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Rethinking the future of work

This op-ed by Parkland Institute Director Trevor Harrison appeared in the March 16, 2017 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.

The workers of the world are today united by fear and anger. Scarcely does a day go by without another story, and much hand-wringing, about shrinking wages, rising unemployment and the perils (to workers) of automation. Of the latter, many believe we are witnessing in real time human beings in the millions — perhaps billions — becoming redundant; indeed, expendable.

Unfortunately, the solutions proffered for dealing with this growing crisis by the captains of industry and government admirals have been woefully inadequate. Their tepid responses take two conventional forms.

The first (and worst) form, put forward by pandering conservatives everywhere, calls for austerity and pits nation against nation, worker against worker — all the while giving more tax breaks to wealthy corporations, with which they will pay for further automation.

The second bad solution, presented with a nicer face by liberals, is faith-based: faith in the infallible powers of the market to remedy the problem. For them, the solution lies merely in workers obtaining sufficient education and training with which to appease the labour-market god. But Canada and much of the world is already awash in well-educated people, many of them young, whose skills are not being employed.

When not uttering facile and unimaginative solutions to the looming crisis, our political class spends time shirking responsibility. Consider for the moment Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent speech at the St. Matthew’s Day banquet in Hamburg, in which he stated that increasing inequality is leading to mistrust and anger. So far, so good. And, indeed, Trudeau received plaudits from the well-heeled crowd and accompanying pundits for stating the obvious. But consider this line, addressed to corporate leaders: "It’s time to pay a living wage, to pay your taxes, and to give your workers the benefits — and peace of mind — that come with stable, full-time contracts." Take that, CEOs!

Before cheering too loud, however, remember Adam Smith’s warning to never count on the benevolence or humanity of others, only on their self-interest. Politicians who demand that corporate leaders take better care of their workers are being disingenuous. Of course, CEOs are self-interested, but they also have fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. Corporate heads do no more and no less than what the rules of the game require them to do.

And who sets these rules? Governments. We elect governments to act in the public interest. When Trudeau and other politicians point the finger at CEOs, they are attempting to absolve themselves of responsibility and blame.

What could governments do to deal with the impending crisis of work? Three solutions come to mind.

First, they could act to ensure a fairer distribution of incomes, benefits and wealth. That would increase aggregate demand and thus also stimulate job growth. Governments have a host of mechanisms for achieving redistribution, among them taxation and laws concerning wages and benefits, unionization and the breaking up of monopolies.

Second, governments could legislate a drop in the hourly work week, while still protecting wages and benefits. This can be done. For the past few years, Sweden has been experimenting with a 30-hour week, a side benefit of which has been the hiring of more workers.

Third, though not done easily, governments could play a role in helping us begin collectively the task of redefining and perhaps even reimagining what we mean by "work." While the world will always need electricians and plumbers, the future of work almost certainly lies in high-end service jobs, such as nurses, teachers and daycare workers, and in the arts.

But, finally, together we will also need to begin an existential rediscovery of the meaning of leisure — and of family and community — in our lives.


Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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