Ontario's ‘precarious’ employment: why more people don't want stable work



(Photo: Getty)

Making news over the weekend was a report from the United Way and McMaster University researchers about how half the residents of Southern Ontario have fallen into “precarious employment.” As the authors wrote in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail:

Barely half of people working in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas have permanent, full-time jobs that provide benefits and stability. Everyone else is working in situations that are part-time, vulnerable or insecure in some way. This includes a growing number of temporary, contract and on-call positions. Jobs without benefits. Jobs with uncertain futures. This significant rise in precarious employment is a serious threat—not only to the collective prosperity of the region, but also to the social fabric of communities.

The report’s solutions to the issue include easing the laws governing unions, stronger labour rules, simpler requirements for unemployment insurance and better access to medical and dental benefits. All of these steps would help us return to a more stable employment scenario, or at least mitigate the effects of the growing precariousness.

While it would be somewhat un-Canadian to protest those suggestions, it’s important to consider a question never asked by the report authors or the predictably alarmist media articles: Why would we want to return to a stable employment environment?

A separate report released last fall by CIBC economist Benjamin Tal (links to PDF) paints a much more encouraging—and realistic—picture than the doom-and-gloom of the United Way study. According to that report, more Canadians are starting their own businesses than ever before, with the trend only just beginning. “Irreversible structural forces,” including a strong culture of individualism and self-betterment, technology, global markets and small-business-friendly demographics, mean the next decade will see this startup wave continue and accelerate:

The recent improvement in start-up activity despite a relatively healthy labour market indicates that a significant number of new entrepreneurs chose self-employment as a career rather than being forced to open a business due to a lack of other employment opportunities. We estimate that only 20% of those who started their own business in the past two years can be considered “forced” self-employed. This is notably a lower proportion than observed among those who started their business during the jobless recovery of the mid-1990s and in the early 2000s. With more business owners starting operations by choice, their likelihood of success may increase.

In other words, part of the reason more people are precariously employed is that a growing number choose to be.

Which makes sense to me. I left a very good stable job with our public broadcaster more than two years ago. The pay was great, the benefits were good and the pension was exceptional. But, having been technically “precariously employed” since then, I don’t think I could ever go back to any sort of “stable” job. The benefits of being my own boss, setting my own hours and doing whatever I want more than offset those tangible payoffs.

Would it be nice to have cheaper benefits or an easier time getting a loan? Absolutely. Do I have any idea what I’ll be doing in the future, even a year from now? Absolutely not—but that’s part of the fun.

All those people who are quitting their jobs to start businesses—an increasing number of which are older and well-educated, according to CIBC—are saying the same thing. The future may be precarious, but it’s obviously much more interesting and fulfilling than a stable one.

There’s little doubt that rapidly advancing technology is transforming the labour market, with big repercussions on the social fabric and therefore government following. It’s a conversation worth having, but trying to force a return to the old ways of doing things may not be the most productive way forward.