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May 15, 2015

How Employment Insurance is like a Discman

May 15, 2015

This week, we launched a project looking at the state of Canada’s social architecture — the core social programs and policies that Canadians rely on to protect against risk and ensure that basic needs are met.

This collaboration between researchers from the Mowat Centre, the Caledon Institute, the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and the Institute for Research on Public Policy looks at the ways that these programs have fallen behind our changing economy and society.

Just how far out of date have some of these policies become? Here’s an illustrated guide, using obsolete technology as our scale.

Employment Insurance

The EI system is supposed to provide insurance against the risk of involuntary unemployment. However, eligibility rules are badly out of touch with modern labour markets. While 25 years ago, about six of every seven unemployed people qualified for EI, today it’s around one in three.

How out of date is it? On a scale from Gramophone to Beats By Dre, it’s a Sony Discman

Flickr user Mallol, 2008, under CreativeCommons license

You can think of EI as being the equivalent of the Discman (portable CD player). It was capable of impressing people in the 1990s, but even then, it was clear that its potential to absorb shocks was not-as-advertised. Today, it could be functional for some limited purposes, but for most 21st century workers, it won’t do you much good.


Canada’s system of universal public healthcare insurance has been a core pillar of our national social architecture since the 1960s. While the healthcare system has evolved since then, the way the policy operates — a set of of single-payer provincial health insurance plans — has mostly remained unaltered.

How out of date is it? On a scale from Carphone to Galaxy S6, it’s a Blackberry 7200

Flickr user Bart Everson, under CreativeCommons license

Our medicare system of public health insurance is extremely popular, a point of Canadian pride. In many ways, it serves people very well, even if sometimes slowly. However, the absence of some key functions — drug coverage, homecare, dental care— can be glaring.

Retirement Income Security

The retirement income system relies on a combination of Old Age Security, public pensions (the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans) and private savings, encouraged by tax incentives (RRSP, TFSAs, employer pensions). These pillars are getting shaky. Employer pension coverage is declining — especially defined benefit plans — and a sizable share of middle income workers are at risk of a major decline in conditions in their retirement.

How out of date is it? On a scale of telegraph to iPad air, it’s a Fax Machine.

Flickr user Colin Harris ADE under CreativeCommons license

The current system has generally served today’s seniors pretty well. Reminiscent of a world where offices had rooms full of paper files and had regular full-time employees paid to manage those files. And much like a defined benefit pension, very few people under 30 have ever come into contact with one.


Pharmaceuticals are an essential part of medical treatment, but they are have been left out of medicare (except for drugs administered in hospital) and are not covered in the Canada Health Act. Many people get coverage through their employers. Different provinces cover costs for some populations in need — for social assistance recipients, for example — but many people are left with a major financial hurdle to care.

How out of date is it? On a scale from typewriter to smartwatch, it’s a PalmPilot

Flickr user Chadh under CreativeCommons license

In the early 2000s it seemed like it might be ready to take off, but the promised surge did not materialize, and people moved on. It made some sense at the time given the available technology, but you would never design something this way if you were starting from scratch in today’s world.

Noah Zon


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Noah Zon

Release Date

May 15, 2015

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