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The Struggle is Real

By Kristine St-Laurent

“The struggle is real” is a popular expression used to emphasize the gravity of a frustrating circumstance or hardship. It is also a term recently used by a group of federal government advisors to describe the rapidly changing labour market and the challenges it poses for workers who need to keep pace.

The world of work is very different for people today than it was a few decades ago. As evidenced by new ways of working, the rise of the “gig economy”, and the wave of technological advances in recent years, the disruption to traditional pathways to well-paying, full-time jobs hits close to home for some Canadians – especially those under 30 years old.  

Although millennial[1] and post-millennial[2] Canadians are achieving higher levels of education than previous generations,[3] and also fare better at gaining employment compared to many of their Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers,[4] many are still struggling amid the shifting nature of work. Some troubling trends emerge when comparing economic opportunities for today’s youth with those of a generation ago.  Statistics Canada released a report in late May that tracked developments in income mobility and asked whether younger generations have more economic opportunities than their parents. Although the report finds that real wages have remained stable over time, it also finds that the debt-to-income ratio and the cost of living are rising for the under-30 cohort. This is particularly noticeable for those who live in major urban cities, where the majority of jobs are located.  StatsCan released another study a week later that tracked 70 years of youth employment.  The data show that younger people are increasingly likely to hold short-term contracts or part-time jobs versus full-time employment, and that real wages are decreasing for employees under 24  with full-time jobs.[5]

 

Chart 1: Median real hourly wages of men in full-time jobs, 1981 to 2014 (1981 = 100)

 

Source: Perspectives on the Youth Labour Market in Canada, 1976 to 2015. Updated from Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, 11F0019M, No. 347, March 2013; Census of Population, Labour Force Survey, 1981 Survey of Work History, 1984 Survey of Union Membership, Labour Market Activity Survey, 1986 to 1990.

 

Median real hourly wages of women in full-time jobs, 1981 to 2014 (1981 = 100)

 

Source: Perspectives on the Youth Labour Market in Canada, 1976 to 2015. Updated from Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, 11F0019M, No. 347, March 2013; Census of Population, Labour Force Survey, 1981 Survey of Work History, 1984 Survey of Union Membership, Labour Market Activity Survey, 1986 to 1990.

 

Aware of the mounting challenges facing the next generation, in October 2016 the federal government established the Expert Panel on Youth Employment. The panel was tasked with assessing the employment barriers faced by millennials and post-millennials, ages 15-29 years, in finding and keeping jobs.  It also examined innovative practices used by governments, nongovernmental organizations and employers to help young adults transition successfully into the labour market. The final report, 13 Ways to Modernize Youth Employment in Canada, was released last week.

The panel recommends a number of strategies to strengthen and expand employment opportunities for younger workers, including:

  • Investing in upskilling programs for the country’s most vulnerable, such as First Nations.
  • Convening a multi-sectoral Champions’ Table of employers to put a greater focus on hiring younger workers and speed the transition from school to work.
  • Encouraging mentorship and reverse mentorship via the proposed Champions’ Table, and creating more meaningful mentorship opportunities to a) build upon young workers’ experience and foster more exposure to senior leaders; and b) help employers manage the pace of change in the new world of work.
  • Using technology to engage young thinkers interested in better understanding and finding solutions to civic challenges through technology, design and public participation.

The panel’s report echoes many of the Business Council’s policy recommendations[6] and actions[7] for successfully engaging young workers in the new economy.

When changes in the nature of work are making it difficult for young people to gain a solid foothold in the labour market, the very foundation of our social and economic framework may be put at risk. Canada depends on young people to build and support the economy for the future.  If up-and-coming working-age cohorts are unable to obtain secure employment, how will they earn enough money to pay for housing, start a family, or build lifetime savings? Who will fund rising demand for health care for an aging population, or contribute tax revenue for infrastructure upgrades?

So yes, the struggle is real.  But the good news is that it in the best interest of everyone -- governments, businesses and academic institutions -- to see the next generation succeed in today’s complex and dynamic labour market.



[1] The cohort born approximately between 1981-1996.

[2] The cohort born after 1996.

[3] CANSIM Table 282-0004, Labour Force Survey by educational attainment, sex and age group.

[4] OECD Labour Statistics, Youth Unemployment (15-29 years)  http://www.oecd.org/youth.htm.

[5] Contrasted with more stable relative wages for workers aged 25-34 years.

[7] BCBC has partnered with industry members, post-secondary institutions and the BC Assembly of First Nations to provide post-secondary indigenous and non-indigenous students and recent graduates work-integrated learning experience and paid internships. BCBC also offers younger workers opportunities to make connections with senior leaders that can lead to mentorship/reverse mentorship opportunities through our NEXT Leaders Council.