This book is about the future of work. We wrote Redesigning Work to meet what we see as an urgent need for clear path to a better working future for all Canadians – a future that meets their aspirations and needs.
Our public opinion research has identified a disturbing trend in the Great Recession’s aftermath: Canadians increasingly believe that opportunities for middle class progress are rapidly disappearing. Individual effort, skill and innovation no longer assure economic security or upward mobility. What’s more, our parallel tracking of work trends before and after the recession also reveals arrested progress, accompanied by declining quality of work life.
Redesigning Work counters these negative trends, showing how it is possible to create a more positive future. We outline how improvements in peoples’ jobs and workplaces can raise the quality of life by unlocking previously untapped potential to strengthen the Canadian economy. That’s how we link wellbeing and prosperity.
We intend Redesigning Work to be a catalyst for the actions needed to build a better future for Canada’s economy and society. Canadians view their future with considerable pessimism. Large majorities of Canadians see on the horizon declining living standards, a besieged middle-class, an anemic economy, a widening divide between haves and have-nots, and a reduced quality of life. We counter this bleak scenario with a blueprint for creating better jobs and workplaces. This blueprint is grounded on a worker-defined vision for the future will lead to not only higher levels of wellbeing but also will stimulate the creativity and productivity Canada needs from its workforce in order to have a thriving economy.
Prosperity and wellbeing go hand in glove; you can’t have one without the other. Most commentators and experts would agree with this point. Yet surprisingly, what’s been missing from the post-recession media commentary and expert analysis of how to kick-start the economy and restore opportunities to achieve a comfortable middle-class living standard is a focus on people’s daily work.
Redesigning Work aims to fill this gap, offering constructive insights on how jobs and workplaces hold some of the keys to a robust recovery. Based on the extensive feedback we received from thousands of Canadian workers, we identify numerous practical ways that existing jobs can be made more motivating, rewarding and productive. Our evidence paints an optimistic picture of the future of work, especially if employers and policy makers have the will to implement small changes in work that have the potential to make a big difference.
And there may be more will to act now than at any time in the previous decade. Restoring middle class progress was a core issue in the October 2015 federal election. EKOS polls after the Trudeau Liberals’ election victory show a spike in public optimism: people believe that the economic outlook can be improved. To be sure, the Canadian public laid a bold wager on a new approach to the economy, eschewing a neo-liberal model which seemed oblivious to eroding living standards and rising inequality. These bigger concerns are the backdrop for the book. Our focus is on people’s daily work, arguing that more rewarding and engaging jobs are an essential component of any plan to restore prosperity.
As sociologists, each of us has spent our career (Lowe as a university professor and workplace consultant; Graves as a pollster and public opinion researcher) analyzing how people’s work experiences influence their thinking and behaviour. We’ve interpreted these work experiences on the wider canvas of social, demographic and economic change. We believe that it is possible to design a better future using solid evidence about how individuals respond to the bigger forces affecting their working lives today.
Redesigning Work provides that evidence, using workforce surveys and public opinion polls conducted by EKOS Research Associates. The book’s foundation is the most extensive data bank currently available of Canadians’ work experiences, reactions to social change and concerns about the economy and labour market. In every chapter, we build our analysis and arguments on the rich and previously unpublished EKOS data from hundreds of surveys since the mid-1990s. These surveys describe through the eyes of individual Canadians the relentless forces shaping the world of work. And it’s from this vantage point of Canadian workers that we have designed a blueprint for a better future of work.
The topics we address in the book – public attitudes to economic change, workers’ wellbeing, work motivations and values, workforce demographics, job skills and training, and how to design higher-quality work – have been of keen interest to us for over 25 years. Redesigning Work is the result of a long partnership that has evolved around these future-of-work issues.
EKOS’s polls started tracking Canadian’s reactions to massive shocks to the economy and the labour market in the early 1990s, during a deep recession and subsequent ‘jobless’ recovery. In 2004, we co-designed and conducted a survey of the Canadian workforce, Rethinking Work, to document early 21st century workforce and workplace trends. This was a syndicated project sponsored by government and corporate clients, so the project’s results had limited circulation – until now.
Then along came the global financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008 – 2009. EKOS polls tracked Canadians’ reactions to the recession, but missing was a detailed picture of how all this economic turbulence had transformed people’s work. Using the 2004 Rethinking Work project as a pre-recession base-line, we repeated most of the same measures in a 2012 survey of the Canadian workforce. We then had pre- and post-recession measures of key job and labour market indicators. Yet we remained concerned that the 2012 survey findings may be transitory. So EKOS conducted a shortened version of the Rethinking Work survey in early 2015. Essentially it confirmed that what we documented in 2012 was, unfortunately, the new normal. We make extensive use of all these surveys in Redesigning Work.
There’s one EKOS poll finding that, for us, signals a readiness for the changes proposed in Redesigning Work. For the past several years, 80% or more of Canadians polled by EKOS have agreed that “Canada needs a clearer plan or blueprint to restore a growing and optimistic middle class.” That’s where our idea for a “blueprint for wellbeing and prosperity” comes from: the many thousands of citizens responding to this question in EKOS polls. Indeed, we believe that all of the ingredients for a return to shared prosperity are in place. It is our sincere hope that the lessons we have learned from the evolution of Canadians’ working lives can help point the way to greater wellbeing and prosperity in the future.
Graham Lowe and Frank Graves