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Miles Corak is a professor of economics with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and a visiting professor of economics at Harvard University.


Canadians should be thumping their chests, given that so many others are patting us on the back. When it comes to social mobility, we are among the world leaders. Even U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that a poor child is more likely to move up in life in Canada than in the United States.

This kind of mobility – the capacity for children to become all that they can be without regard to their starting point in life – is the bedrock of fairness.

This accomplishment of making the American Dream more of a reality north of the border was never without its imperfections, ringing rather hollow for many native communities, some immigrant groups, and certain visible minorities.

But just as importantly, winning the social mobility sweepstakes is something for the record books, not a guarantee for the future. The foundations of fairness are shifting; luck will matter more, meritocracy will be perverted by growing inequality, and our public policies need to adapt to the new reality that is already pressing on young people.

Even the weakest test of social mobility is now clearly under threat because economic growth has stalled not just in the short term, but also for what some economists believe looks increasingly like the long term. Young adults are not likely to be better off than their parents.

Slow growth naturally focuses our attention on how the pie is shared, and creates demands to start slicing it differently. But Canadians should also be rethinking the winning recipe for success in much more fundamental ways.

Good, solid health care and high-quality education were the ingredients used in the past, and definitely shouldn't become lower public-policy priorities. But these kinds of social investments are only the first gateway to higher incomes.

Increasingly, luck will matter a lot more, no matter how much education kids get. The winners and losers in today's economic sweepstakes will look a lot more alike: bright, well-educated, sincere. But the rewards and the losses are now more fickle, and meritocracy will ring hollow for those who did get an education but not quite in the right field, or from the right university, or who happen to live in the wrong place, or did not have the contacts from parents and friends to land that crucial first job. All that tuition paid, and for what? Another coffee-shop job?

There are both big opportunities and big risks in the job market facing millennials. Canadians need to build a "second-chance" society so that the consequences of bad luck or bad choices don't matter as much.

We don't just need unemployment insurance, as much as we need "wage" insurance that will top up the earnings of someone with a long work history who is laid off and forced to take a lower-paying job.

We don't just need top-quality education, but also full tuition relief through income-contingent loans that tailor repayments and debt forgiveness to a graduate's income. Rather than strapping them to low-paying jobs to pay their debts, graduates need to be given the room to drop back into school to earn a different diploma or degree.

We don't need infrastructure just as make-work projects or to maintain our bridges, roads and sewers, but also as social infrastructure to enhance all of our lives, regardless of our incomes: transportation networks that work, neighbourhoods and parks that buck the market tendency to segregate and separate.

But the final ingredient of Canada's success needs to be nurtured no less than the twins of social investment and social insurance. That, of course, is a sense of identity that values and fosters diversity, where newcomers not only "integrate" but the mainstream also bends, adapts, and redefines itself. A broad sense of citizenship, and a culture of community and sharing, are all the more important now in an era of inequality.

Ultimately, the most corrosive dimension of inequality is that it feeds a sense of entitlement among the lucky, and a sense of shame among the unlucky, and this perverts our long-run capacity to collectively invest, support, and care for ourselves and our children. This is the deepest foundation of social mobility in Canada. It is something we should continue to celebrate and value, but also something that we need to continue to nurture.

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