These are the new faces of precarious work in Canada: highly educated, skilled professionals who frequently are well compensated but nonetheless lack the security, social benefits or established career trajectories traditionally associated with their professions.
“I’m just finishing up my seventh contract since I graduated four years ago. I tend to find gigs in commercial real estate that let me earn enough to live OK while letting me work on launching my sports app business. We’re hoping to get financing this year.”
— Dave, 27, Calgary
“I’ve been doing freelance web design and SEO [search engine optimization] since I had my second daughter five years ago. I’ve got a roster of pretty established clients and I love having the ability to work from home. Managing cash flow through the slower summer months is still a bit of a challenge but my biggest fear is that if I get sick, what happens then? It’s really stressful, because I have no cover or support. That’s something I do worry about a lot.”
— Kara, 36, Ottawa
“I was laid off six years ago after almost 20 years in the financial sector. It’s been a shock and an adjustment but I’ve started consulting whenever and wherever I can. This is certainly not where I ever anticipated being at this age or stage in my life. I miss the steady paycheque and the benefits — not having dental insurance, for instance, is something that really bothers my wife.”
— Jim, 58, Toronto
They are the result of a seismic economic shift. Technological change and globalization are challenging the standard employment model familiar to us since the end of the Second World War, moving us closer to the precompany era of employment, with the “firm” in retreat.
The comfort of being able to rely on a single employer to provide the full-time, year-round work that comes with social benefits has been disrupted for some time now. Since the early 1990s, economists have called the flip-side of this model — the poorly paying, seasonal and casual jobs where an increasing number of Canadians find work — “precarious employment,” reflecting the uncertainty that comes with the jobs. This model has largely been associated with low-income and less-skilled women, youth, newcomers to Canada and ethnic groups. A 2013 report from the United Way and McMaster University, It’s More Than Poverty, found that almost half the residents of southern Ontario are engaged in “precarious employment” or work in jobs that share some of the characteristics of precarious work.
“The precarious class is swelling with highly skilled and educated workers.”
What is even more surprising is that the precarious class is swelling with highly skilled and educated workers. Many are in what urban theorist Richard Florida famously defined as the “creative class,” the brains and engines of the arts and emerging digital economy, businesses that were supposed to usher in a new era of urban economic development. Most, however, find themselves shut out of full-time, standard jobs. Even the most successful of these new businesses have turned out to be extremely modest employers. As of March 2014, Facebook had just 6,818 employees.
But the precarious class has increasingly come to include professions not traditionally seen as being precarious, like consulting, teaching, journalism and even the law.
Many in these fields find themselves enduring regular periods of financial uncertainty, getting temporary or intermittent employment, working multiple jobs and often accepting work they are overqualified for.
While job creation is a topic among politicians across the spectrum and at all levels of government, the discussion still takes too little account of these new realities of work. One reason we’ve heard little on the policy front in response to the rise of precarious work is that we are stuck in the traditional mindset of what a job looks like.
There is a role for governments in mitigating the situation for precarious workers. (As Ottawa’s response to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program [TFWP] imbroglio shows, governments can get into the weeds on employment practices if they choose.) Only governments have the scope and enforcement powers to ensure that wages are fair and are paid, that workers are not exploited and that health and safety standards are maintained for those in precarious lines of work. The forces driving the move away from standard employment may be diverse and external, but many of the solutions lie with government, as the Law Commission of Ontario outlines in its 2012 report Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work.
Employment legislation is the primary remedy. Reforms to government programs that would help defray some of the risk include changes to the Canada Pension Plan, simplifying the requirements for employment insurance and providing the ability to access pooled flexible medical and dental benefits.
More importantly, however, it is vital that the public policy debate take place in a context that is different from the nastiness and paranoia that surrounded the TFWP blow-up. The question of how to respond to the rise of precarious work needs to be framed in a hopeful and constructive manner that acknowledges the opportunities as well as the challenges it creates.
An awareness of just who these precarious workers are would be a helpful way to start. Yes, there are particularly vulnerable groups in society that need help in dealing with the impact of precarious work. But once we start to see higher educated, higher-skilled workers facing the same challenges, we can shift the discussion about redefining our perceptions of career and work life toward acknowledging the more intermittent and insecure elements that characterize employment in the 21st century.
The discussion would also take into account the fact that a large number of Canadians deliberately choose a path of some precariousness for personal or lifestyle reasons. According to Statistics Canada, in 2012, 73 percent of part-time workers said they preferred to work part-time. That means just over a quarter of part-time workers wished they could work full-time.
A September 2012 CIBC report, Start-ups: Present and Future, found that more Canadians are starting their own businesses in reaction to the changing job market. The CIBC found that “a significant number of new entrepreneurs chose self-employment as a career and were not forced to open a business due to a lack of other employment opportunities.” The bank estimated that only 20 percent of those who started their own business in 2010 can be considered “forced” self-employed. “This is notably a lower proportion than observed among those who started their business during the jobless recovery of the mid-1990s and in the early 2000s,” the report noted.
Some of this new entrepreneurship has arisen as some students begin to doubt they will find jobs in their chosen field of study. A 2013 survey conducted by Pollara on behalf of the Bank of Montreal asked Canadian post-secondary students to assess their career prospects. Less than a third of those surveyed (29 percent) were very confident they would find a job in their field after graduation. Entrepreneurship was their default option — with 46 percent of them saying they planned to start their own business as either their primary or secondary source of income.
But not all young Canadians are ready to shuck off the standard employment model that worked so well for their parents and grandparents.
In its 2014 Ideal Employer Rankings, the employer branding firm Universum asked nearly 30,000 Canadian students across disciplines to rank where they’d like to work. The federal government was consistently either the top choice or a close second or third option. Google did rank first for business and engineering students. But the federal government was the third and fourth choice, respectively, for students in those disciplines. And for those in the natural sciences, liberal arts and law, working for the government was the first choice.
These results underscore the deep, enduring psychological commitment to the old model. They show the powerful allure of employment security and the fear of what the alternative of precarious work holds in store. We have a long way to travel to craft policies that will meet the needs of Canadians — across the skill and education spectrum — who find themselves working in jobs that don’t offer the comforts of old.
The first step toward this goal would be to drop our prejudices against precarious work, acknowledge the new realities it spawns and find ways to turn these new realities into opportunities.
This piece originally appeared on Policy Options.
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