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Future shock? The impact of automation on Canada’s labour market

Throughout history, technological change has helped lift people out of squalor and poverty, raised standards of living and improved well-being. Technological change, however, can also be disruptive – rendering specific occupations and skills obsolete, unsettling economic structures and contributing to unemployment and economic uncertainty.
Innovation is a driving factor of productivity and economic growth, but increasing productivity means that fewer people are needed to produce the same amount of goods. The increasing pace of technological change has led some to speculate that, in the digital era, technology might destroy old jobs faster than new ones are created. Job losses can occur, however, only if innovation outstrips growth in demand for new products and services. As well, the potential for automation does not necessarily translate into actual automation: the decision to automate depends on factors such as firm size, competitive pressure and the cost of a machine versus the cost of human labour.
This Commentary assesses the impact of technological change on Canada’s labour market over the past 30 years and highlights its implications for the near future. If the past is any guide, a continuation of gradual changes can be expected in the demand for skills in the labour force. This is a natural market reaction to technological change. There is unlikely to be a drastic shift in employment due to automation in the near future, although some industries and types of occupations will be more disrupted than others. Here, public policy could both encourage automation and prepare the workforce for the transition.