Nine trends that will likely shape future of work for groups of vulnerable workers

IWH research team conducts ‘horizon scan’ to identify major changes to come, and what they may mean for people currently facing labour market barriers

Published: April 12, 2021

Along with other industrialized countries, Canada has entered what some labour market experts call “the fourth industrial revolution.” It’s an era characterized by large-scale and rapid digitization and automation, with potential ripple effects across social, political and economic domains. At the same time, the country is also undergoing a demographic shift, ecological change at an ever-increasing pace, and further disruption brought on by globalization. Heading into the next five to 15 years, some forecasters anticipate a confluence of system-wide pressures, with far-reaching consequences for a generation of workers to come.

A body of research has been growing to explore the implications of these changes on workers and workplaces. Less studied, however, are their effects on vulnerable workers. A project team at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), led by IWH Scientist Dr. Arif Jetha, has set out to do just that. The team has conducted a comprehensive horizon scan to identify the trends that may be in store—and what they may mean for vulnerable workers.

While we don't want to use a broad brush, population-level data suggests that certain labour market subgroups are more likely to experience vulnerability when compared to others. These are the workers who may also be most at risk or most likely to experience challenges in the future of work,” Jetha said at a February 2021 IWH Speaker Series presentation. In the presentation, he outlined nine trends that will influence the future of work. A full report about findings from the horizon scan is also available.

1. Digital transformation of the economy: The future of work will be shaped by the wide and rapid adoption of novel digital technologies, including 5G, the Internet of things (IoT), smart sensors, cloud computing, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, robotics and blockchain technology. Some of these technologies will result in hyperconnectivity among people, businesses, machines/devices and data. Workers will increasingly perform job tasks in close integration with machines. Certain technologies can also lead to advanced telepresence, in which workers can perform job tasks from anywhere in the world, whether to operate machinery or take part in virtual brainstorming sessions. Other advances in digital technologies can also accelerate the growth of gig work and microwork.

2. Automation enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: Early studies on automation tended to agree that repetitive and low-skilled jobs are among the most likely to be automated. However, with advances in machine learning, neural networks and deep learning, job tasks once considered “high skilled”—e.g. data analysis, communication, prediction and problem-solving—are increasingly performed by machines. The automation of such job tasks can reduce the availability of work opportunities, but it can also drive innovation and create new jobs.  

3. AI-enabled human resource management systems: The application of AI in some business functions can have implications on people’s access to the labour market. An example is the use of automation and AI in human resource (HR) management processese.g. job applicant tracking, job matching and selection, and performance management. AI algorithms may soon be used to evaluate job candidates’ suitability based on analysis of facial expressions and vocal inflections, compared against benchmarks. Supporters of these automated processes see them as improvements toward fairness and objectivity. However, AI-enabled HR management systems can lead to greater exclusion of individuals who do not fit the mold or perpetuate biases built into the development and testing of algorithms. They also run the risk of collecting personal information without explicit consent from workers or job applicants, including information about disability status, lifestyle and age.  

4. Skill requirements for the future of work: As part of the digital transformation of the economy, the future of work will see new jobs requiring new and specialized skills. Workers across all industries will need advanced technical competencies and digital literacy; they will also need soft skills that are harder to automate, such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and empathy. According to some projections, Canada is expected to experience a labour shortage of about two million workers by 2031, with the greatest skills gaps expected in the science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) professions.

5. Globalization 4.0: The effects of globalization on the Canadian economy continue to change shape, with “Globalization 4.0” further accelerating a global exchange of ideas, services and goods in both physical and virtual spaces. One of the labour-market features of this stage of globalization is telemigration, in which white-collar jobs are done remotely by workers who are geographically distant—and often working for lower wages. Advancements in digital technologies mean the growth of online marketplaces where freelancers anywhere can bid for work—or microwork—in any country.

6. Climate change and the green economy: The effects of climate change, and the associated interventions to mitigate it, will necessitate adaptations to work conditions and affect the availability of work in certain sectors. Extreme weather events (e.g. wildfires and droughts) can destroy communities and damage infrastructure and physical workplace facilities; they can also lead to health hazards such as infectious disease, air pollution, heat-related illnesses and other environmental hazards. People who work outdoors, such as those in industrial services, agriculture, and travel and tourism, may be particularly susceptible. However, business and policy responses to curb climate change can result in new work opportunities in industries such as renewable energy, bioengineering and biodesign.

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7. Gen Z workers and the work environment: Currently, over a third of the labour market is composed of Gen Z workers (those born 1995- 2005). As their numbers grow, some analysts expect that they will bring greater diversity to workplaces and usher in more inclusive and supportive employer attitudes and behaviours. This is expected to be the case for a number of reasons. People of this generation have higher education on average than those of previous generations; they have grown up with daily exposure to advanced digital technologies; they're also more racially diverse than previous generations. Studies suggest that, while Gen Zs are more likely to report valuing employment that provides a higher salary, greater job stability and access to health benefits compared to previous generations, they also prioritize workplaces that value inclusiveness, diversity, social responsibility and accessibility for vulnerable groups.

8. Populism: Technological changes and globalization may give rise to populism—i.e. sociopolitical movements characterized by an anti-establishment orientation, broad anti-elite policies, and opposition to liberal economics and globalization. Although globalization has brought many economic and social benefits, it has also led to more jobs being outsourced, offshored or filled by telemigrants. The resulting rise in income inequality and decline in job opportunities have spurred a growing sense of unfairness, anxiety and frustration among a large proportion of the population.

9. External shocks that accelerate the changing nature of work: External shocks (such as economic recessions or depressions, natural disasters and, yes, pandemics) have the potential to accelerate the pace of change to the nature of work. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the availability of jobs and working conditions is a prime example. In its first six months, the COVID-19 pandemic had already fast-tracked many of the work-related trends highlighted above.  

The implications for vulnerable workers

The coming changes hold opportunities, but they can also adversely affect work outcomes for many people, Jetha noted. Workers in low-skilled and repetitive jobs may be most at risk of job loss and reduced earnings as a result of automation and many of the other trends. Vulnerable groups may face greater barriers to upskilling and reskilling opportunities. Moreover, these groups are not only more likely to work in jobs that are more susceptible to climate-related displacement; they are also less likely to have access to social protections that support work interruptions due to extreme events.

“The important thing to note is the future of work is anticipated to be fragmented and, as a result, has the potential to contribute to health and social inequities,” Jetha added. Although the future of work brings many opportunities, not least being the growth of new industries and the creation of new jobs, “it's unclear to what extent emerging opportunities will be available to different groups of workers who have traditionally been disadvantaged within the labour market. Anticipating changes to the working world can inform policies and program development to protect at-risk groups of workers.”  

About the study

To identify the trends above, the research team used a new method called “horizon scanning.” It’s an inclusive, systematic process of synthesizing information from diverse sources of evidence—i.e. academic research, grey literature and social media. This method is commonly used in the field of strategic foresight. This horizon scan was conducted between December 2019 and January 2020. An update was carried out in August 2020 to capture the changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.