Year Ahead

The Year Ahead: Business in 2024

Slowing inflation and rising incomes will provide relief, even as the threat of an economic slowdown looms. Canadian business stalwarts like Indigo and Irving Oil are in for serious change. And fast-evolving AI will keep transforming everything.

(Illustration by Anna Minzhulina)

1. Indigo will go back to basics

Indigo, which opened its first store in 1997 as Indigo Books, Music & More, has spent years putting emphasis on “more,” selling barbecues, gardening tools, pinball machines and even sex toys. But the company is starving for stability after a cyberattack ravaged its online database last February. Four of 12 directors left the board as the company’s stock plummeted, and founder Heather Reisman returned as CEO after a one-year hiatus. She says the company will rehabilitate its reputation, and its finances, by doubling down on what made it a giant in the first place: books.

2. You’ll finally get that raise

It’s best to start with the good news: more Canadians will make more money in 2024. A new survey of 700 Canadian companies found that as employers respond to mounting inflation and cost of living challenges, workers are coming due for higher-than-average pay bumps. Professionals in tech, real estate and pharmaceuticals should lead the way with raises of around four per cent. Those rising incomes will be caught in a dead heat with Canada’s ballooning cost of living, but with more than 700,000 positions to fill nationwide, job vacancies remain high heading into 2024. That will give workers more bargaining power than they might otherwise have.

3. A robot will ring you through

Grocery store self-checkouts seem futuristic, but they’re really just a drag: nobody likes to wait in line just to flag down a clerk every time an apple rolls off their scale. Amazon has taken note, and in 2024 the company will launch more checkout-less stores: camera-bolstered, gate-protected shops where customers tap for payment upon entry and take items from shelves without standing in line. The model has been used in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena and in Calgary’s Saddledome. Expect it to roll out more widely at airports, university campuses and grocery stores in 2024. Of course, if it really takes off, the checkout-free model could have unintended side effects—about 320,000 Canadians are currently employed as cashiers.

4. The five-day workweek will die out

Most North American workplaces have brought employees back to their desks at least part-time. But the five-day workweek is no longer the default setting. Studies find that trimming a day leads to happier, healthier employees and, possibly, more productive ones. In 2024, more Canadian companies will follow the example of Iceland, where a majority of workers can choose a four-day week, and the U.K., where a four-day workweek trial in 2022 ended with 90 per cent of more than 60 participating companies opting to continue with it. In Canada, early adopters like software firm Pressbooks and PR agency Praxis are challenging the Monday-to-Friday lifestyle and offering employees a four-day week for the same pay. The idea is that a less draconian work schedule will grant workers more freedom, and boost the benefits that come with a healthy work-life balance.

5. Big plastic will go head to head with the feds

Last November, Canada’s federal court ruled that the government’s branding of all manufactured plastic items as toxic was overreach, throwing into uncertainty its prohibition on single-use plastics, like cutlery and takeout containers. The ruling came in response to a legal challenge by a plastic-industry lobby group. The feds are likely to appeal, setting up a showdown between the $35-billion industry and an embattled government desperate to pass legacy-making legislation.

6. Office vacancies will peak, then plunge

Companies will continue to adjust their office space needs with WFH and hybrid models—not to mention those four-day weeks. A recent report predicted that the national office vacancy rate could climb to 15 per cent this year, a post-COVID peak. But those eerily silent boardrooms will start filling up again before long: experts think the average time spent in the office will start rising again as the decade progresses, and as companies reach the final phases of their back-to-the-office plans.

7. More AI copyright lawsuits are coming

The AI revolution of 2023 brought us many wonders, like de-aging 80-something Harrison Ford to resemble his youthful prime and producing an uncanny (and unauthorized) imitation of Drake’s voice. But what we’ve seen so far is just the beginning. This year will beget an explosion of AI-powered music, TV and movies, and our deeper ventures into the uncanny valley will come with a litany of copyright lawsuits from performers, record labels and more. The problem is that the exponential rate of AI development is likely to wildly outpace regulation around it. We’re probably years away from developing a full legal framework dealing with machine learning and intellectual property, but the technology just keeps barrelling forward. Can independent producers copy an artist’s voice and release it on a song without compensation? Can a filmmaker deep-fake an actor’s face and plug it into a movie without their consent or knowledge? Legally, we still don’t know. In 2024, we’ll start to find out.

8. Irving oil’s restructuring will transform a business behemoth

Irving Oil enters its hundredth year on the brink of massive transformation. In 2023, the company launched a strategic review that could lead to its sale. Then, in October, chair Arthur Irving—Canada’s sixth-richest man—and his daughter, executive vice-president Sarah Irving, stepped down. A sale would be huge: Irving Oil owns the largest refinery in the country, along with more than 1,000 gas stations across Atlantic Canada and New England. It’s New Brunswick’s third-largest employer and part of the Irving Group of Companies, one of the biggest private business empires in North America. A change in leadership could be good news for consumers, who pay an extra seven cents per litre for Irving petrol because the company has not yet complied with Canada’s clean fuel regulations. A sale could prompt a shift in priorities; industry watchers have already speculated that the company will pivot to the fast-growing green-energy economy. Irving Energy Ltd. anyone?

9. Provinces will remove barriers for skilled workers

Those who consider Canada an immigration haven have probably never tried transferring professional credentials, like a medical licence, from another country. But that’s changing. Ontario recently prohibited employers in more than 30 regulated professions, such as engineering and teaching, from requiring Canadian work experience. Lots more will happen in 2024. This coming summer, British Columbia’s new International Credentials Recognition Act will set maximum timelines for processing foreign worker applications. It will also remove barriers like redundant language testing for workers in 29 fields, including lawyers, teachers and veterinarians. Other provinces will likely follow suit.

10. Huge banking job cuts point to an economic slowdown

Canada’s big banks already cut 6,000 jobs this year, and big players like Scotiabank, RBC and BMO are planning to slash another two or three per cent of their workforces. All this suggests a grim outlook for 2024. Inflation has reduced mortgage applications, borrowing costs are high and these anemic economic conditions have slowed business growth. As of last November, only one Canadian company had completed an IPO on the TSX in 2023, the longest dry spell since 1993. If financial institutions feel the need to trim more fat, front-line tellers could be the first to go—and analysts expect more cuts are likely. Revenue forecasts look less than rosy for the year ahead.

This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.

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