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The future of work has been a popular topic among policymakers, the media and commentators in recent years. Artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, the sharing economy and other emerging technologies were expected to upend the nature of how people work, eliminate an array of routine and repetitive tasks, and put pressure on social support frameworks designed for a different era.

These impacts were expected to be felt in the near to medium term, but with enough lead time to prepare workers and adapt policies for the advent of the gig economy and an increasingly digital world.

Suddenly, the future of work is already here. The need to reinvent our social and economic policy frameworks has a newfound urgency.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which swept across the globe in the early months of 2020, has rapidly accelerated long-standing trends in labour markets and economies around the world. Income inequality, precarious work and the digitisation of the economy are now issues that policymakers must grapple with immediately, or risk economic ruin and social upheaval.

Looking ahead to a post-pandemic world, one can easily imagine a sustained period of economic anxiety. Economies may open and shutter again periodically as the virus returns in subsequent waves. A handful of cash-rich multinational digital giants squeezing ever less competitive industries will rule the day. Under this scenario, part-time, temporary and contingent workers will likely become the staffing option of choice for firms that are ruthlessly focused on profits and minimising long-term commitments to their workforces in a highly uncertain environment.

How can Canada prepare for the future of work in a way that protects and supports those who will suffer most as a result of the pandemic? Young people, workers in the service and hospitality sectors, women, historically marginalised groups and older workers are all likely to face a steeper uphill climb in the years ahead. How can we ensure that the quality of jobs in Canada meets the needs of workers, by providing a fair income, security and opportunities for advancement?

This paper reviews the current state of Canada’s labour market, explores key trends related to the nature and quality of work, and considers which trends might accelerate or change course post-pandemic. It concludes with a series of policy recommendations charting a course toward a more inclusive and resilient Canadian economy that prioritises decent work.

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