Machines do many things better than humans –except at being human.
Advances in technology have always generated anxiety. Workers during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century thought they would go “the way of the horse.” Steam-powered tractors had replaced horses and they feared, with spinning frames and power looms, that they were next.
The fear of job-loss due to automation is unavoidable. However, humans are better at “empathy jobs” and that’s where the future of work is heading.
A recent report from Canada’s Brookfield Institute studied Canada’s labour market and found that 42 per cent of Canadian occupations are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years (Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s Social Policy in the New Age of Work from the Mowat Centre.)
The jobs most at risk are in the trades, transportation, equipment operation, natural resources, agriculture, sales and service, manufacturing, utilities, administration, and office support.
Some of these jobs in the trades, often done by men, are mind-numbing and dangerous –in locations isolated from families that lead to alcoholism, self-medication of drugs, and death from drug overdoses (the trades are over-represented in fentanyl deaths in B.C.). Other than good wages, these are jobs that won’t be missed.
Jobs at the least risk are in arts, culture, recreation, sports, management; professional positions in law, education, health and nursing. We won’t see robots playing hockey or robot actors on the stage any time soon. Humans are still the best at jobs where the human touch is necessary like health care, child care, and care for the growing number of seniors.
However, not all empathy jobs pay equally. While some jobs are well-paid because they are unionized -such as teachers and health care workers- others like private child-care facilities are not. Some work, usually done by women, such as a daughter caring for her aging parents or a grandmother caring for grandchildren, is not paid at all.
Another source of job-growth is the hybridization of machines and humans. In the gig economy of piecemeal work, technology directs workers. Some workers like these hybrid jobs because they offer flexibility. Employers like them because workers are “contractors” not employees. As such, companies don’t have to pay benefits.
Britain is making changes to the working conditions of workers in the gig economy by ensuring that “vulnerable workers,” as defined by low wages, have access to basic holiday and sick pay.
Workers in low-paid empathy jobs and workers in the gig economy are in the same predicament –low wages with few benefits. That’s where the Canadian government could help with programs like employment insurance, sick leave and universal Pharmacare.
Investments in childcare and home care for seniors would not only employ more empathy workers but improve the conditions of all low-wage workers including those in the gig economy.
Governments stepped in during the Industrial Revolution to implement labour laws. Governments must step in now to strengthen programs to ease the transition into the digital economy.
Surely the things we value, like human interaction, can pay as well dangerous works like resource extraction. Surely workers the gig economy can have both flexibility and security.