It seems de rigeur in journalistic circles these days to claim that today’s youth – especially the bit that is university-educated – represent a “lost generation.” These stories always cover the same arc: find a young, bright, hardworking, recent graduate whose career, for one reason or another, hasn’t hit liftoff, blame this situation on the recession (even though that link can’t really be proven) and then provide some nonsensical economic arguments as to why this state of affairs is permanent. Repeat.
The thing is, we’ve seen this film before. Both the early 1980s and early 1990s also had “lost generations,” and in both cases the afflicted generations turned out all right. Each time the term crops up, writers can come up with reasons why “this time is different” and it really is a lost generation but, for the most part, these reasons are thin to nonexistent.
For instance, this week’s Maclean’s cover story posits five reasons why recent graduates are having such a hard time in the current economy, but none of them really stand up to scrutiny:
1. The decline of central Canada’s manufacturing sector, and the union jobs it sustained; This is true enough, but those jobs never went to university grads anyway, so the relevance to recent graduates is pretty weak.
2) Relentless cost-cutting by corporations; Nice try, but private sector jobs are actually up over the past few years. And most of the students who are profiled for these kinds of stories are actually looking for work in the public sector.
3) The demographic bulge of older workers occupying high-skilled, well-paying positions; The fact that older people have better jobs than younger people isn’t exactly new to this economic cycle. And in fact, for the past couple of years, the number of new entrants to the labour market is almost exactly matched by new retirees, so just arithmetically the “bulge” argument can’t be true.
4) Parents who pressed their kids into university, hoping they’d get prestigious, white-collar jobs; Ah yes, the over-supply argument. Problem is, there’s no good evidence that the pay of university graduates is falling; in Ontario, two years after graduation, undergraduate are making almost $50,000 on average, just as they did before the recession. As for youth unemployment, it’s about the same as it has always been – twice the general rate of unemployment. That strongly suggests that problems are cyclical rather than secular.
5) and Universities and colleges who indulged that urge, despite the changing demands of the labour market; What changing demands of the labour market? University degrees haven’t become less necessary in the labour market over the past twenty years: job growth remains faster for university graduates than for any other kind of education (though colleges have been closing the gap over the past decade). Or, if we’re just talking about grads since 2009, how exactly were universities supposed to be aware of the bust in 2005-7, when they accepted these students in the first place?
Here’s the deal: some cohorts – like the classes of 2002-07 – get lucky. They graduate into boom times and never really know what it’s like to struggle for a job. Other cohorts are less lucky. They graduate into periods of high unemployment and life is hard for awhile. It’s certainly true that the first year or so after graduation is harder now than it was five years ago; the employment rate of Ontario university graduates six months out from graduation fell from 94 per cent in 2007 to 88 per cent in 2009. But eventually things improve: by two years out from a degree, the difference between graduates who graduated into a boom and those who graduated into a bust are barely perceptible
Remember the idle, drifting, “lost generation” characters in Douglas Copeland’s Generation X? Eventually, they became the people that today’s journalists say are hogging all the good jobs. It got better for them; it will get better for today’s graduates as well.
Alex Usher is president of Higher Education Strategy Associates