The View From Here – Advances in technology require a new way of thinking about employment

Tom Henihan
It certainly indicates a radical change in thinking if not the onset of a brave new world, when Ontario offers 4,000 people, those receiving social assistance and the working poor, a guaranteed annual minimum income of approximately $16,989 for a single individual and $24,027 for a couple.

With the drop in oil prices among other factors, Ontario’s economy is strong but not all regions of the province share the wealth.

The three regions to benefit exclusively from this program are Lindsay, Thunder Bay and Hamilton.

Thunder Bay has suffered from the loss of forestry jobs and likewise a decline in the steel industry has had similar consequences for Hamilton.

The city of Lindsay with a population of just over 20,000 aggressively canvassed the Ontario government to participate and will now have 2,000 recipients in the program with Thunder Bay and Hamilton having 1,000 each.

The three-year program is not just a show of largess by the Ontario government. The government plans to monitor the program to see if the additional money will improve the recipients job prospects, education and general quality of life.

The announcement of the program has solicited the predictable cries about handing taxpayers’ money to people for doing nothing while encouraging laziness and greater dependency.

Certainly, this is a program that needs close administration. However, compared to corporate welfare such as the federal government giving Bombardier $372.5 million so the company’s executives can write themselves cheques for millions of dollars, $50 million a year for three years divided among 4,000 people at the lower end of the economic scale is infinitely more acceptable.

If the outcome is positive in regards to recipients’ job prospects and overall welfare then the program will be infinitely more productive also.

Another factor referenced when launching the program is the affect of technology on the job market and the rapid disappearance of many traditional sources of employment. When announcing the program the premier of Ontario cited the changes wrought by advances in technology.

“Technological progress and automation are creating new industries. But they are also creating new pressures and they are putting existing jobs at risk.”

Even if the outcome from Ontario’s experiment proves favourable, the concept of a guaranteed income in Ontario or elsewhere is unsustainable and unrealistic. Nevertheless, the world is changing and a traditional approach to a shifting reality could be perilously short sighted.

Robotics are replacing many manufacturing jobs, automation and technology are replacing service and frontline positions.

The announcement that Winnipeg is to lose 450 jobs at Great-West Life and that the company is to reduce its Canadian workforce by 1,500 is a harbinger of the coming reality.

Great-West Life is adapting technology that offers customer self-service, so those job losses are not due to a downturn in the economy or any other typical forces.

Those positions are never coming back and the skills required to do that work are now obsolete.

The notion of a guaranteed minimum income is utopian and unrealistic, and any kind of dependency on government is never a healthy solution for the individual or society.

However, governments need to put in place some mechanism that protects young people from choosing careers and training that will be obsolete in ten years and it needs to offer alternatives to older workers displaced by technology.

In the meantime, I wish the best to the 4,000 people in Ontario given a modest respite from dire poverty and I hope they use that respite to the best advantage.

I hope the Ontario experiment proves to those who are more fortunate that poverty is not always the fault of the individual who is poor.

The way technology is changing the job market, more people may learn firsthand that poverty can be self-perpetuating and corrosive to health and self-confidence and it can also deprive unemployed people of the access and choices that people with resources might see as being readily available.

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