Generation why me?
They grew up being told if they studied diligently and worked hard, they could have it all: a good job, a comfortable home, a family.
Avijoy Elahi, 24
Grew up in Toronto and graduated from York University in 2008 with a degree in administrative studies. Currently, he’s selling insurance.
It was extremely hard to get into something that was within my own field of study. …
Even though (my current job is) a sales position and it is commission based, I took the job because I needed the experience.
I’ve been trying to look for another job, but because of the economy … it’s very difficult to get my foot in the door.”
Gord Harris, 25
Graduated from high school and is on a five-year electrician apprenticeship through the Joint Apprenticeship Council.
“I would be miles in debt right now if I had decided to go to university for something I wasn’t really sure of. So I’m glad I got into the trades and started making money instead of spending it. I’m looking at a lot of my friends now, walking out of university with a four-year program under their belts… and they can’t find work.
Divesh Gupta, 24
Grew up in India, where he studied at the University of Mumbai before moving to Toronto to do a post-graduate diploma in strategic relationship marketing at George Brown College. He is still in Toronto, handing out 25-30 resumés a week and living hand to mouth.
“I’ve heard many call centres are hiring, but I’m not going there because I think I never came to Canada for a call centre position.”
Dylan White, 22
Just finished his undergraduate degree in ecology from the University of Guelph.
“I’m hoping to get a job as a junior consultant for an ecology firm. But I may also just take next year to play music while I’m living with my parents, and take the slacker lifestyle to the extreme while I have the chance.
In retrospect, their life seemed almost quaint. Lucasz and Angelika Witkowski met in high school, fell in love, got married, bought a house in Orangeville and got a dog they named Nala.
Angelika, 26, was full time on the door line at Chrysler, where her parents still work. Lucasz, 27, made moulds as a machine operator, a skill he learned from his father, who still works in the trade.
They were planning to have children. Then, in March 2008, Angelika was laid off. Lucasz lost his job a month later. That set off a chain of events that still has not ended.
“We were ready to start (a family). Fate said `nope,’” Angelika said. “We were doing everything we were supposed to and it just kind of crashed down.”
It crashed down for Huda Assaqqaf, 24, too.
Assaqqaf believed university would bring a stable career. Armed with a food and nutrition degree from Ryerson, she embarked on a job search in 2007 that has yielded nothing but frustration and contract jobs, none of them in her field.
She now works part-time for Access Apartments, co-ordinating personal support workers for people with physical disabilities. “For an office job, it’s not very bad.”
“It’s just that I’m not using my education or my core skills.”
This is not what was promised.
Generation Y grew up being told that if they were willing to work and study hard they could have it all: well-paying, fulfilling jobs that provided all the comforts.
But as they reached adulthood, secure jobs began vanishing, replaced by part-time, non-union work with little security, no benefits and odd hours. Then the financial crisis hit. Now, young adults are being forced to radically remake their life plans. They are staying in school longer to keep up with an “educational arms race” and accepting that life will be contract-to-contract, perhaps in different cities, and almost assuredly without benefits.
They are living in a purgatory of arrested adolescence, of delayed adulthood. They are unable to do what twenty-somethings have done for generations: settle into careers and start families.
“We’re calling it a crisis now in youth unemployment,” says Nancy Schaefer, president of YES Youth Employment Services.
People aged 15 to 24 had an unemployment rate of 14.8 per cent in March, the highest in 11 years and roughly double the rate of older workers.
“People have bought the message: get a degree, do everything right and you’ll be able to get a good job,” says Schaefer. “Then, through no fault of their own … the jobs aren’t there.”
Rosemary Romeo, 26, walked into YES with a master’s degree in social work and a resumé that included working with the homeless and people living with HIV, disabilities and addictions.
She sends out 10 applications a week, all with customized cover letters.
“A lot of the time it’s six-month contracts, eight-month contracts; I never get anything full-time permanent,” Romeo says.
She has only had three interviews since graduating with her master’s a year ago – one was for a six-week contract teaching English to Aboriginal students in a college carpentry program.
Romeo still lives with her parents.
So does Assaqqaf, a thin, cheerful girl in a grey blazer.
With her $16-an-hour job, she helps pay rent for the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother, whose English is poor and who cannot work, her father, who is on disability, and her two younger brothers, one of whom is autistic. She also buys groceries.
Assaqqaf’s mother does not understand why her bright, articulate daughter does not have a better job.
Three months into her job search, Assaqqaf says, “My mom especially, she started getting very frustrated, very agitated. `Why am I staying at home?’ `Why am I not getting the job that she always dreamt I would be getting?’
“In her mind she thinks that people who graduate and have a degree will work automatically and they’ll have a 9-to-5 job and a stable salary and everything. … She was really getting frustrated. `Where’s the $40,000 a year you told me you’ll be earning after you graduate?’”
“`Well, Ma, there’s not enough jobs out there,’ Assaqqaf recalls saying. “`And, you know, I am frustrated more than you are, but I’m not showing it.’”
Assaqqaf applied to a master’s program at Ryerson University. When the rejection letter came, her feelings were mixed: she was already $14,000 in debt and did not want that to grow.
David Livingstone, head of the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Education and Work, questions the instinct to return to school when job prospects are bleak, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction.”
“Invest more in education and you’ll get more reward. That’s been the mantra for the last couple generations since the Second World War.”
But people are increasingly overqualified and underemployed. Moreover, the gap between the educated and the less-educated is growing. “What we have created is an educational arms race,” he says.
Increasingly, diplomas and degrees are used simply to screen the choices in a flooded labour pool. And as young people climb up the ivory tower, the pile of indebtedness at the bottom grows. The average debt for a Canadian undergraduate is between $25,000 and $28,000.
Katherine Giroux-Bougard, the Canadian Federation of Students’ national chairperson, says that even before the recession, graduates crippled by debt were putting off buying houses and starting families.
Ito Peng, a University of Toronto sociology professor, calls it “delayed adulthood.”
“It means people are not as willing or able to actually think about making long-term commitments.”
Lucasz has been living in his cousin-in-law’s home office in Sarnia and babysits the couple’s 2-year-old to offset rent he cannot afford. He has enrolled in a construction carpentry program at Lambton College. If gas prices aren’t too high, he will drive to see his wife in Orangeville.
Angelika has also gone back to school, to Humber College, for tourism and hospitality administration. After a full-time, $70,000-a-year union job, she is now an unpaid intern at a conference centre, helping out with events such as the “All About Pets” conference, which featured pet psychiatrists and animal massage therapists. Their modest, $279,000 house is up for sale.
“I don’t believe in guarantees anymore,” says Angelika.
“It’s definitely a different era of how people are employed,” Lucasz adds. “In our generation, it’s more likely that you’ll have three, four, or five jobs in your career. They may not be totally different trades, but working for different companies – as opposed to our parents, who to this day are still in the same place.”
Recessions, of course, buffeted the Witkowskis’ parents as well. But this one is different.
Laurel MacDowell, a historian at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, says the recessions of the early 1980s and ’90s helped create globalization – and the current woes. “This has been a 30-year process.”
Lucasz’s employer in Orangeville made moulds for a company almost next door. “We could literally take it across the street,” he said. Shortly before he was laid off, the other company found it cheaper to import moulds from Taiwan.
In the 1980s, most people who lost their jobs got them back, MacDowell says. But the recession of the ’90s was the first where workers’ jobs disappeared for good, outsourced overseas.
“We are still in the process of shakeup,” says Peng. “We are not so clear exactly on what specific skills we should be looking for and what we should be prepared for. And I’m not sure industry knows, either.”
Peng is no stranger to lost generations. She finished her PhD in 1995 and taught in Japan, arriving in the middle of Japan’s “lost decade,” when a generation who had seen their fathers badly hurt by that country’s bubble collapse began to leave school.
“Young people came out into the world just at the wrong moment, more than disappointed, disoriented by this uncertainty.”
The social and economic consequences here may not be as extreme, but will be substantial: a declining birth rate, disengaged young adults, declining voter turnout and bright kids heading overseas. Anxiety, cynicism and frustration.
“The promise has been: if you get a good education, you’re going to be okay,” says Livingstone. “You’re going to get all the good things in terms of a house, a car and a family, and that you can be reasonably confident that you will lead a secure life. And all of those things are at risk now, in some ways similar to the ways that they were at risk in the Great Depression.”
As bleak as the horizon seems, previous generations adapted and this one will, too. They will move further afield. They will start work early and finish late and then, perhaps, move on. They will have several jobs and fewer children.
Braek Urquhart, 24, grew up in Cobourg and graduated from Trent University in 2007 with a liberal arts degree and $13,000 in debt. After seven jobs in four provinces and a stint couch surfing in Toronto, he joined thousands of other young Canadians who decided to teach English in South Korea.
“You can’t get sh– with an undergrad,” he said by phone from Incheon. “In Canada, it’s impossible to save money. It’s impossible to pay off your debt quickly. It’s impossible to have a steady job. … This seems like a very effective way of paying off debt while getting work experience.”
Urquhart has adapted. He puts $1,000 a month toward his debt, which he figures he can pay off in a year, and is considering law school. His girlfriend will join him soon.
“I have only been here for a month, but I see myself being here maybe a second year, to bank some more cash before I go on to what’s next.”
The newly married Witkowskis had banked on living a life like their parents. The plan now is to sell the house and move to Sarnia. They will be renting: an eighth-floor apartment in a building of seniors.
“I don’t want to buy a house again,” Angelika says. “I have been so traumatized by this whole ordeal that I’m happy renting until I actually have a family and need to settle somewhere for a while. Renting gives you more flexibility if you need to leave.”