Three future of work scenarios to help develop inclusion strategies for young people with disabilities

Key messages

  • A research team used strategic foresight methods to develop three scenarios of what the working world might look like in 2030 and the implications, both positive and negative, of each for young persons living with a disability. 
  • The resulting report is aimed at sparking conversations between stakeholders in the disability and employment sphere about potential policies or supports to promote inclusion for persons with disabilities. 

IWH report uses strategic foresight to imagine how working life could change in the next seven years, and what the implications might be for young adults with disabilities

Published: May 31, 2023

We hear a lot about “future of work” these days, as governments and employers try to understand how social, technological, economic, environmental and political forces will change the way people work in the coming decades—and what needs to be done now to prepare for it.

Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Scientist Dr. Arif Jetha wants to make sure people with disabilities are not left out of this future-of-work planning. In recent years, he has led a research project aimed at identifying policies and programs that can address anticipated shocks and stressors for young people with disabilities in the future of work. 

In the project’s most recent phase, Jetha and others used strategic foresight methods to develop three scenarios of what the working world might look like in 2030 and the implications of each for young persons living with a disability. A report authored by Jetha is now available on the IWH website that outlines the three scenarios and how they were developed.

The hope is that the insights offered in these three scenarios will be used by governments, community service providers, employers and disability advocates to develop responsive labour market policies and programs that promote inclusion for young adults with a disability in the future of work, says Jetha. This is needed because the forces that are shaping our working world have the potential to drastically shape employment barriers and opportunities for young adults with disabilities over the next decade. We need to develop resources that can help us prepare now.

An illustration of a young man standing on the shoulder of a giant robot statue. The text reads: What will work look like in 2030 for young adults living with disability? Using established strategic foresight methods, an IWH team generated three future scenarios. The scenarios are designed to provoke discussions in Canada about the policies and programs needed now to ensure inclusive work in the future for persons with disabilities.

About strategic foresight

The three scenarios— narratives describing the ways things might meaningfully change in the future—were developed using a method called ”strategic foresight.” Strategic foresight generates evidence-based insights and practice implications oriented towards the future. It does not propose one certain future scenario; instead, it recognizes a number of alternative futures.

This is critical to the design and proposal of “future-proofed strategies,” says Jetha. Ultimately, policies, programs and strategies that are resilient to future changes are those that are relevant to multiple alternative futures and not just to one view of the future—the latter being the approach taken in more traditional planning activities.

The strategic foresight process for this project involved three phases: identifying drivers and signals of change, holding engagement sessions, and crafting the scenario narratives. The IWH research team brought in a strategic foresight expert, Peg Lahn, principal of Lahn & Co. Consulting, to lead this process.

The drivers of change—i.e. those system-wide dynamics that are almost certain to influence the future on a global scale—had already been identified in a previous study, also led by Jetha. That study reviewed both research and lay literature (called a “horizon scan”) to identify nine trends that make up the future of work. Three of them were chosen for the strategic foresight exercise: AI/machine learning-enhanced automation; climate change and the green economy; and populism and the future of work. These three were chosen because they are the most distinct from each other and best suited to eliciting discussions on alternative futures.

To make sense of these drivers of change and how they might affect the working world for persons with disabilities, the research team held two “engagement” sessions: one with young adults living with a disability and the other with subject-matter experts from federal and provincial governments, employment services agencies, advocacy groups and academia. Finally, the three scenarios were crafted based upon the themes and input collected in the previous stages.

The three scenarios

Each scenario provides a narrative description of the future of work including changes to governments, the economy, climate, work and societal values and their implications for the employment experiences—both positive and negative—of young adults living with a disability. And each scenario is built on a different narrative about the future: constraint, transformation or collapse.

The first scenario, Corp Circles, is a future scenario in which people and institutions make sacrifices for the common good in the face of a shared challenge. In this scenario, a growing gig economy spurs the government to extend employment benefits that are portable and connected to the worker rather than the employer. In response to the labour mobility these portable benefits encourage, employers create networks to which employees are invited to sign on in exchange for security, training and growth opportunities, and other benefits. These networks continue to expand, to the point where they have significant policy clout.

The second scenario, Freedom 27!, is is a future scenario in which new insights, technology and social shifts make something possible that doesn’t feel possible today. In this future, widespread automation leads to escalating unemployment, as employers realize profits without the need for workers. Governments step in with green initiatives to spur employment, a three-day work week and, eventually, a universal basic income—the latter bringing a number of unintended consequences.

Finally, Last In, First Out, the third scenario, is a future scenario in which cascading system failures lead to societal breakdown. In this future, it’s every person for themselves as social programs collapse and governments are unwilling or unable to intervene. Those with the privilege and the means to negotiate for themselves prosper; those without do not.

Working with the scenarios

Stakeholders in the disability and employment sphere can use the three scenarios to think about and discuss the policies that, if implemented today, could help prevent the exclusion of persons with disabilities and promote inclusion —in as many future scenarios as possible. The report suggests stakeholders address the following questions to help guide these discussions.

  • What challenges and opportunities are raised in each scenario that are relevant to the inclusive employment of persons living with a disability?
  • What does each scenario have in common with the others in terms of challenges and opportunities for young adults living with a disability?
  • When considering the needs of persons living with a disability, what would well-designed strategies look like within each alternative future?
  • What indicators suggest the likelihood of elements within each scenario coming true?
  • Considering the long-term goals of your stakeholder group (i.e. the desired future), what near-term and longer-term actions would help achieve this desired future?
  • What actions would likely succeed in more than one of the future scenarios to help build resilience in the face of whatever the future holds?

“The three scenarios offer distinct starting points for discussions and actions related to the working experiences of young adults in Canada living with a disability,” says Jetha. “I encourage decision-makers and persons with lived experience of a disability to view the scenarios as a practical tool to encourage speculative conversations and generate solutions that are resilient to potential changes in the future of work.”