‘Precarious’ employment: the way of the future

25 Feb
Canada is undergoing a startup boom, not that the United Way would tell you.

Canada is undergoing a startup boom, not that the United Way would tell you.

Making news over the weekend was a report from the United Way and McMaster University researchers about how half the residents of Southern Ontario have fallen into “precarious employment.” As the authors wrote in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail:

Barely half of people working in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas have permanent, full-time jobs that provide benefits and stability. Everyone else is working in situations that are part-time, vulnerable or insecure in some way. This includes a growing number of temporary, contract and on-call positions. Jobs without benefits. Jobs with uncertain futures. This significant rise in precarious employment is a serious threat – not only to the collective prosperity of the region, but also to the social fabric of communities.

The report’s solutions to the issue include easing the laws governing unions, stronger labour rules, simpler requirements for unemployment insurance and better access to medical and dental benefits. All of these steps would help us return to a more stable employment scenario, or at least mitigate the effects of the growing precariousness.

While it would be somewhat un-Canadian to protest those suggestions, it’s important to consider a question never asked by the report authors or the predictably alarmist media articles: Why would we want to return to a stable employment environment?

A separate report released last fall by CIBC economist Benjamin Tal (links to PDF) paints a much more encouraging – and realistic – picture than the doom-and-gloom of the United Way study. According to that report, more Canadians are starting their own businesses than ever before, with the trend only just beginning. “Irreversible structural forces,” including a strong culture of individualism and self-betterment, technology, global markets and small-business-friendly demographics, mean the next decade will see this start-up wave continue and accelerate:

The recent improvement in start-up activity despite a relatively healthy labour market indicates that a significant number of new entrepreneurs chose self-employment as a career rather than being forced to open a business due to a lack of other employment opportunities. We estimate that only 20% of those who started their own business in the past two years 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. With more business owners starting operations by choice, their likelihood of success may increase.

In other words, if people truly are precariously employed, it’s because a growing number of them are choosing to be.

Anecdotally, I left a very good stable job with our public broadcaster more than two years ago. The pay was great, the benefits were good and the pension was exceptional. But, having been technically “precariously employed” since then, I don’t think I could ever go back to any sort of “stable” job. The benefits of being my own boss, setting my own hours and doing whatever I want more than offset those tangible payoffs.

Would it be nice to have cheaper benefits or an easier time getting a loan? Absolutely. Do I have any idea what I’ll be doing in the future, even a year from now? Absolutely not – but that’s part of the fun.

All those people who are quitting their jobs to start businesses – an increasing number of which are older and well educated, according to CIBC – are saying the same thing. The future may be precarious, but it’s obviously much more interesting and fulfilling than a stable one.

There’s little doubt that rapidly advancing technology is transforming the labour market, with big repercussions on the social fabric and therefore government following. It’s a conversation worth having, but trying to force a return to the old ways of doing things may not be the most productive way forward.


Posted by on February 25, 2013 in government, work


11 responses to “‘Precarious’ employment: the way of the future

  1. craigbamford

    February 25, 2013 at 12:11 am

    “If people truly are precariously employed, it’s because a growing number of them are choosing to be.”

    Yeeeaah, that’s gonna need a whole lot more support. It doesn’t square with anything I’ve ever read outside of this space, and seems ridiculous on its face considering the tragic stories that routinely accompany discussions of this benefit- and security-free job market.

    As the Tumblr kids routinely say, Peter, I think it may be time to Check Your Privilege.

    • Peter Nowak

      February 25, 2013 at 2:18 am

      Yeah, privilege. Might want to know the first thing about someone before you toss that one at them.

      • craigbamford

        February 26, 2013 at 12:56 am

        Peter, the piece was profoundly, immensely cavalier towards the terrifying position that far too many Canadians are in right now. A position that the various articles in the Star, Globe et al expounded upon at great detail, and which you breezed right past in your invocation of entrepreneurship.

        If it didn’t come from privilege, then where on earth DID it come from?

  2. Marc Venot

    February 25, 2013 at 1:10 am

    We should ask people involved at the world level like Bill Gates what he thinks of it.

  3. Jonathan Blaine (@jonathanblaine)

    February 25, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Startups, even at the best of times, in the best fields and niches, and with the best people, often approach a 90% failure rate, and overall it’s roughly 50% after 5 years according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and census. In more risk-averse Canada, that may be higher as chances are people will be less patient once in. Is that our future as a society? If so, it is economically unsustainable.

    • Peter Nowak

      February 25, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      The ones that don’t fail, however, become the Googles and Amazons of the world, ultimately employing thousands (in non-unionized jobs, it should be noted) and creating new industries. The smaller ones that don’t fail are usually bought up and bring riches to their creators, who inevitably go on to become serial entrepreneurs by starting even more businesses. That’s the opposite of unsustainable. No one should be afraid of failure – you can’t succeed without it.

      • craigbamford

        February 26, 2013 at 1:05 am

        Well, and this is just a supposition here, but people who are legitimately worried about losing their livelihoods, their homes, and any hope of a real career might just have a reason to be “afraid of failure”.

        The most entrepreneurial countries aren’t the most laissez faire ones; they’re the ones with the strongest social safety nets. That’s not Canada. Canada’s a country that is tearing its social safety nets apart in its headlong rush for provincial and federal austerity, and that suggests that Tal’s estimate might be something to be taken with more than a grain of salt. There might be more desperate “consultants” than you’re allowing for.

      • Jonathan Blaine (@jonathanblaine)

        February 27, 2013 at 12:43 am

        From a microeconomic viewpoint, such employment might spur a few — a very few — to succeed like a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. But guess what? They would not have been able to do what they did without a reasonably robust middle class that created the overall market that valued their products. That class, from a macroeconomic viewpoint, is quickly morphing into a sea of part time and/or insecure positions without benefits. For every tech job at Amazon or Apple or Newegg, many more on Main Street disappear, and are often those that were in direct competition.

        Rather than the “predictably alarmist” writings of a journalist, then you may wish to pay more attention to the study researchers: “our study found that job insecurity is about more than just poverty. Its impacts are far-reaching, affecting all parts of our lives, redefining how we contribute to our economy, give back to our community and interact with our families. Precarious work can make it more difficult to make ongoing volunteer commitments and donate to charities. Across all income levels, insecurity makes it less likely that people will have vital social networks, such as friends to talk to.”

        The middle class is what built Canada (and the US). That is disappearing quickly in a seismic shift. A whole bunch of entrepreneurs trying to sell their products or wares to a growing population of insecure headset wearers IS arguably unsustainable and a race to the bottom. In the line of fire are charities and future generations who won’t be able to attend university because parents on call center wages can’t even afford to dress them, let alone put them through school. Additionally, most people are not wired to be entrepreneurs, nor many can afford to be, with a mortgage, car payment, kids to raise and try to sock enough away for retirement, if that is indeed possible anymore like it was two decades ago.

        Most people want, and need, jobs that will give some stability. Without economic or generational mobility, any democracy built on sustainable growth will perish. We are headed distinctly in that direction. More power to you and the few others who can do otherwise, but you are far from the majority.

  4. Peter Nowak

    February 26, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Craigbamford: Because someone interprets a situation differently does not mean they come from a position of privilege. I’d advise you to watch the personal attacks.

    • craigbamford

      February 26, 2013 at 7:45 pm

      Understood. Please keep in mind that it’s not really intended as a personal attack, Peter. The whole “check your privilege” discourse is more about taking a moment to be consciously aware of the unconscious assumptions and biases that may creep into your positions and writings. I don’t even know you; all I can do is read what you’ve written.

      You made a point of discussing your own situation as a context for the piece; all I’d ask is that you keep in mind that the context of precarious employment is rarely one of excitement and freedom. Far from it; it’s a context of stress, worry, and everpresent fear. Tal’s “estimate” aside.

      The people discussed in those stories you called “predictably alarmist” aren’t happily independent. They’re struggling and in pain, and I’d ask you to remember that this alarmism IS very much personal for them before so quickly dismissing their cases.

  5. Peter Nowak

    February 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    You guys raise good points and thank you for them.

    My brother and I were raised by a single immigrant mom who, as a hairdresser, didn’t exactly earn top dollar. The stress and agony you mentioned were part of our every-day lives (there was a stretch of about six years where I didn’t go to the dentist because we couldn’t afford it – it’s a miracle my teeth didn’t fall out). Yet at no point did my mom complain or contemplate any sort of “stable” employment. My views on this subject are thus informed by a life-time of “precarious” employment. Was it tough on our family? Sure, but we made it work and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    That’s what I felt was missing was from the United Way report – the fact that many people choose such a life; it’s not always forced on them by some uncaring system. It’s also important to separate all the politics from this issue, because let’s face it, it is VERY political. There’s an awful lot of rhetoric suggesting that this is somehow the fault of the new-cons, which is funny given that the report covers Toronto and southern Ontario, where the Liberals and David Miller were in charge for ages. The fact that this has happened under supposedly progressive leadership seems to give some weight to the sort of things suggested by the CIBC report – that the nature of employment is fundamentally shifting. There may indeed not be ANY stable employment in the future. That’s something we should consider and plan for, which was the whole point of this post.

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