New data reveals Canadian millennials are bad at math

Canada falling among OECD nations

New data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is shining a light on some sore spots in Canada’s economy, particularly when it comes to the preparation of Canadian youth for the workforce.

In the recently published Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey, Canada was on par with other surveyed industrial nations in its literacy rate, but below average with its numeracy score. More troubling was the finding (demonstrated in the chart produced by TD Economics below) that one of Canada’s youngest generations—those between the ages of 16 and 24—underperformed more than any other age demographic in relation to other surveyed nations.


In a report responding to the OECD’s findings, TD’s economics branch has declared that Canada has an “essential skills problem,” noting that another survey (the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA) measuring the math performance of 15-year-olds worldwide also found a decline in Canadian teenagers’ numeracy skills.

While some age groups performed better or on par with other industrial nations in literacy and numeracy, on the whole 49% of Canadians are still below what the OECD would characterize as “desired” literacy levels, and 55% are below the desired level of numeracy. In addition, Canada’s literacy and numeracy scores have declined in the 10 years since the OECD last conducted this survey.

In an interview, TD chief economist Craig Alexander said he was shocked by the numbers.

“We have well-developed primary and secondary school systems. We’re a modern, knowledge-based economy—so how could we possibly have a problem?” he said.

The data presents a major challenge for the Canadian economy, Alexander notes, as there’s an obvious positive correlation between literacy and employment. As expected, stronger literacy skills lead to post-secondary education and higher wages, but they also lead to a more easily trained and committed work force, as well as fewer workplace accidents. Canadians are currently hitting the OECD average, but TD has argued that this isn’t good enough in a competitive global market, especially since Canada already faces a productivity challenge, and literacy and numeracy rates are on the decline among younger Canadians.

“If we think about the labour market, the economy is becoming more sophisticated, we’re moving into more high-skilled activities, and mathematical skills become much more important,” says Alexander. “So when I looked at the data, I found that the latest survey results on literacy and numeracy were depressing.”

The OECD survey also pointed out a number of other Canadian essential skills statistics that could use some improvement. For example, while male and female literacy skills are on par, the OECD found that on average Canadian women are trailing behind their male counterparts in numeracy skills. According to the TD report, recent research indicates that boys demonstrate more confidence in math and more voluntary participation in high school and university math classes, implying that more effective methods of “developing numeracy skills and confidence” in young girls are needed.


Also of note was the regional disparity in Canadian literacy and numeracy levels. On a provincial basis, Alberta and P.E.I. led the pack in provinces who demonstrated above-average literacy and numeracy levels amongst both OECD nations and Canada as a whole. Four provinces, meanwhile, scored below the OECD and Canadian average, with Newfoundland and Labrador placing at the bottom (no score was provided for the territories or Nunavut).