If you are only paying attention to the buzzword du jour, you might be missing the bigger picture about the future of work. Terms trending on TikTok and in business media – from quiet quitting to rage applying, the Great Resignation to career cushioning – reflect a much deeper shift in the public consciousness.
The pandemic eroded many of our preconceptions about work and careers. We learned which jobs were essential – and that these roles often overlapped with insecure, underpaid and undervalued work. Introducing remote and hybrid work on a larger scale shook up long-held ideas about productivity and work-life balance.
“Given Canada’s aging population – with more than one in five working adults nearing retirement – businesses have cause for concern about the years ahead.”
Coming out of the pandemic, workers and employers continue to face significant challenges. Employers in some sectors are reporting labour shortages (costing the Canadian economy nearly $13 billion last year in the manufacturing sector alone), while others are announcing layoffs. Given Canada’s aging population – with more than one in five working adults nearing retirement – businesses have cause for concern about the years ahead.
For some jobseekers and workers, the pressing questions are existential: In the wake of the pandemic, how can people engage in work that feels meaningful to them and aligns with their needs, skills and values? What will artificial intelligence mean for jobs in the future?
For others, concerns are tangible and immediate. Amid the soaring cost of living, the number of people accessing food banks despite being employed is rising. The labour market also continues to be rife with systemic inequities.
While Canada’s overall unemployment rate remained near a record low in January, rates were above average for several racialized population groups including Arab and Black Canadians. Sixty percent of Indigenous people in Canada report feeling physiologically unsafe at work and a majority are “on guard” to protect themselves from biases and discrimination.
These challenges should fuel our appetite for change, not despair. Canada still has an opportunity to build back better post-pandemic and create a more resilient, equitable future.
For the sake of individuals, businesses and our country, the future of work has to be decent work. To get there, we need career development.
The Link between Career Development and Decent Work
The conversation around decent work often focuses on compensation and working conditions. Take the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a global framework that Canada adopted alongside 192 other UN member states. Progress on SDG 8 – “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” – is measured by indicators such as employment rate and hourly earnings.
“In a 2018 report on job quality, Statistics Canada assessed worker autonomy, training opportunities and career prospects as key factors.”
These metrics are essential but only capture a fraction of what we need for a better future of work. In a 2018 report on job quality, Statistics Canada assessed worker autonomy, training opportunities and career prospects as key factors.
The connection between decent work and career development has been emphasized in other spaces. For instance, in a 2018 pre-budget submission, the Canadian Council for Career Development implored the federal government to adopt a decent work strategy, which would acknowledge that “people’s work should contribute directly to their quality of life as well as their bank account.” Future Skills Centre’s Pedro Barata and Tricia Williams have also noted the link between the quality of work and improved support for career transition planning.
“Decent work is meaningful to the individual, leverages their talents and aligns with their values.”
Fundamentally, decent work is meaningful to the individual, leverages their talents and aligns with their values. This leads to more satisfied and productive workers, which benefits employers and the economy. Access to career support – from the early years to retirement – helps people clarify their career aspirations and be agile within a changing labour market. It can also build bridges between those whose talent and potential are being underused (such as newcomers) and employers who can benefit from their skills.
Canada’s Career Development Gaps
Unfortunately, awareness of and access to career development – defined by CERIC as “the lifelong process of managing learning, work, leisure and transitions in order to move toward a personally determined and evolving preferred future” – is uneven in Canada.
Career education in the K-12 system varies widely across provinces and can even look different from one school to another within the same region. For some, career exploration is limited to a course or two in high school. That may seem sufficient, but the fact is that by age five, children’s career aspirations already reflect gender norms – this indicates that more guidance is needed early on. Research shows that between 2000 and 2018, teenagers’ uncertainty about their career ambitions increased by 81%; this lack of clarity leads to poorer career outcomes.
Among adults, the use of career development supports is even lower: recent research from the Labour Market Information Council found that only one in five adults had accessed career services in the past five years. This is nearly half the average (39%) among other OECD countries.
Canadians are also less likely to seek guidance when they want to progress in their jobs or select a study or training program. Access rates are lower for employed individuals, low-educated adults, older adults and those living in rural areas.
“Career supports in Canada are often reactionary, targeted to individuals who have experienced a crisis such as a job loss.”
Canada’s approach to public employment services is largely “fail first” – meaning that career supports in Canada are often reactionary, targeted to individuals who have experienced a crisis such as a job loss. According to the Future Skills Centre, “A more holistic, person-centred, lifelong approach to career guidance could reduce ‘churn’ in the system and help set individuals on meaningful and sustainable career pathways.”
Gaps also exist at the business level. CERIC’s 2022 National Business Survey with Environics Research found that 73% of the 500 executives surveyed agreed employers have a responsibility to provide career management programs for employees. However, an alarming 70% of employers reported they are not actually providing them. Just over one in 10 were aware of and had worked with career development practitioners in the past.
Harnessing the Benefits of Career Development
There is good news: we have a massive, largely untapped opportunity to unlock the benefits of career development for individuals, businesses and society.
When we recognize that everyone has a career – because a career comprises all of our life roles (not just the ones we get a paycheck for) – we can start to understand the benefits of lifelong career support.
Providing quality career education and experiential learning opportunities to students from an early age will enable them to envision and test out different possibilities for their future. Helping individuals connect to decent work that aligns with their skills, interests and values – and meets labour market needs – will create a happier, healthier society that is better equipped to build for the future.
“We need to leverage the power of career development to respond effectively to our rapidly changing labour market and to mitigate the significant societal challenges we are facing.”
Research indicates that providing lifelong career guidance provides substantial social and economic benefits including:
- Improvements in dropout rates, academic achievement and school-to-work transitions;
- Increased employee satisfaction and engagement;
- Higher labour market participation rates and increased tax revenue;
- Positive mental health results, as a result of helping people find work that is a good fit.
We need to leverage the power of career development to respond effectively to our rapidly changing labour market and to mitigate the significant societal challenges we are facing – from the rise of remote and gig work to climate change, shifting skills needs and more.
Fortunately, Canada has a solid foundation upon which to build a comprehensive career development system that advances decent work. The quality of career guidance in Canada measures up to our international counterparts and over 95% of people who receive career services report positive changes as a result.
How Canada can Create a Resilient Future with Career Development
Creating a decent work future that leverages the benefits of career development will require action from government, academia and employers. These recommendations offer a starting point for action.
- Invest and increase access to ongoing skills training to support individuals in declining industries to transition into other employment and to build an agile, resilient labour force;
- Ensure all students in Canada have access to quality career education and meaningful experiential learning that broadens their horizons, helps them envision potential future pathways and supports them to successfully transition from school to further education, training or work;
- Broaden access to lifelong career supports to support individuals navigating all facets of their career, from career planning to managing career transitions, retirement and more.
- Provide flexible learning (e.g. microcredentials) informed by industry needs;
- Support all students to develop career management skills – for instance, by equipping staff and faculty across departments with the knowledge and resources to be career influencers;
- Leverage employers as key stakeholders in career education, including through work-integrated learning opportunities and supporting students to develop in-demand skills.
- Support employee career management, recognizing that career development does not have to mean upward progression or require expensive, lengthy training;
- Partner with career development professionals to improve employee engagement and retention, connect to untapped talent pools and understand shifting jobseeker expectations;
- Create the foundations of decent work including paying a living wage, building a culture of equity and inclusion and providing conditions that support positive mental health.
The concept of decent work is not new, but its significance is increasingly important – not just in terms of employment outcomes but in quality of life, health and well-being. We are not in the same working world that we were in pre-pandemic.
As we continue to push for better working conditions for all, we should also strive for a broader conception of decent work that includes career development. When individuals are equipped with the skills and provided with the opportunities to engage in meaningful and decent work, we all benefit. After all, career development is a public good.