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All young adults who think they're getting a raw deal in today's economy, let me tell you about how it was back in my day.

In 1984, my final undergraduate year of university, tuition cost more or less $1,000. I earned that much in a summer without breaking a sweat.

When I went looking for a new car in 1986, the average cost was roughly half of what it is now. It was totally affordable.

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The average price of a house in Toronto back in 1984 was just over $96,000. I wasn't buying just then, but it's worth noting that the average family after-tax income back then was close to $50,000. Buy a first home? Easy to imagine for new graduates of the day.

I had it easier than today's twentysomethings, and I have no problem saying so. But quite a few others can't see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the financial concerns of today's young adults.

This became clear as responses poured in to last week's column tying the Quebec student protests to the financial challenges faced by people who are trying to make the jump from college and university into the work force.

Some responses were heartfelt, like the one from a 78-year-old gentleman who said he grew up "in abject poverty on a farm" and worked to pay for his education. But other comments reflected a view that today's young adults should just grow up.

My sense is that's what they're trying to do. But it's tougher out there than some of you might know.

After earning a three-year BA (majoring in political science) at York University in Toronto back in 1984, I landed a summer job as a copy editor at The Canadian Press, the national wire service. I earned enough to spend a year in Ottawa earning a bachelor of journalism degree at Carleton University. I had to work the Christmas holidays at CP to top up my savings, but I was financially self-sufficient and incurred zero debt.

Today, financial self-sufficiency is impossible without taking breaks from school to work. The Bank of Canada's handy inflation calculator tells us that my $1,000 tuition back in 1984 would cost $2,028 today if it increased just by the inflation rate annually. But according to Statistics Canada, the latest read on average tuition fees is $5,366.

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In Ontario, the minimum wage is $10.25. A student who puts in a 40-hour work week for 12 weeks would stand to make about $4,900. That's a sizable shortfall on tuition, never mind the cost of student fees, books and living expenses. As a parent of an 18-year-old heading to university out of town next year, I can tell you that budgeting $18,000 to $20,000 per year is prudent.

Buying a house is another point where the experience of older Canadians is unlike what today's younger generation faces. Canadian Real Estate Association data show the average national price of a home in mid-1984 was $76,214. If houses kept up with inflation – and that would be a pretty good result all on its own – the average house would now cost $154,587. In April, the actual average was $369,677.

That's an annualized gain of 5.8 per cent across the country. In cities like Toronto and Vancouver, the yearly increases are even more pronounced.

House prices themselves are an abstract number – the real question is how affordable a home is. Data from a 2011 Conference Board of Canada study on income inequality shows the average family after-tax income in 1984 was $48,500. In 2009, the latest date included in the study, income levels had risen to $60,000. In 1984, a house might have cost a family 1.6 times its annual income. Today, we're looking at a multiple of something around six.

Not everything is more expensive for today's young adults – mortgage rates were in double digits back in 1984 (but then again so were savings rates), and cars have pretty well risen in price along with inflation. And not everything is worse, at least on the surface. Today's headline unemployment rate of 7.2 per cent beats the rate of almost 12 per cent back in the mid-1980s. Look deeper into those numbers and you find a youth unemployment rate of 18 per cent back then and 13.9 per cent today. Young adults haven't benefited nearly as much as the overall population from declining unemployment trends.

Back in my day? Economically speaking, life was easier for the young adult.

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Those were the days

Globe and Mail personal finance columnist Rob Carrick completed his undergrad degree back in 1984. Here's a look at how housing prices have changed since then. House price gains in excess of inflation over a period of time make it harder for new buyers to get into the market.


Average Price 1984

Price Today If Homes Had Risen by the Inflation Rate Since 1984

Actual Average Price Today

























Source: Canadian Real Estate Association, Bank of Canada inflation calculator

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