The nature – and future – of work and communities

By Gervan Fearon

Dr Gervan Fearon

The nature of work has always been affected by technological changes; it is important to understand the past if we are to understand the future.

Some 9,000 years ago, agriculture was the new technology revolution, replacing many hunting and gathering societies. The rise of city states and empires in places like Egypt and China became the forerunners of modern nations, as agriculture supported large populations.  While cities supported commerce, its transformed agrarian and traditional communities as agriculture disrupted migrating populations, such as cattle herdsmen.

Around 2,300 BC, the Bronze Age involved humans forging metals and creating the mining industry.   Coal mining dates back thousands of years, but became prominent in 18th-Century England as it fueled the Industrial Revolution.  Large populations moved from farming to jobs spawned in cities by the Industrial Revolution.  By the early 1900s, coal was losing to oil, gas and electricity as the key energy source for cities (though it would be the 1970s before England start closing most of its coalmines). Today, the United States is struggling to address a declining coal industry.

The Industrial Revolution may be associated with the 1700s, but manufacturing actually gained full steam in the early 1900s as the automotive industry demanded huge volumes of steel and labour, and assembly lines needed disciplined workers who would show up on time, learn key techniques on the job and constantly repeat them. America’s Great Migration from southern states to northern cities was defined during this period. Individuals found work in factories, and communities grew around the jobs. Apparently, even Bob Marley worked in the United States, at Chrysler and Dupont.

By the 1960s the service industry, requiring different skills for success, changed our culture. TV shows like Bewitched (1964-72) represented a family employed in the advertising business, while movies like Wall Street (1987) was set in the financial services sector. In North America the service sector became a key employer, needing creative problem-solvers with effective social and cultural competencies, and communication and interpersonal skills.

The rise of the service sector and decline in manufacturing significantly impacted families and communities. Cities like Detroit are still recovering.  Many people, from the Caribbean community and elsewhere, who had worked in manufacturing did not effectively transition to the service sector, severely affecting their family income and standard of living.  Furthermore, the transfer from one generation to the next of knowledge and social capital for socio-economic success was lost or undermined.  A parent could have told a child to finish high school, get a factory job and make a good living, or (in my case) seek factory work to earn enough to pay for tuition.  But as options disappeared, parents had less advice for their children, and some children became increasingly frustrated with their circumstance, their families and even society. This phenomenon and its impact should not be underestimated.

In the 1980s, information technology (IT) revolutionized the service and manufacturing industries.  The financial services sector employs millions, and contributes significantly to the economy, however the jobs of people employed as tellers changed when ATMs and online banking began handling deposits or withdrawals. Tellers now needed to focus more on advising people about savings, borrowing and investment options.  Similarly, the travel industry saw even greater changes — it has gone online.

What did the IT revolution demand? Again, new skills. Namely: digital literacy and technological adaptiveness.

Change is happening faster, and on-the-job training is increasingly replaced by employers expecting new employees to already have skills and abilities for success. “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.

Today robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are revolutionizing more than just self-driving vehicles and, potentially, the taxi or trucking industry. Think about a future where AI does the medical examination and diagnosis, while a robot does the operation or dispenses the prescription. That’s not the future – it is already here.

There will still be jobs. The world will need robot mechanics and operators, software designers and system engineers. There will be need for individuals who can do the problem solving, critical thinking, empathy, and the emotional connection and interpretation that remains difficult to program into computers or robots.  The new entrepreneur is already here, as our children run their own business doing multi-jobs for multi-employers.

From the Bronze Age to the age of AI, the nature of work keeps changing, and so must we. That means individuals, communities, industries and countries. Our institutions and community organizations must evolve to assist individuals cope and succeed with changes in the nature of work and definition of community.  Our new community leaders must look to the future, understand the past and think across generations.  Our children and grandchildren demand it now.  Their tomorrow is already unfolding – and they ask that we be ready to assist them prepare for their future.
Our advocacy, policies, programs and initiatives must therefore be about the future, not our past!  These thoughts apply to all communities – it certainly does to apply to the Black and Caribbean communities in Toronto and beyond.

(Gervan Fearon is the President and Vice-Chancellor of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and former President of Tropicana Community Services in Toronto,)