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A new study found millennials fear their working lives will be governed by precarious, short-term arrangements and that the gulf between rich and poor will grow.Christopher Futcher/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The perception of a growing generational divide seems to be taking hold among millennials and their baby boomer parents, as both groups now tend to believe that the economic future looks bleak for the younger generation, a new survey shows.

The survey, which was commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, found that millennials fear their working lives will be governed by precarious, short-term arrangements and that the gulf between rich and poor will grow. Their parents, meanwhile, worry that the younger generation will not produce enough income to support the social programs they're counting on in old age.

"Parents across this country are fretting about the economic prospects of their kids. They're worried their kids aren't going to have the same economic opportunities as they did," said Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, a left-wing think tank. "What really leaps out at me here is there's a very high degree of angst."

A feeling of anxiety about the economic prospects of a younger generation is not uncommon historically. What's not clear is whether today's fears are justified. Youth unemployment is at 13.6 per cent, unchanged over the last year and down from the peak of a recession that continues to send ripples through the global economy. This is also a period of significant technological change and it's unclear what impact that will have over the long term. What's clear is that a sense of pessimism, justified or not, is gaining momentum.

Baby boomers are more likely to say that their children face worse economic times than they did as young people. Just less than 50 per cent of the boomers surveyed said their children's economic opportunities are worse than their own at that age, compared with 40 per cent that said they were better and 12 per cent that said they were the same, according to the online survey by Abacus. More than 55 per cent of boomers said they worried the younger generation won't support social programs through taxes.

Millennials are expecting a different kind of working world from the one their parents entered. They expect to work a mixture of permanent and temporary jobs, compared with the more stable arrangements their parents had. They say lower rates of unionization will make good jobs harder to find and are more likely to say they don't know anyone with an employer-provided pension, the survey said. Sixty per cent say the gap between rich and poor will increase over their lifetime, and only 16 per cent believe it will shrink.

Frances Woolley, an economist at Carleton University, said there's no question today's labour market is more unequal. This is a "winner take all" society, as some call it, where the greatest income gains go to those at the top of the spectrum and some, particularly those without a university education, will face a difficult job market. But one thing to consider is that the baby boomers had the good fortune to be born at the right time, an era of peace and prosperity, Prof. Woolley said.

"The older generation has had such a blessed life," Prof. Woolley said. "Some generations are born in better times than others. That's just the way it is."

Matthew Cuthbert is a 27-year-old graduate of the University of Toronto. He has experienced the millennial's anxiety. He has nearly $50,000 in student and credit-card debt and works at a community centre in customer service, earning $31,000 a year. He and many of his friends are the precariat, he said, a new class of precarious worker. It's not what he was expecting, but after seven months unemployed, he's grateful for the work.

"It's frustrating to watch this break down. When I started school there was so much more optimism around the economy," he said. "It's far from the ideal situation that any of us anticipated."

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