long-foretold day has come when, thanks to technology and global trade, stable employment relationships are no longer required for a prosperous economy. It’s not a local issue—it’s a global trend—but the stats show that we need to deal with it here, and now. Because here’s the thing about the future of work: We aren’t ready for it yet.
This situation, outlined in the United Way’s brand new report, “It’s More than Poverty,” is that “the nature of employment itself has changed.” Only half of workers in the Toronto-Hamilton area have traditional, full-time stable jobs that offer benefits. The other half of working people—and this is as true of the middle class as it is of the poor—are in freelance, contract, or temporary positions. This is a growing trend: The study reports that the number of people who describe their employment as temporary is up 40 per cent since 1997, while the number of “self-employed without employees” is up 45 per cent since 1987.
For an app developer working Toronto’s exploding startup scene, a freelance designer who peddles cover illustrations to national magazines, or a consultant delivering advice for hundreds of dollars an hour at City Hall or Queen’s Park, this new normal is as full of opportunity as it is problems. For unskilled immigrant labourers cleaning the office towers on Bay Street on a temp basis, there are fewer obvious upsides. What both groups have in common is that the work they do offers none of the stability or insurance that old-fashioned full-time employment does.
See, we built our society on the job markets of the past. Things like unemployment insurance and parental leave benefits are based on the premise that full-time, continuous work for a single employer is the norm. Dental and prescription medication insurance are assumed to come through an employer. A decent standard of living in retirement often depends on an employer-related pension fund. And our ability to enter into leases, mortgages, and other long-term financial arrangements is predicated on the idea that our relationship with an employer will seldom end unexpectedly. In an economy where hopping from gig to gig is the new default arrangement, these old assumptions are not just useless, they’re dangerous.
A lot of our attempts to grapple with this situation try to turn back the clock. The mayor and labour unions are both pimping for a Toronto casino, joined in the absurd common cause because it promises stable jobs that, while menial and often robotic, offer the kind of pay and benefits we traditionally expect. The federal and provincial governments dump billions into projects offering the prospect of good jobs, with “good” again being defined by stability.
Instead, we could stop thinking paternalistic employers should automatically be the delivery mechanism for social services. Back in the 1960s, Canada introduced public health insurance and that is now considered a sacred right here. In the U.S., of course, many people still think it’s normal that the person they sell their labour to should be responsible for their medical care. Only recently has that country begun contemplating the benefits of socialized health care.
Maybe we need a similar shift in thinking, more broadly applied. What if it was the government’s job, rather than an employer’s, to ensure people have their basic needs met: a stable minimum income, an adequate pension, full dental and health insurance, childcare, and parental leave. Then more people would be freer to participate in the employment market—as employees, freelancers, or entrepreneurs—with the assurance that their basic survival didn’t hinge on accepting whatever they can get.
How to accomplish this evolution as a society is a more detailed, complicated conversation. But the first step might be simply acknowledging that the things we are talking about when we talk about a decent, stable life, are not necessarily related directly to “jobs.” Rather than trying to halt changes in the labour market, or pandering to any old corporate relic who offers to provide the jobs of the past, we could help people feel secure and help them thrive in the jobs of today. Precarious work may indeed be the future, but that needn’t equal precarious lives.