By Michael G-A. Lashley
It was with great anxiety that I read the turbulent history of labour and employment trends so vividly analyzed by Dr. Gervan Fearon a few weeks ago in his commentary in the Caribbean Camera headlined “The nature – and future – of work and communities.”
Dr. Fearon is a renowned labour economist whose stellar career has led him to his current functions as President and Vice-Chancellor of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is also a former President of Tropicana Community Services in Toronto.
My emotional reaction to his commentary published on May 3 last, came as a double whammy: the historical account of continuous upheaval in the world of work provided by Dr. Fearon is indeed accurate; but, worse yet, the present situation and the immediate future are far worse than the picture he has painted of them.
Here are some quotations that together summarize the key aspects of his analysis and prescriptions:
“From the Bronze Age to the age of AI [artificial intelligence], the nature of work keeps changing, and so must we. That means individuals, communities, industries and countries.”
“Furthermore, the transfer from one generation to the next of knowledge and social capital for socio-economic success was lost or undermined.”
“Workers” are out, “talent” is in! Talent implies the individual possesses the training, skills and education to contribute immediately to the success of their company. The role of education is therefore fundamental to the future nature of work and communities.”
“Our new community leaders must look to the future, understand the past and think across generations.”
“Our advocacy, policies, programs and initiatives must therefore be about the future, not our past! These thoughts apply to all communities – [they certainly do] apply to the Black and Caribbean communities in Toronto and beyond.”
The disruption of the world of work, as is painfully apparent in the lives of too many of us today, is the disastrous reality of our inability to earn a living, even a half-decent one.
By way of concrete examples, I am riveted by the years-old “employment horrors” being experienced by legions of professionals who are highly qualified in their respective fields: Engineering, Human Resources, Computer Science, Project Management, Law and Medicine. Some of them have long years of practical and diversified experience inside and outside of the workplace.
Too many of today’s citizens and residents are either unemployed or under-employed. And to make matters worse, too many of those who are securely employed do not enjoy meaningful work, meaningful pay or meaningful benefits.
I fully agree with Dr. Fearon’s opinion that we must not be focused on returning to the past realities we knew before the world of work became dominated by automated production, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Rather, our understanding of the past should be driven by a desire to play a central role in creating the future of work.
More specifically, I reject the attitudes and values that are being imposed on modern society by some of the most influential movers and shakers in the worlds of finance, commerce, the media and politics, among others.
Without naming names, I cite four prime cases of such negativity and bankruptcy in creative policy re-construction.
I take objection to the attitude of a federal Minister of Finance who responded to a group of young people pressing him for relief from the curse of unemployment and under-employment, using words that amounted to saying: that is the way it is; suck it up; there is nothing we can do about it.
I am appalled by the misguided helplessness of another federal Minister who could not understand his share in his government’s responsibility to address the fact that his neighbour’s daughter was going to bed without dinner.
I am horrified by the individual and sociological absurdity of a Toronto City Councilor who thought it appropriate to close some libraries as a cost-cutting measure and who, for obvious socio-cultural reasons, had no idea who Margaret Atwood was and saw no reason to find out.
I shudder at the thought of any political party which does not recognize that the government has a duty to use progressive taxation and social support programs to remedy such serious and systemic challenges as inequality, socio-economic marginalization and poverty.
Having renounced all those negative values and attitudes, I look to the related area of education through which, as Dr. Fearon rightly suggests, we can play a central role in shaping the future of work.
That central role in shaping the future of work involves redefining the nature of community and of society. On that basis, it also involves re-engineering our concept and practice of education.
Education is not to be reduced to the narrow and closed confines of acquiring the skills and services to produce goods and services that are commercially viable. That is schooling, not education.
Education is not to be reduced to a commercial enterprise that provides teaching services to huge classes of students using a high percentage of precariously “employed” personnel. The post-secondary institutions that exploit both students and teaching staff in that way are betraying the purpose of education.
On the contrary, education must include two critical components that are absolutely necessary for successful nation-building: social values and critical thinking.
We do need social values such as civic responsibility, empathy, social equity, justice and mutual respect, because they are an integral part of meaningful education. They help us to function as citizens, parents/guardians, voters, and as leaders in our community and in the political system.
Just as logically, we need critical thinking to guide us in the life-long processes of acquiring and managing knowledge, of making judgments and taking decisions. Critical thinking is the source of the motivation and inspiration that lead to sharpening our analytic skills. It opens up our minds to the immense potential of our individual and collective creativity.
I pay tribute to the numerous persons in our Black and Caribbean community who have served as our educators, parents, guardians, mentors and community leaders.
They have been our role models, showing us the holistic definition of education: the blending of knowledge, skills, personal development, civic responsibility, and community engagement.
Like Dr. Fearon, they have led us to draw three strategic conclusions.
Firstly, the nature of work has to fit into the nature of the community to which we belong.
Second, the future of work, therefore, has to fit into the future of the community and the wider society that we wish to create.
Thirdly, the future of work and the future success of our Black and Caribbean community can only come from self-empowerment.
I am therefore happy to note that more and more members of our community are pro-actively engaging in creating remunerative work for ourselves and for others.