Imagining a More Equitable Future of Work

Imagining a More Equitable Future of Work

In the current crisis, we are seeing how the future of work can change abruptly, our present vulnerabilities, and the value of creative policy thinking and collaboration.
Imagining a More Equitable Future of Work
Nisa Malli
BII+E Alumni
March 26, 2020
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Note: An earlier version of this article was delivered as a keynote for the Humber College Social Hackathon on Access to Higher Education (February 28, 2020).

There is an intensity to how we talk about the future of work, and in particular predicting the future-proof skills that will enable us, our children, our students, and the nation to thrive. It is a high stakes conversation on which we seem to be hanging all the pressures of the present. As if, if we only knew what everyone should study, we could single-handedly address all our anxieties about professional success, rising cost of living, automation, depleting fossil fuels, and retirement. Over and over we ask: what jobs will our economy need in five years, in ten years, in thirty years, and what should individuals do now to prepare for the future?


"In the current pandemic, the gaps in our social and economic safety nets for workers, freelancers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses are becoming evident"

This question feels especially pressing in our present day because we are at one of the many weird tipping points in history, where it is not clear which apocalypse we should prepare for. Do we need hunting and field medic skills in the event of environmental collapse or entrepreneurial approaches to gig work for a world with limited employment security? Should we move into nursing and social services because carework cannot be automated or should we learn how to build the robots that will terraform Mars when Earth becomes inhospitable? For individuals, rising cost of living and tuition are increasing the risks of making the right choice. Collectively, the pressure to ensure ever-increasing economic growth and the growing need for advanced skills and expertise demands that we correctly train people now to meet future demand.

In the current pandemic, the gaps in our social and economic safety nets for workers, freelancers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses are becoming evident. Last week, Employment and Social Development Canada announced that 500,000 people had applied for Employment Insurance over the span of four days, up from 27,000 the previous year.[1] The federal government says it is anticipating 4 million applicants to apply for the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit.[2] For some, following public health guidelines means forgoing income and revenue they cannot afford and stocking up on supplies requires going into debt. Many businesses and organizations are moving temporarily to remote work, shifting in-person operations entirely online; for others, their in-person work has become even more vital and higher risk. Policy changes are needed to ensure everyone has access to paid sick and caregiving days; compensation for lost income and employment; access to clean water and sufficient, stable housing for sanitation and social distancing; and that whole industries of small businesses do not go under. We are seeing, in real time, the ways in which the future of work can change abruptly, the vulnerabilities of our present, and the value of creative policy thinking and cross-sector collaboration in a crisis and in regular life. It is reinforcing the need for research and analysis that goes beyond economic demand and skills for the future, and looks broadly at the world we want to live and work in.

There is a wealth of excellent research, including some by my colleagues at the Brookfield Institute, on future demand for skills, abilities, and occupations and the ways in which technological, environmental, and social change, and other global and local shifts, could impact labour market demand. These insights can help individuals make education and career choices, they help post-secondary institutes and professors design curriculum, and they help governments make better policy decisions for the present and the future.

"However, in our collective global anxiety around economic growth and predicting the skills and occupations of the future we risk reducing skills to abstract data-points, as inputs into the economy."

Our forthcoming Forecast of Canadian Occupation Growth projects how employment may change for Canadian occupations by 2030, the skills and abilities that may prove foundational to remaining resilient, and the percentage of workers currently in occupations projected to significantly grow or decline over the next decade.

Our research on automation has found that 42% of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of at least some parts of their jobs being automated in the next 5 to 15 years, particularly for occupations that do not require college or university education, such as retail, admin assistants, food counter attendants, and truck drivers. We know that technological disruption will impact workers across industries and that people will need to retrain into new fields as well as learn skills to work alongside and with automated and digital systems[3].

Our research on digital skills has found that, according to national job postings, the most in-demand digital skills across the Canadian economy are not highly technical programming languages, but everyday digital skills, in particular those associated with using the Microsoft Office Suite[4]. As a baseline, we know that everyone needs a foundational level of digital literacy for social, civic, and economic participation, including comfort interacting with technology, finding information online, and communicating with others[5].

However, in our collective anxiety around economic growth and predicting the skills and occupations of the future, researchers (and the policymakers, journalists, program managers, business consultants, and everyone else who contributes to these public discourse and narratives) risk reducing skills to abstract data-points, as inputs into the economy. A skills lens on the future of work does not tell us whether those jobs pay enough to live on in the communities where the demand is or whether working conditions are decent and employer-provided benefits are available in an emergency. It does not tell us if there is sexism, racism, or homophobia in the industry or other kinds of discrimination that might impede entry or career progression. It does not tell us if those jobs are helping build a better (more equitable, more sustainable, more liveable) future, or if they are just generating profit for corporations and the wealthiest families in Canada. It does not tell us what skills we will need outside of work and the economy, as parents, children, partners, community members, and citizens. Nor does it create space to think critically about and imagine alternatives to the current socio-economic function of work; its role in our lives and in our communities; and the kinds of invisible, undervalued, and unvalued work that operate outside of measurable market demand and that are increasingly vital in a crisis.

In focusing on predicting the occupations and skills of the future, we tend to frame the future of work as something market-driven and exogenous to us that requires preparation for, rather than something that is within our power to collectively create, to imagine for ourselves, and to make choices about what we want and the skills we will need to build it. We forget that these potential future trends we talk about in abstract (e.g., employment and income precarity, technological displacement, and workplace safety) are the very real, very present day reality for many people already, for whom the future will only normalize, intensify, or further disrupt their experience.

New research from the New York Times using the O*Net occupational database crossed variables for risk of exposure to disease and infection with variables for those whose work require proximity to others, identifying key occupations at risk of COVID-19 and other diseases, including health care workers, personal care and home health aides, and first responders; teachers and educators; and service workers including hairdressers, cashiers, food service, janitors, maintenance workers, couriers, etc. In the model, garbage collectors had similar risk levels as doctors; pipelayers were on par with massage therapists and teachers aids. Many at-risk workers are below national median income in the U.S. and without access to paid sick or caregiving days, making them even more vulnerable.[6] 

"...garbage collectors had similar risk levels as doctors; pipelayers were on par with massage therapists and teachers aids."

The focus on skills is often divorced from how people gain those skills, both in formal education and outside of it, and fails to recognize that not everyone has equal access to learning opportunities, credentials, or opportunities to use them. In our research, our policymaking,and our business planning, we need to remember that skills are practiced by workers, that workers are human beings, and that to develop those skills they were at one point students or learners. Which means that access to post-secondary education, mid-career training, and other learn opportunities is imperative to the future of work conversation, including understanding how to improve retention, graduation, and related-employment rates; how to create programs that accommodate the broadest range of learners and life situations; how to reduce student debt; and the pedagogy of how skills are actually taught, how we learn them, and how we use them on and off the job.

This narrowed focus on skills and individual preparation for the future comes from a long history of neoliberalizing work, shifting the risks and responsibilities of labour and economic growth onto individuals, who are expected to prepare for their own precarious careers and carry the weight of the nation’s economy. As Dr. Nicole S. Cohen has described in her research on freelancing in a destabilized media industry, the individual and their entrepreneurial approach to their career becomes “a remedy for broader political, economic, and social problems.”[7] At its core, it is the idea that it is up to us to educate ourselves, to make ourselves future-proof, and rebrand ourselves as whatever the job market demands. We can see this in the design of our social safety net, which is set up to reward you for working or, as our workforce development system describes it, attempting to move yourself “closer to the labour market” through training and job-readiness programs. We can also see it in how our post-secondary education system is funded, in which government support to institutions is decreasing and support to students in the form of repayable loans once they are in the workforce is increasing, shifting the financial responsibility for skill development onto future workers.

"These are stories that we do not tell enough, particularly in policymaking where we tend to focus on the outcomes (whether students graduate or find work in their field) and ignore the experiential and opportunity impacts of the route to get there."

This is a lot to ask of students, many of whom are balancing work, caregiving, health issues, and other barriers to studying and attending class. My own post-secondary education experience was one of precarious housing, food insecurity, and balancing multiple part-time jobs usually unrelated to my education. Alongside the formal curriculum, I honed skills in skimping, bargaining, the ability to study in any gap in my work schedule, and graduated in significant debt. These are stories that we do not tell enough, particularly in policymaking where we tend to focus on the outcomes (whether students graduate or find work in their field) and ignore the experiential and opportunity impacts of the route to get there.

Navigating the education and training landscape is a challenge, and one that disproportionately impacts people with the least resources, supports, and access to information. In the Brookfield Institute’s research on the digital literacy education and training landscape — which includes K-12, colleges and universities, continuing ed, and a complex network of for and nonprofit classes, drop-in spaces, bootcamps, EI and welfare training, and online self-study  we used the visual metaphor of an unfair video game to understand and explain the system. In this imaginary game, some players begin playing further ahead, equipped with more money, or better equipment, transportation, maps, and mentors.

We found that the informal and formal education landscape is fragmented and confusing for both youth and adult learners to navigate. There is no clear digital literacy “pipeline”, “pathway,” or “ladder” and there is a lack of wayfinding support to help learners identify their skill gaps, choose between programs, and pick their professional pathways and goals. To research their options, learners usually need a basic level of digital literacy, just to find information and navigate program and funding websites[8].

Low levels of digital literacy map fairly neatly overtop of other aspects of socio-economic marginalization, compounding the effects of this maze. This can impact what opportunities prospective learners are aware of and can access, and the ease with which they navigate this complex system. For people who live in urban centres with disposable incomes, home internet, and high literacy and numeracy rates, with families where further education is the norm, it is relatively easy to find and pay for the right programs to upskill or transition into the growing number of jobs that interface with technology. For others, who are less privileged or well-equipped, who live in smaller or more remote communities, it is much more complicated[9]In our current context, as schools, universities, and workplaces temporarily shift online, gaps in broadband access at reliable speeds and in home technology are going to further exacerbate inequalities.

"The future of work should involve working in and for a future we want to live in, not just meeting market demand for skills."

From a future of work perspective, barriers to post-secondary access and mid-career training, to retention, and to graduation drag on learners, like swimming with your clothes on. Even for those of us who graduate, these impediments make going to school that much harder. They impact our learning, our grades, the opportunities we take advantage of during school, and the professional risks we are prepared to take afterwards.

Inequity in who swims smoothly through post-secondary education and who struggles, and potentially drops out or does not find related work has significant impacts for our society and our economy. If people are blocked from accessing education, or using the skills they have trained in, we lose out on their potential social and economic contributions, their expertise, and their abilities. As Heather Boushey has described in her research, inequality of opportunity “obstructs, subverts, and distorts” innovation and growth, preventing the development and effective use of skills, knowledge, and creativity. This includes the almost 800,000 (11.3%) of young people aged 15-29 who were not in employment, education, or training (NEETs); those who are at risk of dropping out or not finding related work; the 45% of bachelor’s graduates who leave owing over $25,000; and the 12.3% of consumer insolvencies that involve private and public student loans.

It also has significant impacts on what Naomi Lightman and Luann Good Gringrich call economic exclusion: “The systematic denial of full access to legitimate means of acquiring economic resources, restricting the volume and functional quality of material, social and cultural capital and reinforcing dispossessed positions and economic divides.” We might have a robust job market, but if we do not ensure equal access to postsecondary education, we are impeding people from getting the skills and credentials needed to apply for those jobs and entering those fields. The tech sector might be thriving, but if we do not ensure universal access to internet and technology we are preventing people from entering the future skills pipeline so far down the line, they might not even know this is a career option.

Through the Brookfield Institute’s Inclusive + Innovative Economy and Skills for an Innovation-Driven Economy workstreams, we are beginning to explore this, to expand the lenses we apply to our labour research and to think critically about the future, the future of work, and the future of workers. This includes our recent report on pathways for retraining displaced workers, our Employment in 2030 forecast project, and a forthcoming report on Digitally Lit, our pilot program for youth who are underserved by, disengaged from, or experiencing barriers in accessing digital literacy learning. However, more research is needed, along with a broader shift in how all of us think and talk about the future, our present, and what is possible and desirable to change.

The future of work should involve working in and for a future we want to live in, not just meeting market demand for skills. To do this, we need to stretch our policy imaginations beyond a skills lens, look closely at the inequities and trends in our present. We need to ensure that we are providing a tightly woven safety net that is accessible for all, not just traditionally employed, full-time workers, as well as equitable access to education and training, high speed internet and home technology, and opportunities for everyone to participate and benefit in a better future, as workers, entrepreneurs, learners, consumers, and citizens.

"We tend to frame work as something market-driven and exogenous to us that we need to prepare for, rather than something that is within our power to collectively create...."

Current information on COVID-19, including public health recommendations; information on symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment; and the federal government’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, can be found on the Government of Canada’s website . For those who have been laid off, are experiencing reduced hours or income, as well as those who have become sick, require self-isolation or quarantine, or are undertaking caregiving duties, additional income support will be available through the federal government’s Emergency Response Benefit and expanded access to EI. More information on these programs can be found here. Additional supports are offered through many provincial governments.

[1]Parkinson, David; Van Praet, Nicholas; and Castaldo, Joe. “Ottawa receives 500,000 new applications for Employment Insurance as coronavirus-related layoffs increase”. The Globe and Mail, March 20, 2020.

[2] Leblanc, Daniel; Fife, Robert; and Curry, Bill. “Ottawa expects 4 million Canadians to apply for emergency job loss fund due to COVID-19”. The Globe and Mail. March 25, 2020.

[3] Lamb, Creig, “The Talented Mr Robot” (Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, 2016),

[4] Vu, Viet; Lamb, Creig; and Willoughby, Rob, “I, Human: Digital and Soft Skills in a New Economy” (Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, 2019),

[5] Huynh, Annalise and Malli, Nisa,  “Levelling Up: The Quest for Digital Literacy” (Toronto, ON: Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, 2018),

[6] Gamio, Lazaro . “The Workers Who Face The Greatest Coronavirus Risk”. New York Times. March 15, 2020.

[7] Cohen, Nicole S. “Entrepreneurial Journalism and the Precarious State of Media Work.” South Atlantic Quarterly 114, no. 3 (July 1, 2015): 513–33.

[8] Huynh, Annalise and Malli, Nisa “Levelling Up: The Quest for Digital Literacy” (Toronto, ON: Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, 2018),


[10] H. Boushey, Unbound: How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do About It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019)  

[11] Munro, Dan. An Innovative and Inclusive Monitor for Canada – A Discussion Paper. 2020. Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (Forthcoming).

[12] Brunette, Sylvia. The transition from school to work: the NEET (not in employment, education or training) indicator for 20- to 24-year-olds in Canada. Statistics Canada. July 5, 2019. With thanks to Nivedita Lane (Humber College).

[13] Statistics Canada. National Graduates Survey, student debt from all sources, by province and field of level of studyTable: 37-10-0036-01.

[14] Alini, Erica. How Canadians’ go from student debt to default. Global News. August 17, 2019.

[15] Lightman, Naomi and Good Gringrich, Luann. 2018. Measuring economic exclusion for racialized minorities, immigrants and women in Canada: results from 2000 and 2010. Journal of Poverty, Volume 22, 2018 – Issue 5

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