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Overcoming the new precariat: The future of work

After years of relative progress in Canada’s labour market – where unionization helped turn jobs like mining and manufacturing into good, middle class jobs – by early-1990s a seismic shift began to unfold.

Trish Hennessy


“Jobs for life” were being replaced with concepts like downsizing, the 1990s word for mass layoffs, and golden handshakes, the euphemism for early retirement, which morphed into “Freedom 55” – the promise that you could be your own consultant and enjoy new work freedom in the golden years.


Young people were told they could expect to have up to five careers in their lifetime (not five short-term contracts to piece together rent). They were told to be flexible, to get educated, and to be prepared to adapt to a new future of work.




Flash forward to today: Canada’s millennials are the most educated cohort in our history, but they’re struggling to attach a solid footing in the labour market and consistently blamed for the barriers they face.


They are told there’s a skills gap when, in fact, it’s more of a training gap. Canada’s employers used to be better at workplace training, but that’s changed.

 We are seeing a new precariat; an economy where employment is increasingly low-paying and precarious.


The proportion of low-wage workers grew by 94% since 1997, outstripping total employment growth. Most low-wage workers in Ontario don’t get paid for sick days and don’t have paid vacation. Most don’t have predictable work schedules. These are the cornerstones of decent work. This is partly due to growth in retail and service sector jobs.


The same goes for caregiving jobs. There is a captive seniors’ care market, for instance, but it is precarious for workers.



Watching this seismic shift unfold in Ontario, one can almost imagine a future dystopia: a servitude bubble where the well-off few are serviced by the desperate masses. And it’s not just service and care workers. It’s also sessional professors at colleges and universities who are also the face of the new precariat. Education isn’t the golden shield it once was.


Young workers did everything we asked them to do: they got an education, they took on student debt, and now with precarious employment their future is questionable, insecure.




It’s in everyone’s best interest for Ontario (and Canada) to do more to help workers of all ages compete in the global knowledge economy.


So what can we do about it? Here’s where I see hope.

There is a growing consensus that employers need to get back into the business of training.


There is a growing wave of living wage initiatives where employers are volunteering to pay their employees a minimum wage that would actually help workers make ends up – because, in every province in Canada, the minimum wage isn’t enough; it keeps workers working poor.


Credit unions in B.C. and Ontario have led the way by becoming living wage employers. In Hamilton, the public school board is now a living wage employer. The City of Vancouver has committed to do the same and an interim poverty reduction strategy would commit the City of Toronto to that higher standard as well.


And that’s important because the bottom line is governments at all jurisdictional levels have the power to set the tone and conditions for the labour market. It starts there. And it’s possible.


Fifty years ago there was a federal election, where the main contenders were Lester B. Pearson, John Diefenbaker, and Tommy Douglas. Pearson’s slogan was “Good things happen when government cares about people”. It was visionary.


The three most significant platform items were universal public health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and affordable university. Fifty years later we can see that this approach to governance has benefited us all. Government policy that puts people’s wellbeing first and foremost is not only central to the democratic promise, it’s essential to the future of work in Canada.



Moving forward, it’s time to take up a similar generational challenge to shore up the precariat by investing in a strong social safety net, good public programs, good jobs, and guaranteed workers’ ability to organize.


Trish Hennessy is a senior communications strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of Think Upstream


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