Blogs & Comment

Millennials’ job plight is more complex than simple unemployment

Even young people with jobs still grapple with low wage growth, job insecurity, high debt loads and more

Job seekers in a lineup at a job fair in 2013

Applicants line up at a 2013 job fair in Miami, Fla. Young workers are struggling with much more than just unemployment. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Peter Shawn Taylor’s recent article, “The youth unemployment myth,” presents a distorted picture of the youth labour market and the realities that young Canadians face in the post-financial crisis economy. I’d like to counter some of the myths his analysis perpetuates in turn.

Let’s start with the big picture. Wages are falling in Ontario and British Columbia. Job growth remains tepid and uneven. The Conference Board of Canada recently reported that the income gap between younger and older generations is expanding. With the collapse of manufacturing many unemployed young workers migrated to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland for resource-extraction jobs, but employment growth in that sector has now largely evaporated with the falling price of oil.

The ascendency of precarious work emerged over the last three decades as Canada’s labour market was re-regulated to ensure the primacy of flexibility, commodification and individualism. For young workers, precarious work means problems linked to job quality, economic vulnerability, insufficient wages, and a profound power imbalance in the workplace. Insecurity and anxiety reign as young workers cycle through temporary contracts, part-time jobs, or freelance gigs.

Consider employer demands for two-tiered wages for new hires, a stubbornly high youth unemployment rate, soaring personal debt, the ubiquity of unpaid internships, chronic underemployment of post-secondary graduates, or the growing incidence of youth mental illness. Very real challenges exist when it comes to the school-to-labour market transition and the generation of workers entering the labour market are being irreversibly scarred by poor economic conditions. The possibility of intergenerational fracturing and social discord are real threats; just consider the rise of the Quebec student protests or Occupy.

Young people also can no longer rely on the luxury of a social safety net—so it’s no wonder they stay unemployed for shorter amounts of time or stay in their jobs for longer periods. The high-number of qualifying hours needed makes Employment Insurance difficult to access, so most young people don’t view this as an option if they lose their job. Welfare is a similar proposition, with a deep stigma and unenviable hoops to jump through just to receive a sub-meagre monthly cheque. Finally, the Canada Pension Plan offers insufficient retirement security and hasn’t been reformed to meet the challenges of a period where most young workers can’t enrol in pension plans.

There are worrying social impacts downstream as a result of these factors: a lowered marriage rate, more adult children cohabiting with their parents, a reduction in the birthrate, and young people holding off on major life events such as starting relationships or home ownership. All of these trends, which relate to delayed adulthood, have the capacity to damage the economy and slow economic growth.

Canada’s public policy and laws haven’t kept up with the vast changes that Canada’s economy has experienced over the past 30 years. Young workers in their 20s and 30s face the prospect of an uncertain economy increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks. Many young people are wondering why the social contract doesn’t support their goals, hopes and ambitions, or acknowledge their lived reality.

Going forward we need to implement public policy that eases the burdens young workers now face. From affordable childcare to reforming workplace law to funding paid internships, Canada desperately needs policies that reflect the realities of the 21st century, rather than the 20th. Without embedding intergenerational equity into Canada’s labour market policy we will be headed for long-period of reduced economic growth, stagnation, or even decline. The time has come to invest in young Canadians and adopt smart policies so that our future economic stability can remain secure.

Andrew Langille is a Toronto-based labour lawyer and founder of Youth and Work. Follow him @youthandwork