Crippling debt to buy credentials no one wants. Low-paying, short-term jobs that put middle-class prosperity out of reach. And, for good measure, the prospect of a penurious retirement.
That’s the deal on offer to many twentysomething Canadians today, a tectonic shift that could leave a permanent gouge in the national economy.
While young people have always struggled to get established, economists and labour experts say this time is different. Those in their 20s today are facing far more hurdles than their parents’ generation, and those difficulties are likely to linger, with profound economic consequences for Canada. There is diminished job security, the growth of temp work, rising costs for food, tuition and housing and record debt levels. To top it off, young people entering the work force today are far less likely to retire with a company pension than their parents’ generation.
“When you put it all together, there is justification for alarm bells,” says Judith Maxwell, past chair of the Economic Council of Canada and contributor to a national study released this month called #GenerationFlux.
“People over their forties in Canada have no idea what it’s like for a young person trying to find a pathway to adulthood right now.”
The tentacles of this new economic reality could stretch over decades. A generation of highly educated people that Canada desperately needs to drive future growth isn’t reaching its full potential. High debt and a late start in the job marker means longer delays in buying houses, cars and appliances – which will have a broad impact on Canada’s growth rates and prosperity.
Justin MacGillivray is squarely confronting all those headwinds. Two summers in a row of weak job markets have unravelled his plans.
The 22-year-old is finishing his degree in finance at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. He sent out about 150 job applications this past summer, but never landed full-time work. Instead, he did a few short-term stints at a restaurant. He is so discouraged that he has tossed out old expectations, and is now considering farming. “I have very little hope in finding pretty much anything right now,” he says. At 22, there is still lots of time left for him to find more secure work in his field. But across his generation, the outlook is not rosy.
Charlotte Yates believes it is “a lie” to argue young people will eventually face a dramatic upward shift in fortunes as the economy improves and baby boomers retire. The dean of social sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton says changes in Canada’s labour market are permanent – most notably a penchant for part-time and contract hiring – and are not a temporary blip.
“The arguments that say there’s a natural progression and they will eventually progress, I think misstate what’s going on in the labour market and misstate the long-term consequences,” she says.
“That’s why I think it’s necessary to start re-framing the debate around how important good jobs are. They’re critical for us to maintain the standard of society we have – our standard of living and of course our middle class.”
If there isn’t a broad debate about the consequences, she fears Canada will look far different in 40 years, with a lower level of home ownership, lower savings rates and higher rates of debt, as workers increasingly go throughout their careers without secure jobs and workplace benefits.
A WORLD OF STAGNANT INCOMES
The notion that each generation will enjoy a better standard of living than the last has persisted since the industrial revolution. It hasn’t always happened. But the dream was there.
Talk to many people on the cusp of their careers today, however, and they worry that their generation will be the first in decades to see a lower standard of living than their parents.
Patrick Imbeau is tired of the common complaint that his generation is a bunch of spoiled whiners. He held down three jobs while working on his PhD, and the debt still piled up after tuition prices doubled during the time he was at school. “It’s not that I expect everything to be given to me, but I do expect to have some chance to be able to have the same life that my parents had.”
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