Why Canada is your best bet to survive the rise of automation.

Economists, scientists and futurists have spent years trying to predict what an automated, AI-fuelled future could possibly look like. Would it feature flashy spaceships zooming across the sky to the nearest store like The Jetsons or be downright dystopian à la Black Mirror?

While there’s no algorithm or crystal ball that can determine the future, history has proven that advanced automation rarely benefits everyday workers. Indeed, technological advancements have often lead to large-scale displacement and between 1940 and 2010 forced millions out of  factory and farming workplaces.

But, jobs aren’t the only thing to worry about. A rise in unemployment fuelled by automation or AI increases the risk of destabilizing the global economy and more. If fewer people work or find meaningful jobs it creates the perfect storm for social unrest. So, where does that leave the rest of society? The only true solution lies in the form of social safeguards and business ingenuity, say experts.

Enter Canada.  

The robots are coming

Doom and gloom dominate the discussion about automation, but what does it actually mean for Canadians? Well, it’s not all bad for those who live in the Great White North.

Data from a joint report by Northeastern University and Gallup found Canadians were more prepared and confident that higher education could prep them for the future. An independent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also found the median Canadian worker had a 45 percent chance of having his or her job automated—the lowest in the 32 developed countries it analyzed. Of course, Canada’s true strength lies in its social programs that will lessen any future pain automation could inflict and its physical closeness  to the U.S. (the world’s largest market).

Does this make Canada the prime place to wait out, nay survive, the next industrial revolution? Maybe. There’s a reason Stanford economist Raj Chetty found Canada was twice as easy to achieve the “American Dream” in Canada than it was in America.

“If you were an immigrant choosing where to go and have the best chances of climbing the income ladder, then statistically you’d have a better shot of achieving “the American dream” if you’re growing up in Canada…”

The Ezra Klein show.

Christo Aivalis, author of The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left, believes that Canada’s social contract with citizens should be taken into account when analyzing future gains or losses.

“One of the concerns about automation is that it disrupts people and families and communities,” he explains. Canada’s social and re-training programs provide a form of insurance against such disruption that isn’t available in the U.S., he adds. “Many benefits in the United States are attached to your status as an employee if you don’t have a job you don’t have health insurance or you don’t have dental insurance.”

Aivalis’ outlook isn’t unusual. “To avoid a vacuum, countries will need to put policies and plans in place to help individuals (and to some extent businesses) take maximum advantage of the opportunities that these technologies offer,” experts behind the 2018 Automation Index Report wrote.

“Policies will also be needed to mitigate the negative impacts resulting from the displacement of some categories of workers from their familiar roles. In both cases it is a matter of policies and strategies that help workforces make the transition to a more automated economy.”

The same report also named Canada one of the top five countries in the world (and only nation in north and south america) ready and able to face the challenges of intelligent automation.

“Canada, the 5th-ranked country in the table, owes its standing at least partly to the initiatives that individual provinces such as Ontario are taking to adapt their educational systems and teaching approaches to the demands posed by advanced technologies (The federal government is more prominent in the support of technology innovation as well as strategy development to address the workforce effects of automation)”.

Where will it end?

Importantly, the impact of automation and artificial intelligence will differ across sectors and occupations. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found women were more likely to face job vulnerability. Their service-oriented work, it seems, was most likely to be automated in the near future. This includes secretarial, retail sales, and other service-focused roles which can be augmented with life-learning through higher-education, job training or government assistance.

Canada’s highly regarded university and college programs and lower fees make it the perfect option for workers from lower socio-economic groups looking to retrain.

The fact that vulnerable workers will need the most help isn’t presents an interesting dynamic, says Albert Berry, a University of Toronto professor. The people most impacted will be vulnerable groups, such as low-paid service workers and the elderly, who will in many cases be unable to go back to school to acquire new skills, he says. The elderly are at “particular risk” because they aren’t digital natives and will not be able to recoup the cost of re-training during their remaining years in the workforce. A strong government will be needed to help these people in more ways than one.

Thankfully in Canada the federal government has several initiatives aimed at helping the low-income as well as pre- and post-retirement seniors, which includes the Guaranteed Income Supplement, Old Age Security, and welfare. In fact, until just recently the Ontario government was involved in a guaranteed “basic” income pilot that gave select residents between the ages of 18 and 64 approximately $16,989 per year, which saw participants find new jobs and improve their communities.

At the end of the day, the future is unknowable, but it’s clear that countries with significant social safety and business nets will be the most likely to weather the effects of automation, says Berry.

Canada has more work to do if it is to provide real equity for every citizen, but its history of championing national programs–universal healthcare, child benefits, low-income business—alongside an education system that provides online programs and some of the best schools in the world put it in a position to prevent significant parts of the country from falling behind.


Author: Takara Small

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