How the changing employment landscape may impact young job seekers with arthritis

For young people with arthritis who are just starting out in the workforce, preparing for the future can help you remain employable as the labour market changes. To gain a better understanding of what the future of work might look like, researchers analyze trends, make projections, and think about what can be done today to prepare for workforce needs in the years to come.

“‘Futureproofing’ is the implementation of policies and programs in the present that can prepare people or organizations or governments for anticipated changes in the future,” explains Dr. Arif Jetha, a scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto who is leading a study on this subject. “The whole goal is to increase resilience and prepare.”

What does this mean for young people living with arthritis?  It means thinking about ways to help you sustain employment in the long-term, in regard to both your health and the changing labour market. This article will explore some key factors impacting the changing state of the work market that may be particularly relevant for young people as they enter or advance in the workforce.

Increasing utilization of advanced digital technologies

As technology continues to evolve with great speed, machines are beginning to learn at the pace of humans. Artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling machines to take on increasingly complex tasks. Some of the anticipated changes in the labour market could be beneficial to people with health conditions, says Dr. Jetha. For example, the increased use of intelligent robots in certain manufacturing workplaces could mean someone with physical limitations no longer needs to work on more manual tasks.

“Instead, they can utilize more cognitive and problem-solving skills and may be required to work more collaboratively with machines,” he adds. “At the same time, there is a concern that [robotics] may create additional inequities—access to jobs where [a person] can use their cognitive capacities might be harder to get. So there are often two poles to this whole situation.”

The changing nature of work

In trying to predict the future of work, researchers consider the shocks that could impact economics, such as climate change or a public health crisis. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic is providing some drastic immediate insights. The pandemic has resulted in many people losing their jobs, being temporarily laid off, or experiencing a reduction in income.  For those workplaces able to continue to operate, changes have been required to adapt to shifting conditions.   “A lot of people with disabilities have been asking for work-from-home arrangements for decades, and they’ve always been told ‘it’s not possible, we just don’t do things that way in our company,’ but as soon as the pandemic hit, within a week companies were deploying virtual workplaces,” says Dr. Jetha.  The COVID-19 pandemic represents a shock to the system that has created a new normal. Similar large-scale driving forces have the potential to emerge going forward.

A report co-authored by the Human Resources Professionals Association and Deloitte on future-proofing Canada’s workforce, while written in 2017, continues to ring true today in its identification of two potential outcomes for Canadian businesses as they struggle to adapt to change.  In one scenario, “Large, inflexible organizational structures are replaced by agile, flexible arrangements that create empowered workers in a gig economy with high labour-force participation.”  On the other hand, it could be the case that “Organizational structures fail to adapt to new realities, leaving companies unable to compete and workers frustrated and alienated.”

The growing gig economy

Dr. Jetha points to how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of some sectors, such as retail trades and hospitality. For young people entering the workforce, precarious work is often the norm – contract and/or part time work, with limited to no health benefits. “Now the global pandemic has increased the precarity and is widening the inequality that already exists.” According to Dr. Jetha’s research, a recent Arthritis Society-funded study of over 300 young people with rheumatic conditions revealed that 72% reported some level of concern about becoming unemployed or losing their job and 53% reported some level of concern that technology would make them redundant.  At the time of writing, this research is still in progress and findings have not yet been published.

The gig economy has grown significantly in recent years, seeing an increase of contingent workers performing short-term gigs as contractors, freelancers, or working through a digital platform such as food delivery or ride sharing.  These temporary jobs often pay at a lower rate than full-time jobs and often don’t provide non-statutory benefits that can be most important for people with arthritis.

While the gig economy is seeing fewer full-time, permanent positions available, Deloitte’s report identifies that there are some benefits to gig work.  Participants in the gig economy “act as both employees and self-employers, scheduling their work based on their own availability, not a corporate clock.” This can be advantageous for people living with an episodic condition like arthritis, when symptom flares can come and go.

The gig economy also “changes the nature of a career, because people can easily work for several companies at a time, not just one.” Having multiple sources of income could be a potential benefit if one job is at risk. Regardless, Deloitte anticipates that the rising gig economy, which does away with the notion of “one job/one employee/one employer” will force businesses and governments to adapt to this new workforce, in some cases “doing away with large, hierarchical organizational structures altogether.” 

Increasing importance of soft skills

Dr. Jetha points to reports from organizations like the World Economic Forum that look at specific skills that currently are, or will be, in demand by employers. One survey in particular was completed by people managers and other decision-makers at more than 300 large companies with more than 15 million employees combined. “Job skills that they see as being in demand in the next five or so years include being able to actively learn new skills and learning strategies; creativity, innovation, originality, technological design, critical thinking and analysis.”

In other words, if you’re a young person with arthritis and you’re planning out your career, no matter what field it is in, focusing on creativity, active learning and analytical thinking can help you remain agile and in demand in the labour market. “Lifelong learning seems to be a really important theme in discussion on the future of work” Dr. Jetha notes.  Being able to identify and demonstrate these skills, as well as your willingness to embrace change and new learning opportunities can help you to remain competitive in the job hiring process.

For more information on employment and arthritis, visit the Arthritis Society’s Arthritis and Work webpage.

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