Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Jobs, tasks and possible future labour markets

In the last blog I discussed the question of whether empowering innovations create jobs. Behind my skepticism is partly my work on global value structures. But the other half is all about the nature of jobs.

In this blog I want to explore the difference between jobs, tasks and the geography of both.

Earlier this year the Canadian CBC broadcast a documentary on the high jobless rate amongst Canadian younger workers . (Note it can only be watched in Canada). Even though Canad'a youth experience a high unemployment rate is still lower than for many countries in current continuing global economic environment. In the show Futurist Thomas Frey commented that he thought that young people across the coming decades would move from having 10s of jobs to 100s of tasks.

It triggered a  thought for me is Vancouver is a task economy.

Vancouver attracts human capital like no other city I know but with the quirk that there does not appear to be the jobs to support them. In this way, I sometimes wonder if Vancouver should be charged with vagrancy   (no visible means of support).

Photo from

It looks like any other downtown right. But the majority of those towers are condos (apartment blocks). Very few contain office workers. In contrast to other major cities like Toronto or Sydney as examples where major corporations base their operations with thousands of jobs, generating higher incomes for workers, the numbers for Vancouver do not add up. Across occupation groups or by degree type workers in metro vancouver earn less than the Canadian average. Note that is against the Canadian average not just the other leading Canadian cities such as Toronto or Calgary.  

So crucially we need to focus on the difference between Jobs and Tasks.

Jobs in the era of scale and scope. In Chandler's scale and scope global companies need huge employment numbers to organise production across the globe. Production (and it was generally production) was organised in company plants. Global service firms have always needed big number internally organised.

But today as the digital economy continues to fragment and de-layer the labour market we see outsourcing and the re-organisation of many industries.

So it seems we are seeing the rise of the task economy. In the task economy, it isn't just that a long term job is outsourced to another employer, it can be that each task in what was previously a job is broken up and separated to different people. The Australia ABC recently ran a program on micro-labour which was illuminating.

Mechanical Turk which is widely known offers small amounts of money for completed task. A quick glance reveals that many are priced well below minimum wages for OECD countries. Other web platforms such as Task Rabbit and and Airtasker are designed to source labour for very small usually small business or household tasks/ services usually requiring physical presence. However, 'taskers' bid against each other in a reverse of ebay to get the job.

It is completely conceivable that such developments could scaled up across the next decade ad change the shape and structure of traditional labour markets. We have seen 'industry' disruption we can now see seeds of labour disruption. A big question will be how governments respond to develop new labour laws and regulations to structure these markets.  Some cities will probably withstand this tasking trend better than others, but the dichotomy between tasks and jobs is at least a lens through which to begin analysing new patterns.

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