For young adults with disabilities, the future of work can be hard to envision

By Arif Jetha

It can be difficult to grasp what the world of work will look like in the next decade or two. Think of the use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence or augmented reality. 

Let’s not forget major shifts beyond technology, such as climate change or an aging population. These and other major forces can disrupt every industry and potentially change the types of jobs available for everyone.

If the experiences during past large-scale upheavals are anything to go by—such as the COVID-19 pandemic, major climate events and financial crises—the most vulnerable worker groups in society are the ones who most often bear the brunt. For young people with disabilities, the stakes are especially high. Success or failure during the early part of their career can leave scarring effects on their earnings and work opportunities much later in life. 

Navigating the labour market
A research project I’m leading at the Institute for Work & Health is aimed at understanding the challenges and opportunities that await young adults with disabilities in the future of work. Our ultimate aim is to identify what supports can be offered now to help them navigate the changes to the labour market. 

As part of the project, our team conducted interviews with 22 young adults, aged 18 to 35, all living with a physical, mental or cognitive disability. We recently presented findings on this research at an IWH Speaker Series webinar, the recording of which is available on the IWH website. 

Here’s what we learned based on what we heard from these young adults.

Young adults with disabilities are not looking too far into the future. Instead, they’re more focused on the present and the more pressing need of finding a job with supportive work conditions. Their health needs today can make it challenging to consider what obstacles may emerge in the future. When considering work options, they’re more concerned about available accommodations, not how their career may be shaped by social, political or technological forces. As one participant put it, “It’s difficult for me to think about the future because I used to make plans and then life would go in very unexpected ways, so I just stopped.”

When they do contemplate the future, having a secure and supportive job today does seem to affect how young people with disabilities view future work prospects. Those in more precarious work tend to be wary about the coming technological transformation. “The more technologically advanced things get, [the] less likely they’ll need us,” said one study participant. On the other hand, those who see the potential upsides of technology tend to be in more secure jobs. They see technology creating flexibility in how or where work is done. Others talk about technology levelling the playing field and helping people with disabilities be just as productive as all others, if policies are in place to ensure inclusive design in the use of digital technologies.

Young people with disabilities recognize the importance of training to meet the challenges of the future. Here again, we saw a divide. Those in supportive jobs appear more likely to seek out roles at work to develop the soft skills that are less likely to be automated—for example, the ability to effectively communicate or collaborate with their colleagues. They’re also more likely to access employer programs, including funding, to support formal training outside work. On the flip side, those in less supportive workplaces face greater hurdles in accessing training opportunities. For some, their day-to-day health needs derail plans to pursue further schooling. 

Takeaways from these findings?
1) Although it can be a struggle to manage day-to-day issues, disability employment service providers should encourage young workers with disabilities to take steps to plan for the changing world of work. 

2) Finding secure, supportive work today is a key determinant of success later on. As we have seen in our and others’ research, young adults with disabilities who work precariously may both be more at-risk of technological disruption and have less access to training that could protect them from such disruption. Policy-makers and educators should be focused on creating pathways to secure work arrangements for young people living with disabilities. They should also strengthen social safety nets for those stuck working precariously. 

3) We need to invest in opportunities for young people with disabilities to develop both technical and soft skills. While efforts to create such upskilling or reskilling programs for the next generation of workers are on the rise, developers of these programs should recognize the unique needs of young people with disabilities and the different barriers they may face in the working world. 

The disruptions to come can be difficult for anyone to anticipate. Young adults with disabilities may be among the most affected by future changes. But their more pressing needs for support can make it especially hard for these young workers to prepare for what’s ahead. It’s important for governments, schools, service agencies and employers to develop solutions now to help make sure these young people are part of the future of work. 

Arif Jetha is a scientist at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). He is the lead scientist in a research project exploring the impact of the future of work on young adults with disabilities. The Institute for Work & Health is a not-for-profit, independent research organization focusing on work-related injury and disability prevention. To sign up for news on Institute research, tools and projects, please go to www.iwh.on.ca/subscribe.

Photo: Mikhail Nilov, Pexels 

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