A few years back, I was invited to deliver the commencement address to graduates in the faculties of Applied Science and Technology and Continuing and Professional Studies at Sheridan College in Mississauga, Ont. My goal was to deliver a practical message, hence the speech’s impossibly catchy title: “Success in an era of personal responsibility.”
“Canada’s beloved social safety net is wearing thin,” I said, trying my best not to sound like the voice of doom. “Our aging population — about 1,000 Canadians retire every day — will put unparalleled pressure on government-funded healthcare and other programs. This will transform Canada. You will be responsible for your financial well-being in ways previous generations of Canadians were not.”
That was conventional wisdom at the time. It was not uncommon to hear experts predict that baby boomer healthcare expenses, as they entered their high-use years, would so dominate government spending that our reliance on Ottawa and the provinces for virtually everything else would be significantly diminished.
Some still argue that (and they may be proven true). But increasingly, there is a recognition among policymakers that government will have to do more, not less, in the years ahead. Last month’s release of the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Jobs Strategy signals an emerging view that leaving citizens to fend for themselves is a bad idea.
The strategy laid out three needs:
- Promote high-quality jobs. Two keys here. Well-designed, quick-hit work programs can make a positive difference when economic growth slows or turns negative. The financial crisis made that clear. A high-functioning education/training system is also a must. From the report: “To better match skills with labour market needs, it is important to develop stronger links between the world of education and the world of work and have robust systems and tools for assessing and anticipating skills needs.”
- Put an end to labour-market exclusion. Where there are barriers to quality work, address them proactively. “To reduce the risk of workers becoming trapped in low-quality jobs or joblessness, they should have continuous opportunities to develop, maintain and upgrade skills through learning and training at all ages.”
- Adapt to the evolving labour market. Prepare for tomorrow. It’ll look less like today than you think. This is on both policymakers and individuals, as anyone close to the car industry knows too well. “Skills policies, social protection and labour market regulations will need to be adapted to the new world of work to achieve greater job quality and inclusiveness. … A first challenge is to equip workers with the right skills in a context where the demand for skills is likely to evolve rapidly and people continue working at a higher age, with an increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as soft skills.”
There’s a lot of detail in the report’s nearly 400 pages. More generally it represents a step back from the idea that developed world governments will download additional responsibilities to their citizens.
The assumption that Canadians would have to rely less on government has been a staple of financial advice in recent years, for good reason. But if this new OECD report is an indication of where policymakers are headed, it bears revisiting.