Working and Learning 
in the Information Age: 
A Canadian Profile

D.W. Livingstone

The Canadian Policy Research Networks
July, 2000. 


This report offers the most inclusive documentation to date of Canadian adults' work and learning activities. Work is considered in terms of household labours and community volunteer activities as well as paid employment. Learning is considered in terms of informal learning activities as well as initial schooling and adult education courses and workshops. The profiles of work and learning are based primarily on the first national survey of informal learning conducted in 1998 by the SSHRC-funded research network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL), supplemented by secondary analyses of the 1997 Adult Education and Training Survey and several other recent surveys by Statistics Canada. 

Canadian adults in general are now spending as much time in unpaid household and community work as they are in paid employment. There are continual changes in employment conditions, including the growth of service sector occupations, an increase in part-time jobs and polarization of employment hours, and rapid diffusion of information technology. But, in spite of much rhetoric about the emergence of a "knowledge-based economy", there has only been a gradual net upgrading of job skill requirements and knowledge workers still comprise a small minority of the labour force. 

Canada now leads the world in its levels of post-secondary education. Adult education course participation has also expanded very rapidly since the 1960s. In addition, according to their self-reports, Canadian adults are now devoting an average of 15 hours a week to informal learning activities related to their paid employment, household duties, volunteer community work and other general interests. Those in the active labour force are spending an average of 6 hours per week in job-related informal learning pursuits. The participation rates and time involved in informal learning are much greater than in organized schooling and adult education courses. Adult informal learning is like the submerged portion of an iceberg, not usually seen but essential to supporting the visible portion. The findings reported here confirm that by any reasonable definition Canada is now a "learning society".

Analyses of the interrelations between work and learning find that there is generally a positive association between the amount of time that people spend in paid employment, household labours and community work and the time they spend in work-related informal learning, but that this relationship is stronger in more discretionary forms of work, notably community volunteer work. Employment-related informal learning is found to be more extensive than course-based training across nearly all employment statuses and occupational classes. Since adult learning has increased rapidly while changes in skill and knowledge requirements of the job structure have been more gradual, many Canadians now find themselves underemployed in the sense that they are unable to use all of their employment-related skills in their current jobs. Estimates based on the NALL survey indicate that about 20 percent of the employed labour force now consider themselves to be underemployed, while more objective measures suggest that as much as half of the labour force may have skill levels that exceed those actually required to perform their jobs. However, regardless of the current match between job skills and requirements, the vast majority of employees continue to be actively involved in quite extensive employment-related learning activities. Underemployment has not discouraged the pursuit of lifelong learning. 

However, adults prioritize different forms of learning through the life course. Young people devote a great deal of time to both course participation and informal learning in the transition to adulthood. The relative importance of courses diminishes as middle-aged adults accumulate more experiential knowledge. Older employees participate very little in courses but continue to be active informal learners, as well as valuable informal tutors for younger workers. Those in subordinate social statuses, including lower occupational classes, women and visible minorities, tend to experience greater barriers to participation in adult education courses. The major barriers involve limited material provisions, such as lack of time and money, family duties and inconvenient locations, rather than lack of motivation to participate.

If these profiles of work and learning and their interrelations are generally accurate, it is very unlikely that further education and training reforms will be able to bridge the "education-jobs gap" (Livingstone, 1999a) and resolve the growing problem of underemployment. While educational improvements and increasing knowledge should always be encouraged for human enrichment, only major economic reforms that address the basic dimensions of enterprise ownership, the labour process itself, the redistribution of work time and the creation of new forms of paid work can substantially enhance the quality of employment and workers' opportunities to apply their extensive acquired knowledge. However, provisions to recognize and validate workers' prior informal learning in both educational institutions and paid workplaces can make significant incremental improvements in current social inequities; such provisions should be implemented immediately while we proceed to debate the necessary economic reforms. To do less will ensure that underemployment becomes one of the major social problems of the 21st century. 


The conditions of work and learning now appear to be changing quickly in Canadian society. A basic assumption underlying much of the recent public discussion about work and learning is that because new jobs are rapidly requiring greater knowledge and skill, a lifelong learning culture must be created in order for Canada and Canadians to succeed in an increasingly information-based world. Virtually every recent public policy statement begins with this assumption. Consider the following examples:

Information technology is changing our world. It is reshaping our economy and affecting the life and work of almost every Canadian....If Canadians are to embrace and welcome change, they must create a society that places learning at its very heart, and nourishes them in their personal and working lives. 
[ Information Highway Advisory Council, 1995, pp. vii, 57.]

Canada's workplaces are changing with unnerving rapidity, and since the world of work casts a long shadow on the rest of life, many Canadians are anxious about the future....As long as Canada maintains its investments in educating the new generation of workers and enhancing the skills of older workers, the long-term outlook for the productive potential of the Canadian economy is very positive.
[ Advisory Committee on the Changing Workplace, 1997, pp. 5-6.]

Technology is altering every aspect of our lives. Knowledge and creativity are now the driving force in a new economy....Because of the changing nature of the world economy, the prospects for a high quality of life in any country will depend--as never before--on having a population that is adaptable, resilient and ready to learn throughout life. 
[ Speech from the Throne to open the Second Session of the Thirty-Sixth Parliament of Canada, 2000, pp. 1,4.]

This report critically assesses the assumption of the pervasiveness of a "knowledge-based economy" and the urgency of promoting increased learning efforts, through providing a broad empirical profile of the current work and learning activities of the Canadian adult population and of their interrelations. The Introduction presents the expansive conceptions of work and learning which informed the collection of evidence, as well as summarizing the basic data sources, theoretical perspective and research questions that have guided the analysis. The rapid diffusion of computers which justifiably provides the basis for characterizing the current period as the "information age" is then briefly documented. An outline of the following chapters is also provided.

Three Spheres of Work and Learning

Contemporary thinking and research about work and learning generally suffer from narrow conceptions of both phenomena. In economically advanced societies, there are at least three distinguishable spheres of work (paid employment, housework and community volunteer work) and three spheres of learning (initial formal schooling, further adult or non-formal education and informal learning). 

"Work" is commonly regarded as synonymous with "earning a living" through paid (or more rarely unpaid) employment in the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services commodities. The current report will also focus on paid employment statuses, but will at least briefly examine other important forms of work. Most of us must do some household work and many need to contribute to community labours in order to reproduce ourselves and society. Both housework and community volunteer work are typically unpaid and underappreciated, but they remain essential for our survival and quality of life (see Waring, 1988). Furthermore, the relations between paid work, housework and community work may represent major dimensions of future economic change. Men and women are continuing to renegotiate household divisions of labour, while more and more aspects of housework and community work are being transformed into new forms of paid employment.

"Learning," in the most generic sense, involves the acquisition of understanding, knowledge or skill anytime and anywhere. Learning occurs throughout our lives. The sites of learning make up a continuum ranging from spontaneous responses to everyday life to highly organized participation in formal education programs. Three forms of intentional learning are now commonly identified by researchers: formal schooling, non-formal education and informal learning. The dominant tendency in contemporary thought has been to equate learning with formal education, the provision of learning opportunities in settings organized by institutional authorities and led by teachers approved by these authorities. Education has frequently been identified with continuous enrolment in formal schooling from early childhood to tertiary levels (see Illich, 1971). In addition, adult or non-formal education includes a diverse array of further education courses and workshops in many institutionally organized settings, from schools to workplaces and community centres. Such continuing education is the most evident site of lifelong learning for adults past the initial cycle of schooling. But we also continually engage in informal learning activities to acquire understanding, knowledge or skill outside of the curricula of institutions providing educational programs, courses or workshops. Informal learning, which we undertake individually or collectively on our own without externally imposed criteria or the presence of an institutionally authorized instructor, is much more widespread among adults than either initial school attendance or further adult education. As Allen Tough (1978) has observed, informal learning is the submerged part of the iceberg of adult learning activities. It is at least arguable that, for most adults, informal learning represents our most important form of learning for coping with our changing environment. No account of "lifelong learning" can be complete without considering peoples' intentional informal learning activities as well as their initial formal schooling and further adult or non-formal education through the life course. 

In short, both work and learning are more extensive and complex phenomena than discussions of employment and education usually imply. 

Secondly, a narrow focus on relations between paid employment and organized education ignores significant interrelationss between these and other dimensions of work and learning. It is increasingly recognized that early informal childhood socialization is highly influential in determining success in formal schooling. There is far less appreciation of the fact that continued informal learning is vitally important for success in paid workplaces. Recent studies have confirmed that most job-related learning is done informally (see Betcherman et al, 1997; Center for Workforce Development, 1998). Through a combination of initial schooling, further non-formal education and informal learning, the vast majority of workers manage to become at least adequately qualified for their current jobs. Yet the dominant discourse about a pressing need for creation of "learning organizations" ignores these realities of interaction between organized education, informal learning and job performance, and presumes that the central challenge for improved enterprise performance is for workers to become more active and motivated learners. Furthermore, many valuable transfers of knowledge and skill between these three basic spheres of learning and among the three spheres of work are similarly unrecognized or discouraged by workplace organization (see Livingstone, 1999a).

A third limitation is that most studies of paid work and education have focussed too narrowly on immediate payoffs to employers. From a management perspective, virtually the only relevant learning for employees is job training that can enhance the productivity or profitability of the company. From this vantage point, much of the learning that workers do both on and off the job is effectively non-existent. But more ethnographic studies have discovered, for example, that many assembly line workers have developed informal learning networks to teach themselves how to use personal computers. Some of these workers have become competent computer programmers even though they have no employer encouragement and no immediate opportunities to use these skills in their jobs (Sawchuk, 1996). Other Canadian surveys have found that corporate executives, managers and professional employees were very much more likely to be able to apply their general work-related learning in their jobs than were industrial and service workers whose general knowledge is often regarded as irrelevant to enhancing current job performance (Livingstone, 1997a). What workers learn informally on and off the job is at least potentially applicable both in jobs redesigned to more fully use workers' growing repertoire of skills and in other socially useful and fulfilling household and community work The important point is that we need to find out how relevant this more general and informal knowledge is rather than continuing to ignore.

Research on work and learning requires more inclusive conceptions that permit recognition of all substantial spheres of work and learning and their multiple interrelations. This broader perspective must reflect and respect the experiences and needs of all groups of workers. It is with this broad conceptual framework and attempted open standpoint that we have conducted the First Canadian Survey of Informal Learning Practices (NALL, 1999) which provides much of the evidence for this report. We are under no illusion that such an exploratory survey questionnaire is capable of uncovering the deeper levels of either individual or collective knowledge gained in informal learning practices. But, after a careful review of the relevant research literature (see Adams et. al., 1998), we do aim to generate useful profiles of the basic patterns of intentional informal learning and link them with organized forms of schooling and non-formal education and the different forms of work more fully than most prior studies, and thereby to contribute to more nuanced appreciation of the multiple dimensions and relationships of the work and learning continua. 

Data Sources: The First Canadian Survey of Informal Learning Practices, the Adult Education and Training Surveys and Time Use Surveys

The present report relies primarily on data generated by the 1998 national survey of learning and work by the Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL), supplemented where possible by other recent national surveys which provide data on employment and adult education courses as well as estimates the extent of unpaid household and community work. NALL is located at OISE/UT and has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to identify the extent of adult learning, the existence of social barriers to learning and more effective means of linking learning with work. The NALL survey offers unique insights into the full array of learning and work activities among Canadian adults (see box).

While the NALL survey is the major source for most of the empirical analyses presented in the following chapters, it is supplemented by relevant data from the Adult Education and Training Survey (AETS) which has been conducted periodically by Statistics Canada (1997a) and which provides comparable data on employment and adult education for 1991, 1993 and 1997, respectively. In addition, the 1996 Census included questions on unpaid household work for the first time (Statistics Canada, 1998). In 1997, the National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating expanded on an earlier 1987 survey of volunteering to provide the most inclusive profile yet on community volunteer work (Hall et al. 1998). Finally, the General Social Survey (GSS) has measured the time uses of Canadians in 1986, 1992 and 1998 and provides estimates of time spent in paid and unpaid work, organized education and other activities (General Social Survey, 1999). Taken together, all these data sets begin to provide a fairly comprehensive picture of work and learning activities of Canadian adults.

Contending Perspectives on Work and Learning

Most theorizing about work and learning has been similarly limited to trying to explain relations between paid employment and educational participation. In simplest terms, these theories can be identified as either supply side, demand side or supply-demand interactive.

Supply-side theories basically suggest that the pursuit of more advanced education generates more productive workers and that their "intellectual capital" investment leads to a more prosperous economy. Human capital theories which assume that investment in education necessarily results in increased economic growth are the leading examples (Becker, 1964, 1993). Invest in education and good jobs will follow. This is the "field of dreams" approach.

Demand-side theories are more diverse. On the one hand are the advocates of a "knowledge-based economy" who assume that modern information-based production systems now require workers with substantially more complex analytic and design skills to operate them, and that education systems must increasingly respond to the need to produce such knowledge workers (Machlup, 1980; Marshall and Tucker, 1994). On the other hand, there are the prophets of the degradation of paid work who argue that inherent tendencies within modern production systems are leading either to a profound deskilling of job requirements or widespread automation, with consequent proliferation of underemployment and unemployment (Braverman, 1974; Rifkin, 1995). In both optimistic and pessimistic demand-side varieties, the labour force is generally regarded as reactive to these secular trends rather than influencing them through their learning activities. 

Supply-demand interactive theories emphasize the relational character of education and job connections in terms of the bargaining processes between employers and employees. A real or anticipated oversupply of highly qualified job seekers may lead employers and/or well-organized groups of professional or skilled employees to raise entry criteria substantially beyond what is actually required to perform the work. Screening theories suggest that greater formal education serves as an admission ticket to better jobs but is not necessarily related to greater productivity (Stiglitz, 1975). Credential society theories explain job entry processes in terms of the power of these groups to construct restrictive qualification regimes (Collins, 1979). Conversely, either an undersupply of qualified applicants or the prospect of greater productivity from an underutilized workforce may provoke redesign of job performance demands. Undersupply views are currently limited to accounts of frictional unemployment because of temporary supply-demand mismatches and those who see current shortages in certain specialized skill occupations as serious obstacles to the blossoming of a knowledge-based economy (MacBride-King et al, 2000). Generally speaking, supply-demand interaction theories are better able than simpler supply or demand-side theories to explain more complex patterns of education-employment relations, notably the now widespread phenomenon of mismatches between the educational qualifications of the available labour force and aggregate job requirements. 

The particular version of a supply-demand interaction theory of employment-learning relations that I have developed and documented elsewhere posits differential degrees of matching of knowledge attainments and job requirements related to negotiations between specific occupational groups, genders, generations and ethnic groups (Livingstone, 1999a). In simplest terms, the extent to which the relevant knowledge of specific groups is recognized in employment relations is contingent on how much power they are able to exert. In any private market-based economy, the sweep of change is continual, driven by three well-documented underlying relationships:(1) inter-firm competition to make and sell more and more goods and services commodities at lower cost and price for greater profits (see Brenner, 2000); (2) struggles between business owners and those who offer their hired labour over the conditions of employment and knowledge requirements, especially lower labour costs for more profits versus higher wages for better subsistence (see Burawoy, 1985); and (3) continual modification of the techniques of production to achieve greater efficiency in terms of labour time per commodity, leading to higher profits, better employment conditions or both (see Freeman and Soete, 1994). Inter-firm competition, conflicts between employers and employees over working conditions, and technological innovation all lead to incessant shifts in the numbers and types of jobs available. Population growth cycles, modified household needs and new legislative regulations also frequently serve to alter the supply of labour. At the same time, popular demand for general education and specialized training increases cumulatively as people generally seek more knowledge, different skills and added credentials in order to live and work in such a changing society. 

So, there are always "mismatches" between employers' aggregate demand and requirements for employees on the one hand, and the aggregate supply and qualifications of job seekers on the other. The accelerating productivity of capitalist enterprises regularly throws workers into unemployment, reproducing the most evident part of the reserve army of labour. In societies like Canada with liberal democratic state regimes that acclaim the right to equal educational opportunity, and with labour markets in which both employers and job seekers make mainly individual employment choices, the dominant historical tendency has been for the supply of educationally qualified job seekers to exceed the demand for any given type of job. These same dynamics also generate formal underqualification of some workers, particularly older employees who are experienced in their jobs and have had few incentives to upgrade their credentials. But it also follows from this perspective that the work-related learning that occurs beyond the direct control of dominant occupational, gender, age and ethnic groups is likely to be less hierarchically ordered in many respects, including the time devoted to it and the competencies attained, than is the case for formal schooling credentials. Employment-related informal learning especially may occur anywhere at the discretion of the learners. 

This theoretical perspective can be applied to the other forms of work besides paid employment (household and community labours). Household labour is just as necessary as paid employment labour for social reproduction, but time devoted to such domestic labour tends to be inversely related to economic and political power, with women who lack employment-based bargaining power still doing most of it with little recognition. The correspondence between different types of work and relevant informal learning activities should also vary according to how much discretionary control people can exercise over the work. Since people are not generally compelled to do community volunteer work, relevant informal learning activities may be more closely associated with involvement in this sort of work than either hierarchically structured employment or necessary domestic labour. As noted above, household and community volunteer labours and their relations with learning activities will only be examined briefly in this report. But further analyses and future studies of work and learning should attend much more fully to their significance. 

From this interactive perspective on work and learning relations, the correspondence between knowledge attainments and designated work requirements will differ markedly by social position, with the greatest discrepancies experienced by those with the least economic or political power to define the appropriate requirements for their jobs or prospective jobs. We should expect to find higher levels of underutilization of their working knowledge among those in lower occupational positions, as well as among those whose general subordination in society has put them at a disadvantage in labour market negotiations, especially younger people, ethnic and racial minorities and women. While the major objective of this report is to establish general profiles of work statuses and adult learning practices, the data also provide an exceptional opportunity to test these hypothesized relationships. 

Whatever interpretive perspectives we may prefer, our major objective should be to empirically assess actual relations between learning and work. Approaches that simply assume either inevitable benefits from further investment in human capital and a lifelong learning culture or pervasive demands for greater skills from a knowledge-based economy are likely to be poor guides to social policy making.

The main questions that guide this research are as follows:

  • To what extent have the skill demands and distributions of work changed in Canada over the past generation and has there been a distinctive shift to a "knowledge-based economy"?
  • How has participation in learning activities altered over the same period and is Canada now a "learning society"?
  • How well matched are Canadians' employment statuses and their learning achievements and are there now significant levels of either underemployment or underqualification?
  • What are the main barriers to equitable access to educational certification in the active labour force?
  • What are the most likely economic and educational reforms to enhance relations between work and learning in the Canadian labour force today?

Computers and the "Information Age"

The basis for increasing characterization of the last generation of the 20th century as the beginning of the "information age" may be found in the rapid proliferation of information technologies that provide quicker and easier access to more diverse arrays of data, information and knowledge. The diffusion of information technology via personal computers and the Internet has been extraordinary in recent years. In 1989, less than 20 percent of Canadian homes owned a computer (Lowe, 1992, p. 83). The proportion jumped to 40 percent in 1997 and 45 percent in 1998 (Statistics Canada, The Daily, December 13, 1999). A publicly accessible electronic information exchange network, the Internet, was only created a decade ago. But Internet access from home leapt from 17 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 1998 alone (Statistics Canada, The Daily, December 13, 1999). While less than 30 percent of Canadian households had at least one regular Internet user in 1997, by late 1999 this figure had increased to about 42 percent, including both home users and those who gained access from paid work sites, schools, libraries, homes of friends or Internet cafes (Statistics Canada, The Daily, May 19, 2000). The proportion of Canadian adults with Internet access from home, employment, school or elsewhere increased from 55 percent in mid-1999 to 70 percent in mid-2000 (Angus Reid, 2000). A majority of Canadian adults now probably have access to both home computers and the Internet. Many prior information technologies--including motion pictures, radio and television--have been rapidly diffused in advanced capitalist societies. The impact of new technologies on knowledge acquisition has typically been wildly exaggerated (see Cuban, 1986; Livingstone, 1997b) and there may already be a growing number of Internet dropouts (Katz and Aspden, 1998). But the combination of personal computers and the Internet provide a more interactive and dynamic mode of knowledge acquisition than any of these prior information technologies. The vast majority of Internet users indicate that it has already had a significant impact on their lives, most frequently by making them more knowledgeable through access to a variety of information (Angus Reid, 2000). 

The diffusion of home computers has been extremely uneven across economic groups. About three-quarters of the households in the highest income quintile had computers in 1998 compared with less than 20 percent of those in the lowest quintile ( Statistics Canada, The Daily, December 13, 1999). This difference is the basis for justifiably growing social concern about a "digital divide" among Canadians (Reddick, Boucher and Goseilliers, 2000). But capability to use computers and general access are much more widely distributed. Even in 1989, when less than a fifth of all households owned a computer, nearly half of the entire adult population were able to use a computer and about a third had taken a computer course (Lowe, 1992, p. 71). Both the diffusion of home computers and the development of basic computer literacy have continued to increase rapidly (Angus Reid, 2000).

Most indications are that Canadians have continued to acquire computer skills to a greater extent than they have had opportunities to apply them in paid workplaces. According to GSS surveys, by 1989 around a third of the labour force were using computers for some tasks in their paid workplaces, and by 1994 the proportion had increased to 48 percent (Lowe, 1996). But considerably more workers have acquired the knowledge to use computers than have had the opportunity to use them in their paid workplaces. According to the GSS, in 1989 when 35 percent of Canadian workers were actually using computers in their jobs, 59 percent had the ability to perform work-related computer applications; by 1994, when 48 percent of all workers used computers in their jobs, computer literacy had increased to 68 percent of the employed workforce (Lowe, 2000, p. 75). Similarly, while 70 percent of adults now have some form of Internet access, net users are much more likely to say that they use it to acquire general knowledge, for entertainment, personal communications and financial transactions than to improve their job performance (Dickinson and Sciadas, 1999; Angus Reid, 2000). We will examine this apparent discrepancy between knowledge acquisition and use on the job more generally in Chapter 3, after we look more closely at the actual distribution of Canadians' current paid and unpaid work and then their work-related learning practices in the next two chapters.

Chapter Outlines

In Chapter 1, the "knowledge-based economy" thesis is assessed and recent patterns of change in the paid and unpaid work of Canadians are summarized. Profiles of current major employment statuses of the entire adult Canadian population and their levels of participation in paid employment, household work and community volunteer work are provided. Changes in the distribution of work appear to be occurring more rapidly than any increase in the knowledge content of jobs. 

Chapter 2 offers general profiles of the learning activities of Canadian adults, including levels of formal school attainment, participation in further non-formal education and training courses, and incidence and topical foci of intentional informal learning. Primary attention is devoted to patterns of employment-related adult education and informal learning. Extensive involvement in intentional informal learning is found across all levels of initial schooling and participation in non-formal education courses. Canada is deemed to already be a learning society on most reasonable criteria.

Chapter 3 analyzes the relations between different types of work and learning. Profiles of employment-related training courses and informal learning activities are presented for those in all employment statuses. The incidence and content emphases of both training courses and informal learning among occupational groups are given special attention. The existence of extensive underemployment is documented. The effects of current mismatches between job holders' qualifications and job requirements on their continuing learning activities are assessed. The employment-related training and informal learning of the officially unemployed and discouraged workers are also examined.. The most general finding is that, regardless of employment status and even if they are underemployed, most Canadians are actively engaged in continuing employment-related informal learning.

In Chapter 4, patterns of employment-related training and informal learning are analyzed according to the age, sex, racial identity and contextual factors. There continue to be serious social systemic and material constraints limiting participation in adult education. But informal learning continues to be very extensive throughout the life course. A notable finding here is that while older workers are much less likely to take training courses, they are almost as highly involved in continuing employment-related informal learning as younger workers. Lifelong learning is found to already be a reality for the Canadian labour force and there is widespread popular interest in recognizing prior informal learning for entry to organized education programs.

Finally, in the Conclusion, the major findings are briefly summarized. Some important implications for economic and training policies are addressed. Government and corporate employment policies should more fully recognize the extensiveness of current adult learning activities and put relatively higher priority on strategies for creation of more fulfilling jobs that permit greater use of this knowledge than on more training programs per se. The report concludes with appeals for more inclusive conceptions of "human capital", inclusion of informal learning in continuing surveys of learning activities of the labour force, increased public awareness that we already live in a "learning society" and a call for a national forum on economic reforms to address the growing problem of underemployment.

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