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(Avery Kua/OCADU)
(Avery Kua/OCADU)

TRANUM and WESTON

Are we living in a social economy, or a precarious one? Add to ...

This piece is part of a Globe and Mail/OCAD University summer series highlighting design thinking, issues and innovation.

Sarah Tranum is an assistant professor of social innovation design in the design faculty at OCAD University. Alia Weston is an assistant professor of creative and business enterprise in the faculty of liberal arts and sciences, school of interdisciplinary studies, at OCAD University. They co-lead the minor in entrepreneurship and social innovation.

The precarious economy, the project economy, the social economy – one is defined as scarce, underpaid, insecure employment while the others point to independent, interconnected, self-directed work. The first term underscores uncertainty while the others focus on potential opportunities.

Different names, different perspectives on one reality, namely the current job market in North America. This is a job market that no longer offers the same hope for full-time, long-term employment that it did even just a decade ago. It does offer flexible employment and greater opportunities to work on various projects of one’s own choosing, to even self-direct a career about creating impactful social change.

Call it what you will, but there is no doubt the economy and our understanding of employment has shifted significantly over the past two decades, and will continue to do so because of technology and changes in the global marketplace.

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However it’s defined, people need the hard and soft skills to thrive in this new economy. Progressive education has a critical role in preparing the next generation of workers, but it’s just one piece. A range of supportive policies and programs is absolutely necessary if the supply and demand of the evolving job market are to be aligned – if Canadians, young and not so young, are to find meaningful places in the increasingly global employment market.

We all know the story: After the 2007-08 financial crisis, our economies tanked, companies tightened their belts and jobs were eliminated, while technology kept trucking ahead. By late 2009, the economy had stabilized and companies began seeing profits again. But the jobs lost and the changes made were never fully restored. The result has been fewer full-time jobs, more part-time and contract work, few benefits.

Up to this point, one’s skills, obligations, personal outlook and ability to navigate uncertainty and risk have determined how this reality is shaped on the individual level – whether the new reality is a precarious space of unemployment or a transformational space of opportunity. Moving forward, what’s most critical is recognizing the need to prepare, train and support job seekers for a different kind of market, then actually investing in it. This is the new reality, but instead of meeting it head on, too many in positions to help – in education, industry and government – are looking backward. The result is many workers going it alone, with varying degrees of success.

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Some recognize the need to look forward and meet the new reality. In classes at OCAD University, undergraduate art and design students are taught about the historical contexts of work, about the precarious consequences of the Great Recession, about the technological revolutions taking place around us. They are encouraged to consider this history and question causes and implications. But what feels like just a blink to those of us who lived, worked and saw our investments shrink then is old news to most of these young students. So why is this so relevant to teach now?

These shifts have shaped the job market they will enter as graduates. This market looks very different from the one their parents entered, and if they are to navigate and succeed, they will need to understand how it came to be and how it continues to evolve. They need to navigate ambiguity, think entrepreneurially and engage in a socially responsible way. These qualities aren’t new, but the competency to create, launch a business or design solutions to pressing societal challenges is more critical now than ever before.

This is the impetus behind OCAD University’s new entrepreneurship and social innovation minor. The program is focused on teaching business and economic principles through a lens of critical and creative thinking and practice, but it’s rooted in community, ethics and social responsibility. It is not just market forces and analyses of long-term trends that led to its creation but the students, themselves, who have recognized the connection between their studio work and the realities of the marketplace. They are asking for entrepreneurship, leadership and social innovation-based courses to be part of their education and they are creating opportunities to further explore these areas as part of their university experience through student-led initiatives.

This curriculum includes real-world projects, international community engagement and critical analyses, combined with hands-on, studio-based work giving our students both depth and breadth across fields of study. The objective is to instill the ability to navigate a future that is global and digital while also being fluent in local, social realities and in the physicality of materials, processes and techniques of their chosen art and/or design discipline. This mixture of theory and practice, micro and macro, is the future of art and design education. It is the way forward for graduating students poised to create opportunities for themselves and others through their creative work and also make a living from this.

But even more can be done to prepare students – not just to help them carve out a niche in the new economic reality but to empower them to shape it. Canada abounds with people who are helping to chart the future of work, but there are many more who struggle to find their places, to launch their ideas, to secure sufficient income. For those left behind, the economic and social effects can be profound and troubling.

Pro-active and innovative university preparation is a critical piece of the puzzle, but more is needed: support from the business community, consumers and policy-makers to ensure that a generation isn’t lost.

Here’s what active participants – workers, entrepreneurs and social innovators – in the new economy need:

  • Paid internships and apprenticeship programs. Students and job-seekers alike need more access to paid experiential learning opportunities in the field. The more experience they have, the better prepared they are to choose and create successful career paths, often ones that have not yet been paved.
  • Support from businesses and consumers. More than lip service needs to be paid to small local businesses, artists and designers. Choosing quality over the bottom line in business and personal purchasing decisions helps small independent vendors stand a chance against big global competitors, which in turn leads to job creation and more money in local economies.
  • Policy and programs to mitigate risks. The new economic reality needs more supports for those working as consultants, independent contractors and small business owners. Policies and programs that facilitate benefits and retirement savings are critical. Being an active player in this changing economy should not require sacrificing security and piece of mind.
  • Funding and support for enterprise. We need stronger incentives for starting up independent businesses and social enterprises: more help with university tuition, greater student loan flexibility, enterprise funding, mentorship, market access. Innovation needs to be seeded and nurtured. Support is needed for those in the creative industries and social innovation, not just for researchers and innovators in high tech and biomedical fields.

With these measures in place, our economy can become less uncertain and less perilous, and offer greater potential and freedom. While education and perspective attuned to the realities and opportunities of this job market are key, it shouldn’t just be up to the next generation’s work force to turn lemons into lemonade. Much more can and should be done to help new and current employment-seekers find their way and thrive. Broad-based supports and initiatives will help to shape a generation of professionals who can take on the challenges and potential of the new economy and a world that continues to evolve alongside creative, adaptable leaders and innovators.

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