How do the following sound as headlines for the cover of Benefits Canada? Are they likely to make the cut any time soon?
• “My boss is 89”
• “Remember when we went to the doctor’s office?”
• “On-the-job diagnosis”
• “Machines don’t need benefits”
• “Artificial benefits”
• “Shareholders elect first AI CEO
(actuary’s job safe)”
• “Making benefits great again”
The headlines are the product of a workshop held during Benefits Canada’s recent Benefits and Pension Summit. As part of the summit’s theme of the workplace of the future, attendees brainstormed some of the headlines and issues the magazine may potentially feature in 2028.
The suggestions reflected many of the issues the benefits industry is talking about already: working and retiring later, labour displacement through artificial intelligence, job precarity due to the rise of contract work and developments in health technology (one workshop group raised the idea of getting better benefits in exchange for undergoing a body scan). On the issue of labour displacement, one headline read, “Meet your new consultant,” next to an image of what looks to be an artificial intelligence-powered robot.
While many of the predictions suggested significant anxiety about what the future holds, they did include some positive developments: a drug to cure cancer, the wage gap cut in half and Canada’s shortest workweek ever. And when it comes to benefits issues specifically, workshop participants did raise the possibility of interesting new developments on the horizon, such as digital benefits wallets to access multiple speciality carriers.
There will also be important challenges for employers to address as part of their human resources and benefits strategies. One group, for example, raised the idea of providing a knowledge transfer bonus to retiring employees. That was a particularly interesting idea among the suggestions made by the workshop groups, especially given concerns about the loss of skills and institutional knowledge as valued employees near retirement.
It’s good, then, to see the predictions go beyond the more familiar terrain of issues such as flexible benefits. There’s no doubt flexibility is a significant trend, but it’s clear the issues go well beyond that to include the many ways the workforce is changing. And while the future is, in many ways, uncertain, it seems inevitable that the job of plan sponsors and employers will only get more complex. Should they, for example, embrace the option of dynamic individual underwriting predicted by one workshop group? What will they do about dire workforce predictions, such as the suggestion that 70 per cent of workers will be suffering from a mental illness by 2028?
The good news is that Canada, in its typically incremental way of doing things, has generally shown itself to be able to adapt to some of the issues raised in the workshop. When doubts about the sustainability of the Canada Pension Plan emerged in the 1990s, governments moved to shore it up. When worries about retirement security took centre stage a couple of years ago, they laid out a plan to boost CPP contributions and benefits.
On the subject of mental health, many plan sponsors have been raising coverage levels significantly, including through increased reimbursement for psychological services. While costs are a concern, technology is likely to be a mitigating factor, as services like internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy see rapid growth. So while the challenges are significant, some solutions do exist and will continue to emerge.
Speaking of the future, this is my last editorial for Benefits Canada. After almost three years in the role, I’ve decided to leave for a position with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. While many people may find it surprising to hear, the benefits and pension industry has been a fascinating area to cover. From the demographic challenges on the retirement side to the worries about drug cost pressures in the benefits world, there has been no shortage of issues to write about. And, of course, there’s always the crucial question of who should pay for whatever cost pressure is at hand. The answers are never easy, so I’d like to thank the many people in the industry — from the various suppliers and service providers to the plan sponsors on the front lines — for taking the time to share their perspectives on the issues over the years.
The conversations about these issues do matter, and it’s important to have people willing to engage in them and with publications like Benefits Canada — and the events it hosts — that serve as platforms for the discussion. It’s clear people in the industry do want to have these discussions. And as the workshop showed, people already have a lot of good ideas on what to do about the challenges that lie ahead.
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