Is the Gap Growing – AI, Immigration and Our Future

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: June 4th 2023

For the past year, I have been involved in a project examining the future of work. What are the skills and abilities that our young adults will need as they move from their formal education through to embracing adulthood and moving on to a productive life? This journey has taken me on a deep dive in the census, the status of our labour market, and the future of BC and Canada. The context to all of this is not only the emergence from the pandemic, but the changing nature of our society. Then, in the midst of my research, out comes the latest generation of Artificial Intelligence. ChatGPT is only the latest twist on the capabilities of machines. What might all this mean for our children and their future? Well, here’s an incredibly abbreviated summary of what I’ve learned to date and what it might mean for our children and our schools.

  1. Our birthrate is insufficient to sustain our population. Statistics Canada places Canada in the bin of “a situation associated with rapid population aging and increased stress on the labour market, public health, and pension systems.” If we are to be able to keep our economy going and growing, there is a two-pronged approach which includes increasing immigration and automating jobs.
  2. Immigration is growing rapidly. We need workers and we need skilled workers. School districts in urban centres are seeing these massive changes. This isn’t just a backlog from the pandemic. Patterns are changing and much larger numbers of children are coming into the large metropolitan centres than our past trends have revealed. Surrey Schools as one example saw more than 2200 new students in the fall of 2022. This is growth on a scale not seen for decades. The Calgary Board of Education saw an increase of close to 6,000 students in the fall. This was over four times the projected number. In informal discussions with Surrey and Calgary, these trends are continuing. To put these trends in perspective, these students don’t just all arrive at once. They also continue to arrive through the year. In Surrey, this is 200 students a month, or the equivalent need for a new elementary school every 3 months. For teachers, this means a steady stream of students coming into schools and classrooms through the year. The caveat? This isn’t happening in all districts and only in some urban centres, look for it around the edges of places like Vancouver and Toronto. Burnaby for example projected to grow by 250 last year and grew by 1400. These patterns have three impacts – pressure on districts to accommodate and support new students as they roll into schools, massive pressure on the need for capital (new schools), and a growing urban/rural divide where the centres grow and many of our rural colleagues are flat or in decline. Again, this is not everywhere, but it’s a pattern to watch.
  3. Automation stands to redefine the nature of work. In 2014 I wrote a blog about technology replacing jobs. We’ve always known this and it’s happened before our eyes. However, it feels like we’ve always thought about jobs that were more manual, welding cars, carving a table, serving food, stocking shelves and it wasn’t hard to see how robots would replace us. These robots are no longer just mechanical, they are cognitive. ChatGPT and Generative Artificial Intelligence are rewriting (pun intended) the landscape. A report by Goldman Sachs recently reported that 300 million jobs will be lost to generative AI. At the same time, it is reported that from 2021 to the first quarter of 2023, AI has generated $94 billion in new investments in the United States. I could go further on this, but I want to talk about a potential divide that fewer people are highlighting in all of this complexity. The potential for a growing divide of wealth.
  4. The rich may get richer and the poor may get poorer. The National Bureau of Economic Research speaks of the changes to wage structures in the US. This change has those who perform routine industrial tasks as getting paid less or being replaced by automation while those whose jobs can be augmented and see increases in productivity see growth. The pandemic played its own role with AI being targeted to replace humans. The World Economic Forum speaks of a “double disruption” as the pandemic pushed companies to fast track new technologies to slash costs, and reduce our reliance on people. The disruption of the pandemic with less work, and the push to automate and replace workers drives a wage gap. This growing wage gap, and divide in our population is seen as “hollowing out the middle class” and that hollowing out has its own implications beyond just wages.

Canada as a nation is redefining our make-up as we keep pace in our global economy. These changes may continue to demonstrate growing multicultural centres in metropolitan areas, and this means that our tax dollars will need to be spent where the population goes. As these large centres grow, what does this mean for those places who hold steady or are in decline? In a world of only so many dollars for new schools, who gets them and how do we balance that with the need to rebuild and repair after substantial destruction from the floods in the fall of 2022? How do our schools and classrooms adequately adjust to a steady stream of new students on an ongoing basis in some situations where they are already busting at the seams?

As work is redefined, how do we ensure that we use technologies to rebuild, to regenerate and to reimaging the nature of work? How do our educational institutions adjust to use generative AI in ways that deepen and extend the human experience building on the things that we are best at, such as creativity, innovation, empathy and compassion? There is great hope that we can be looking at an incredibly rich array of new jobs that will emerge.

Finally, how do we move forward in a way that doesn’t create a new (or growing) gap in the middle class that could lead to further disenchantment with governments and public leaders and systems, including education? This discontent also continues to divide us in many ways. Across Canada, those who are disenfranchised are showing up in new ways and making a presence felt. I believe that the societal pressures listed above are contributing to growing discontent in many places and this discontent is bubbling up in neighborhoods and School Board meetings across Canada. When people’s jobs are threatened, when their way of life seems uncertain, and when it feels like the system has let you down, people can react in all sorts of interesting ways. But that’s another blog…