Who’s Driving? A Response to 4Front Atlantic’s GPS for Atlantic Canada

29 May

Co-authored with Brian Foster


What we are all looking for…is the readymade, competent man [sic]; the man whom some one else has trained. It is only when we fully realize that our duty, as well as our opportunity, lies in systematically cooperating to train and to make this competent man, instead of in hunting for a man whom some one else has trained, that we shall be on the road to national efficiency.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

 Once again, the topic of Nova Scotia’s economic future is front-and-centre in the provincial discourse [‘An Economic GPS for Atlantic Canada,’ Opinions, May 25th, 2013]. From the Ivany Commission to the 4Front Atlantic conference, to the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index, representatives of business, government and higher education have put their heads together to come up with solutions to our long-lived economic challenges: an ageing population, high youth outmigration (and now unemployment), and slow economic growth compared to the booming economies in some other provinces. They have assumed a common set of goals: we need to attract and retain young workers, especially “recent graduates”; we have to figure out ways to see older people as valuable resources, not liabilities; we have to be “competitive”, “innovative” and “more productive”.

They have arrived, separately, at some common proposals: we need a “friendlier” business environment and streamlining in government processes; we need to figure out ways to get people to start businesses, root them here, and hire Nova Scotians; we need a skilled and willing workforce.

But there’s one thing they’re a little reluctant to say, despite the mounting evidence that it must be said because it is key to our present economic problem: employers here, as elsewhere, either are not willing to invest in worker training to the extent that it is needed, or do not see workplace training as a priority.

And so, among the 4Front conference’s key recommendations is “an educational environment where universities and colleges play a lead role in developing the talent…Canada needs.” In other words, they are doing what businesses have been doing since F.W. Taylor’s time: looking for the “ready-made” worker, trained in a university or college or, better yet, someone else’s business, rather than committing to hire smart, promising young talent and cough up the funds to mold them into the employees they need. As a recent article in MacLean’s [March 15th, 2013] put it, employers, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, are “outsourcing their workplace training to colleges.”

F.W. Taylor cartoon

F.W. Taylor cartoon

The data we have on this matter is, unfortunately, quite sparse. We do know that Canadian businesses, overall, invest just 1.5% of their payroll in education and training – 50% less than what firms in the US spend. But the latest available provincial data from Statistics Canada is pre-recession. As the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index also reports, at that time, 40% of Nova Scotian workers aged 25-64 participated in some form of employer-supported work-related training (Access and Support to Education and Training Survey (ASETS)), which was  above the Canadian average of 36%. But looking deeper, Nova Scotia workers spent less time in such training – just 36 hours per year, compared to the still-low Canadian average of 49.

Beyond this, we know little about what has changed since the recession, who is getting trained – e.g., younger workers vs. older workers – and for what. Some insight can be gained from the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index, released last week. The Index revealed that while the employment rate rose in Halifax in 2012, the vast majority of the job gains went to people aged 45 and older, and the employment rate among 15-24-year-olds actually fell. Qualitative evidence from Nova Scotia and other Canadian provinces, moreover, consistently shows that employers are especially risk-averse about training new (usually young) workers; businesses fear that they will train an employee only to have them leave or be “poached” by another company. Perhaps not coincidentally, much of the training offered by Canadian employers relates to things like workplace safety rather than basic job skills that could substantively increase productivity, spur innovation and build the skilled workforce our businesses say they need.

It’s time for Nova Scotia businesses to do more than simply push our education system to create the workers they so desperately want. They must commit, somewhere in their policy recommendations and economic plans, to make a serious investment in the province’s “human capital.” If they truly value training, and need it to fill the “skills gaps” we hear so much about, it’s time for them to do what they supposedly do best and put some skin in the game.


One benefit of getting older…

12 May

…is that you age your way out of the generational gaze. You know the one. The one that fixes on everything younger than 30 or 40, and can’t see anything but narcissism, entitlement, deviance and degrading values.

I wrote this blog many months back, and a much shorter and slightly different version of it was published over on the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Centre’s blog. What didn’t make it into that version was a lengthy critique of some of the empirical evidence that today’s young people are more narcissistic / less community-minded than previous so-called generations of young people. I’ve been spurred to publish the longer blog by a recent flurry of articles (are we seriously doing this again?beginning with Joel Stein’s TIME magazine piece, ‘The Me Me Me Generation’.

Many others have already taken on Stein’s argument – my favourite is entitled ‘Every Every Every Generation has been the Me Me Me Generation’ by Elspeth Reeve – but I figure this is a pretty good opportunity to dust off a draft and save it from the trash folder. I confess I haven’t even read Stein’s piece. It’s behind a paywall so that only rich old Boomers can access it. I’ll read it next time I go to an airport and pretend I’m really going to by a magazine at the newsstand.

*If you want more of this, I have a whole book for you! Check out Generation, Discourse and Social Change (2013). Hit me up for a free copy, or check it out of a university library if you just can’t wait for the paperback version.

Le Blog:

“They want more. They always want more… they just expect more… they’re gratitude-less. They’re not grateful… you can never satisfy [them]. You offer something up and it becomes an expectation. There’s a real sense of—well, an entitlement.”

That was 50-something Penny, speaking to me in a research interview two years ago, about “the younger generation”. She had some first-hand experience with them, working at a software company where there had recently been a bit of an influx of twenty-something hires. I had asked her if she noticed any age-related differences among the people she worked with. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.

A quick survey of recent media opinion pieces, and especially the comments section of online newspapers, suggests that Penny’s take on Generation Y is the hegemonic view of today’s twenty- and early thirty-somethings.

When it comes to work, this view generally paints Generation Y as lazy and non-committal, yet with an overblown sense of “entitlement” about salary, time off, and career progression.

As recent graduates, they’re said to bring a sense of “credential arrogance” to the workforce, as one of my interviewees put it, believing that their post-secondary degrees, and not their performance, will confer seniority on them.

This same sense of entitlement is said to rear its ugly head in school, first, as exemplified by the student who claims to “deserve” a certain mark, regardless of effort.

In politics, too, Generation Y appears to be going about things all wrong. Low youth voter turnout numbers have led many pundits and ordinary people to declare this generation “apathetic” or “politically disengaged.”

These characterizations go hand-in-hand with the argument that previous generations had it worse. It usually goes something like this, mined from the actual comments section of a Huffington Post article:

“It was much harder in my day. We had to deal with things your lazy generation can’t imagine. We had the Cold War going on and were worried about nuclear weapons exploding any day. You read about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Well I lived through it and you have no idea how it feels to have a bunch of nuclear weapons aimed at you. You have to go to University to get a job big deal. You didn’t have World War 2 going on like my father. He was dodging bullets and mortars in Europe while you worry about Black Friday or what the latest gizmo is. I lived through 18% mortgage rates. People declaring bankruptcy by the thousands. Families leaving the keys in the house because of banks foreclosing. Every generation has its own unique set of circumstances. Quit complaining and grow up.”

“Who had it tougher? Those who fought and died to give you the rights you take for granted, and worked to create an economy you feel a false entitlement to enter from the top.”

“The Boomers, of which I am one, worked for things and over the years upgraded to get where they wanted to be. What I see now are Gen Xs wanting/having everything right from the get-go. They want BIG houses, brand new cars (and 2 or 3 of them), big boats, designer clothes, etc. My parents didn’t buy anything they couldn’t pay cash for, my generation were willing to go in the hole; however, not to the depths that you see now. Quite frankly, I couldn’t sleep at night with that kind of debt load. These days you don’t see a high-schooler driving ‘a beater’ like we did.”

It doesn’t take much to recognize these rants for what they are: the old “uphill, barefoot, both ways to school” adage, just in a different form.

Yet, they continue to crop up everywhere, their authors apparently unaware of their unoriginality.

When Generation Y speaks back to these rants, as they often do, they point to stagnating wages, the expansion of non-permanent employment, abominable student debt, soaring house prices, the difficulties of making a dual-earner relationship work, post-secondary institutions that are bursting at the seams, the inflation of post-secondary degrees, and the overall uncertainty of our economies and labour markets, even in once-reliable sectors.

They are compelled to justify their expenses – ‘you need a smart phone in this day and age’; ‘I hardly spend anything at all on clothes and entertainment’ – and tally up their commitments, working hours, sacrifices and delayed gratification.

They explain the reality of temp work and unpaid internships, and the worry that these stations are not passing-points on the way to good careers, but whirlpools on a vast sea of crap jobs and unpredictable markets.

Even when they protest in the streets, as hundreds of thousands of young people did last year in Quebec’s “Maple Spring”, they’re told they should wait for an election, go to the polls, and change the world through democratic suffrage. When they say the choices on the ballot don’t reflect their values, they’re told to “start their own political party.” When they don’t, the prophecy is fulfilled: Millennials are apathetic and lazy.

The saddest part of these conversations, over and above the question of who’s right or wrong, is that they always descend into petty fights over who had it worse, and who is more virtuous for having survived and possibly thrived in their particular historical moment.

Also sad, for a sociologist who studies generations carefully and critically, is how the concept of generation becomes a tool for individualistic division and competition instead of an indicator of the importance of social, political economic, and historical context. Generation becomes a catch-all for every apparent (and usually anecdotal) schism, a way of setting “people your age” apart from “people my age”, without much attention at all to the contexts that make generation more than just age.

The “Science” of Generations?

Of course, not every apparently “generational” difference is purely anecdotal. Some of them are backed up by the scientific authority that comes along with “factor analysis” and “p values” and “regression models”.

Yet there’s a problem with the scientific “evidence” of generational difference: it’s wildly divergent. Over the last two decades, numerous quantitative studies have attempted to measure and compare the attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviours and personality traits of different generations. Some have found that the younger generation – X or Y, depending on the study date – is more environmentally and socially conscious, less materialistic, more community-minded and less cynical than the Boomers, while others have found the opposite.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has tried to settle the dispute once and for all, drawing on annual surveys of high school students and university entrants from the 1960s to the present.[1] Looking specifically at the surveys’ sections on “life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation”, Twenge and her colleagues attempted to compare levels of “community feeling”, “narcissism”, “empathy” and “civic engagement”, as well as the presence of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic life goals” across three generations: The Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.

Their study concludes that today’s generation of young people is more “narcissistic” and less “empathetic” than previous generations, as evidenced in “lower levels of community feeling,”  “less intrinsic and more extrinsic life goals, less concern for others, and lower civic engagement.”[2]

Twenge has trumpeted these findings loudly and confidently in popular media. She has even produced a whole book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. On its cover, a bare, tattooed midriff sits atop low-slung jeans, the physical manifestation of entitled narcissism, every parent’s – and a whole culture’s – worst fear.

But peppered throughout her otherwise authoritative writings are quiet warnings about the validity of her research findings. She admits, for example, that they must be “interpreted with caution” because many of them refer only to young people who enroll in a 4-year college degree. Moreover, the study design cannot differentiate between time period effects and generational effects – in other words, there is no way to tell whether the young Boomers surveyed in the 1960s actually held on to the same values as they aged. When one considers the dismantling of the welfare state in the US, Canada and the UK over the lifetimes of most so-called Boomers – the individualistic legacies of the popular Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher governments – one might doubt the staying power of their communitarian, youthful values.

Another limitation is that the survey questions on which Twenge’s study is based were designed in, and mostly unchanged since, the 1960s. The meanings of many of the central concepts in those surveys – concepts like community, environment, society, and politics – are by no means static. They are historically contingent, shifting with our knowledge of the world around us, our reference points, and our ways of knowing, all of which have been transformed through processes of globalization, de-industrialization, and technological developments. The idea that we can measure “levels” of things like “community feeling” is questionable, especially when the very concept of community itself is socially constructed, or as Benedict Anderson put it, “imagined,” and imagined differently in different times and places.

But there is an additional problem. Twenge’s study does what nearly every other quantitative study (and many qualitative studies) of generation does: it begins from the unproven – and perhaps unprovable – assumption that generations are discrete, definitive categories of people, whose boundaries can be determined in advance based on birthdate alone.

It thus commits what we might call an a priori fallacy: it starts with an answer, not a question. It starts, confidently and un-reflexively, with the boxes – Boomers in Box Number 1, Generation X in Box 2, Generation Y in Box 3, and then sets out to organize data into these pre-fabricated containers.

The thing is, the meaning of generation can’t be taken for granted. As I explored in my own research, its meaning has stumped philosophers, theologians, psychologists, sociologists and historians for centuries. Its general definition is an unanswered philosophical question; the boundary of each individual generation is an under-studied empirical question.

Too often, studies of generational differences simply adopt the categorizations of previous studies, or they draw arbitrary boundaries around nice, round numbers and evenly spaced categories. One has to wonder what would happen if the boundaries were bumped five or six years in either direction. Would the generational differences be the muted, amplified, or the same?

This is all the more problematic because when generation is based on arbitrary ranges of birthdates alone, it is reduced to just age. The idea that political economic and historical context matters is there, to some extent – and in some cases more than others[3] – but it is generally pushed to the background.

Generational differences are rendered instead as psychological, individualistic differences, as though they develop spontaneously and instantaneously, at the level of the individual. It’s as if a switch is flipped every fifteen years: this year it’s the narcissism switch; fifteen years ago it was the slacker switch. The opportunity for cultural critique – and a sociological imagination – is wasted too often. Instead, the research simply feeds the hungry fires of intergenerational conflict.

This, apparently, is the state of the “science” of generations: divergent, deductive, and built on questionable foundations. If we take seriously the criticisms and contributions of the reflexive turn – the emphasis on examining and assessing our ontological and epistemological assumptions rather than leaving them unquestioned, calling into question the “objectivity” and “neutrality” of science – we might argue that it is hardly science at all.[4]

At the very least, we must question how social scientific research on generations shapes social life, informs people’s understandings of the world around them, and rationalizes the judgments we cast upon one another. Is it possible that in reifying the boundaries between this and that generation, social scientists have helped cultivate feelings of enmity between older and younger people?

In any case, the more we iterate generation as an axis along which people should align, the more we legitimate it and rationalize it as a category and an order. We might be okay with that, but we cannot be oblivious to it.

In my qualitative research on generations and work, I drew on interviews with 52 Canadians of various ages to argue that attempts to define or characterize different generations – whether as part of a scientific project or a conversation around the water cooler – constitute a politics of representation.[5]

The basic premise of the politics of representation is that by representing things with language, we imbue those things with meaning. Because language is always ongoing in various forms of discourse, and because it never comes from a single source or develops in isolation in a single context, the meanings of words (like the things they represent) are never “fixed” and rarely “unitary.”

Therefore, there is always the possibility that meanings will be contested, and that certain interests will be served more by some meanings than by others. Hugh Mehan summarizes the implications of this possibility as follows, pointing out the political dimension of contestation and alerting us to the fact that language and meaning are objects and tools of power:

Language has power. The language we use in public political discourse and the way we talk about events and people in everyday life makes a difference in the way we think and the way we act about them. This sentiment is captured by Tom Stoppard in his play, The Reality: ‘If you can get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little’  [ . . . ] Words have constitutive power: they make meaning of things. And when we make meaning, the world is changed as a consequence.[6]

In my research, I found that the battle to make meaning of generation was waged on all sides. The key battleground I explored was work, and it was there that I found the language of social science unleashed in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Generation Y’s orientation toward the task of making a living – whether they eschewed comfortable jobs for creative ones they found fulfilling, or found themselves unwittingly hopping between short-term contracts – was framed as “entitlement”, the connections between their working lives and the major political economic shifts of the last forty years downplayed. The Boomers’ commitment to work, meanwhile, was framed as a function of “materialism” and “workaholism” rather than a legacy of Protestantism or a sense of loyalty to The Company.

The sense-making strategies of ordinary people and the “science” of generations seem to feed back on each other, offering both sources the authority they need to continue doing what they do. It is in the wake of this feedback loop that the management science of generations – the “generations management” literature and consulting boom – continues to flourish, supplying coworkers, managers, recruiters and analysts with the easy conceptual categories they can use to get a handle on diverse workplaces without having to deal with the idiosyncracies and contingencies – the mess – of real life.

Moreover, the uneven scrutiny hefted on Generation Y begs us to ask about whose interests are at stake in defining them as petulant, selfish brats who don’t know how the real world works.

Indeed, the more interesting social scientific questions, to my mind, revolve not around the qualities of different generations, but rather around the construction of generation as a category, and the related attempts to criticize or reform the generational subjectivities we find unpalatable – the narcissism, the individualism, the apathy. In looking at who is trying to describe a generation and how, we can learn a lot about power, and this, as Bent Flyvbjerg puts it, is how social science can truly matter.[7]

[1] Twenge, J., Campbell, K. and Freeman, E. (2012). ‘Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966 –2009’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(5): 1045–1062.

[2] Twenge, ‘Generational Differences’, p. 1060.

[3] James Cote’s work, for example, pays a little more attention to political economic context, although it still makes sweeping generalizations about “young people.”

[4] See, for example, Bourdieu, P. (2004) The Science of Science and Reflexivity. London, UK: Polity Press.

[5] My book (Generation, Discourse and Social Change) is forthcoming with Routledge in early 2013.

[6] Mehan, H. (1997) “The discourse of the illegal immigration debate: a case study in the politics of representation.” Discourse & Society 8(2):249–270.

[7] Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

How to Critique Wealth Inequality without Caring about Poor People

5 Mar

This video on wealth inequality in the United States is currently making the rounds on social media – in my universe anyway – and it got me thinking.


It has clearly stirred some people who, in all likelihood, are already stirred about inequality. It probably resonated with people who already believe that the US (and Canada, and the UK) could do a better job ensuring that wealth is divided fairly, if not evenly. It would definitely move you if you cared about what happens to people in the lowest-paid jobs, people who lost their jobs, or people who can’t work for whatever reason. It would compel you if you already believed that no one should slip below a basic, minimum standard of living, no matter what.

But I couldn’t stop thinking of the people who couldn’t give a damn about other people’s well-being. What about people who think the current distribution of wealth – wherein the top 1% of the population takes home 40% (FORTY PERCENT!!!) of all the wealth in the country – is justified? Because there are people who think it’s justified. Or at least that it shouldn’t be messed with.

In the video, the narrator appeals to these folks by pre-empting one of their favoured arguments: that the CEO making 100 times as much as the low-wage worker deserves more because he’s (it’s a he, let’s be honest) working harder. Or he has more experience. Or bigger cojones. Or more “skin in the game.”

The narrator anticipates this retort and says, “sure. But is he really working 100 times harder?”

Even I know, as a young person who makes just enough to afford a house, a cell phone plan, and the occasional dinner out, that this kind of money doesn’t come easy. I’ll spare the details, but it involves both of us working nights and weekends and taking on short-term contracts on top of our full-time jobs, not because we’ll go broke if we don’t, but because we just don’t know what happens next year, or the year after, or when we want to send a kid to community college or retire. Because our jobs come with no guarantees of continuity. Because if we don’t take every opportunity that comes our way, someone will blame us and tell us we didn’t try hard enough when we don’t get permanent jobs in our field. Because the path to success as a young person in academia today is: work yourself to the bone. That’s what everyone else is doing.

But I digress.

As I was watching the video, I thought: how hard the CEO is working is not really the point, for some people. There’s another compelling argument to be made, something that could get the fires of dissent burning in unlikely places. And it revolves around the notion of productivity and economic growth.

When we think about productivity, we often think first of how hard people are working – how much effort they’re exerting, how quickly they’re producing whatever it is they produce, how many breaks they take, and so on. What we don’t always think about is the other key factor in the productivity of a firm, industry, region or country: capital.

In order for a business or a whole bunch of businesses to produce more at a more efficient rate, we need steady and proportionate investment. Wherever money is made, it has to get put back into the economy in order for the economy to keep growing. If the economy stops growing, especially if people keep producing stuff more efficiently by working harder and spreading themselves thinner, we’re going to end up with more people out of work and nowhere new to employ them. And if that happens, the whole capitalist American dream falls apart. The self-made man can’t make himself unless money is flowing freely. 

This has been Canada’s “productivity problem” since the first half of the 20th century. It has never been about ordinary Canadians not working hard enough. The problem has always and everywhere been that the richest people make their money and then they just sit on it. 

To me, this is seems like the most promising, compelling problem for people who don’t give a shit if the people slaving away in the lowest income bracket are eating cat food for dinner. They won’t be stirred by human suffering and indignity, but they might be incensed by the idea of some CEO — the solitary rich guy at the end of the video — not playing his part in a capitalist economy.  

The capitalist’s dream, after all, hinges on economic growth. And capitalists know that economic growth depends on the fluidity of capital. Money needs to flow! In their dreams, it’s always moving. It flows across borders and it never gets taxed. It doesn’t just sit there. But in reality — the reality Americans and Canadians just can’t come to grips with — capital does just sit there. It sits there as what my colleague Larry Haiven calls “lazy capital.”

The lack of investment in new businesses and improvements to existing ones puts lie to the idea that the high-flying CEO has more “skin in the game.” He doesn’t. His skin is safely tucked away in a bank account somewhere.

So I think it’s time we add another slogan to our protest regimen: if you want to be a capitalist, then act like one. 

‘Hipster’ is not a real job. Neither is not having a job.

12 Oct

Last week, the CCPA released a report (authored by yours truly) about youth un- and underemployment in Canada. It showed that, while youth unemployment in Canada is not insubstantial – 14.1% in 2011, up from 12.9% in 2006 – it’s still “low” compared to other OECD countries. In Greece, for example, the rate was 44.4% in 2011, and has been pinned more recently at 55%.  In Spain, it’s 54%; in Italy, 35%.

There’s no doubt that 1 in 7 young people unemployed is better than 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.

But it’s not great. As I argued in the paper, and as Carol Goar underscores in the Toronto Star today, the rates of tenuous employment (i.e., part-time, temporary) are on the rise among young people in Canada, and at a faster pace than among older workers.

The full paper is available here, but in brief, it shows that the rate of temporary, contract and term employment among workers under 30 has nearly doubled, from 6.9% in 1997 to 11.6% in 2011. For workers aged 30 and over, the rise has been less dramatic – from 4.0% to 5.7%.

When you break these figures down further, you see that education level plays a role. While young workers without a PSE degree were more likely to be unemployed or not in the labour force (likely because they’re still in school), those who do have a post-secondary degree are more likely to in short-term employment: 1 in 5 were working non-permanent jobs in 2011 – and half of them were part-timers.

This matters because non-permanent and part-time jobs tend to be lower paid (by virtue of working fewer hours and because the pay scales are usually different than full-time, permanent ones) and they usually lack access to employer-provided benefits. Moreover, spells in nonstandard work or unemployment have been shown to have long-lasting effects. (See chapter 7 in this book; or check out this article – sorry about the paywall.)

It also matters on a macro-economic scale, above and beyond the immediate earnings and well-being of individuals, because people who don’t make much money don’t spend much money, and then we’re all screwed.

Yet, as Carol Goar notes, there has yet to be any action on youth unemployment. I even got an email from a policy researcher with one of the federal political parties saying he was glad to see my report and distressed by the lack of action on the problem. Save for a few snarky and ill-advised ads by the BC government – which, as Andrew Langille over at Youth and Work notes, cost them over $600,000 – everyone thinks youth unemployment is a problem, but no one’s moving on it.

Zi-Ann Lum/The Huffington Post B.C.

Like Goar, I’m wondering why.

I have some theories. First, we think of youth itself as temporary. Even when it’s expanding or contracting or taking too long or going away too quickly, it’s still a phase of life we all grow out of.

Authorities of all stripes use this ‘fact’ when it’s convenient – like when they assure us young workers will ‘recover’ because they’re ‘resilient’, or when they simply wait out popular movements in the hopes that they’ll die when their instigators grow up – and ignore it just as often, when it’s time for a moral panic about whatever young people are wearing, watching, listening to or engaging in.

In the case of youth unemployment, we’re seeing a paradoxical (but quite logical, from a governmentality perspective) mix of abject terror over the threat of idle youth in Europe on the one hand, and the patronizing downplaying of rising youth unemployment here at home.  Those competing mentalities might have something to do with the all-out paralysis when it comes to policy development and action.

The federal government – aside from the NDP, whose benches are lined with twenty-somethings, and few of them ‘legacy’ politicians – are also just plain out of touch with young peoples’ lives, issues, potentials, concerns, challenges and desires. In their world, Justin Trudeau is the touchstone for youth (at forty!!!), and “youth” is synonymous with “student.”

The latter point might be another reason why nobody’s doing anything about youth unemployment: the base youth unemployment rate doesn’t distinguish between high school students, college and university students, graduate students and non-students – so we don’t know how worried we should be. Are these young workers looking for employment? Are they actually available to work? Are they still living with their parents? Do they have families to support? The easy way out of all of these hard questions is to assume that the vast majority are students whose primary interest isn’t paid employment anyway.

More generally, the political economic climate of our time doesn’t allow for government-driven solutions. We’re tinkering with tiny taxation issues and putting up stimulus spending billboards waiting for the invisible hand to swoop down and… I don’t know… tickle Canadian businesses until they give in and invest more of their lazy money in our economy?

Yet the answer might not be to copy the solutions of the past. Reviving the Keynesian welfare state is nearly as ghoulish as channeling Reagan and Thatcher. The Keynesian model of yesterday was good for yesterday’s worker: a white man, supporting a family. It depended on a supply of low-wage labour from the Global South. In short, it worked for a world that was wildly out of balance, but it needed that imbalance to work.

That’s not to say there’s no room for Keynesian ideas in the days ahead, but that nostalgia for the exclusionary welfare state of days gone by is a form of economic hipsterism worth of a few ill-advised ads of its own.

We are one of the most highly educated countries in the world, and our economy isn’t totally in the shitter yet. Why can’t we figure out ways to put young people to work in decent, well-paid, productive jobs? If the problem of the next decade is skilled labour shortages – although this is debatable – why aren’t we attracting young people to the right programs, with free tuition or generous bursaries, to fill them? Why aren’t we investing in apprenticeship programs to employ young workers while training them in the skills the economy needs, like the OECD recommends? Why aren’t we killing two birds with one stone by putting young people to work on pressing public issues – why, for example, can’t we employ young workers on projects that address the need for better public transit in many major urban centres, cleaning lakes and rivers under threat of destruction, re-settling rural communities that are now in decline, or developing and implementing a national childcare strategy?

The circumstances were different in Greece, Spain and Italy before half of their young workers became unemployed. But they didn’t get there overnight. If Canada waits too long, its young people aren’t just going to grow up. They’re going to grow angry.

The Pot and the Kettle

27 Sep

In several previous posts, I’ve made passing reference to the idea that every generation doubts or outright disparages the “work ethic” of the one following it into the workforce. Conducting some preliminary research for my next project on the concept of “productivity”, I came across some hard evidence for my claim. It’s not earth shattering, but I’m smugly satisfied about finding it.

Behold, the following quotation from 1979 (when my “boomer” parents were my “millennial” age):

‘it is demonstrably evident that young workers, brought up to believe that the good life is theirs by right rather than something to be earned, do not share the same workethic as their elders’

The quote is from a “pro-business” syndicated columnist named Smith Hempstone, and I found it here in the article by Goldman and Van Houten.

Let’s not get carried away with Helicopter Parents

5 Sep

University and college classes start today for one of the most cash-strapped, debt-burdened, under-employed cohorts of post-secondary students this country has ever seen.[1] But that’s not the story.

Instead, on the radio, in the newspaper, online and among many university instructors, the focus is on “entitled” students, “coddled” first-years, and “helicopter parents.”

I’m especially ashamed that these discussions are happening in the halls of academe because they rest on stereotypes, and as academics, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, our job is to look deeper. We are trained to challenge stereotypes, to critically reflect on the taken-for-granted bits of cultural discourses, and to ‘make the familiar strange’ by destabilizing the seemingly unassailable categories and characters that populate our worldviews.

We’re supposed to recognize that how we see and interpret the world depends on how we’re embedded in it – where we fall in the complex web of intersecting identities, class positions, racialization, power and gender relations, historico-political and economic conditions – we know this.

And yet we accept on faith the notion that students today are entitled – more entitled than we ever were – about their education. We claim, based on our experiences with one or two students out of hundreds, that they generally think they should get an A for just showing up, or not showing up, for writing ten pages of nonsense, or for writing no pages at all.

We roll our eyes and jab at the meddling parents who call their children’s professors when things go awry, who move in to residence to help their offspring settle in during the first week, and who talk to their sons and daughters every night on the phone before bed. Although we’ve only dealt with one or two personally, we spread the word that these helicopter parents are everywhere: coddling their baby grown-ups, hovering just overhead, and swooping in to fend off bad marks, rejected applications and punishment for bad decisions. Everyone has a story about these parents and ‘kids.’

I mean a story – it seems that one single encounter (one’s own or someone else’s) with an overbearing parent is enough to conclude that helicopter parents and entitled students are the defining features of our contemporary post-secondary landscape.

We should know better.

If we’re good old-fashioned empiricist ‘numbers people’, we should be asking how many parents have actually called a son’s or daughter’s professor. It just so happens such research already exists, and it suggests that the helicopter parents phenomenon is both overstated and misunderstood. We should be doing more research and collecting data on how students really view their post-secondary education. Do they think they’re ‘entitled’ to good marks or a certain level of ‘service’ from their professors? How are such expectations formed? Do they evolve over the course of a four-year degree? And how much have students’ expectations really changed, holding everything else constant, over the last few decades? After all, there’s research from 1986 complaining about student entitlement (among med students, no less). How different is today’s ‘entitlement’ from the ‘narcissism’ we worried about in the 1970s?

Even if there have been changes, we need to ask why, and we need to widen our focus to include changes at the level of society, politics, the economy and culture. (We find it easy to point to technological changes and their impact on behaviour – the Internet, for example, is often blamed for a perceived cultural shift toward instant gratification – it’s shouldn’t be that much of a stretch to imagine the impacts of changing employment relations, stagnating wages, increased university enrolment and changing family forms.)

For example, in a short radio segment about helicopter parents this morning, CBC reported that parents today are likely to be involved in filling out university applications and choosing a post-secondary school for their children. Universities are even holding orientation sessions for parents. The undertone of this report was that parents are getting nosier and kids are increasingly unable to make decisions without mommy and daddy. The assumption is that high school graduates in the 1960s and 70s were more adept at navigating the maze of post-secondary enrolment. But we ought to consider what the maze looked like back then. Maybe it was a little less complex. Maybe you were more likely to just go to the institution your Dad went to, or the one in your hometown, or the only one that offered the program you wanted to enroll in. Maybe you made the decisions alone because they were easier, and because we hadn’t yet entered our present age of uncertainty, individual responsibility and risk — where neoliberal policies download the costs of education and other public goods to increasingly smaller communities and individuals, where statistics show that the standard employment relationship is slowly ceding way to short-term employment with less job security, where ‘risk‘ is a pervasive discourse used for understanding everything from diseases to crime to drug use to insurance, investments, business and economic development.

All of this is to say that we should see the anecdotal evidence we have as a reason to ask more questions, not an answer. At most, we can take it as evidence of powerful discourses and ideas, and this is interesting on its own. It tells us that we’re hungry for stereotypes, especially when it comes to ‘generational’ differences. It suggests we want an easy lens through which to view social and cultural change – all the better if it pushes politics and economics to the background. Even better, moreover, if it makes us (the older, less entitled ‘generation’) look stronger, more sensible and more virtuous in the process.

[1] Across Canada, according to the latest numbers available from Statistics Canada CANSIM tables, student unemployment sat at 14% in 2011. (Note that the ‘unemployed’ include only those who are looking for work – many more are counted as ‘not in the labour force.’) The average cost for an undergraduate degree for students who leave the parental home is $80,000, and being unemployed means more of that is debt. In fact, the average student graduates with upwards of $27,000 of debt, and all that debt takes, on average, 14 years to pay off. See here and here for more.

“Gotta Spend Money to Make Money”… or is it “Make Money to Save Money?”

2 Aug

 “Young people want to retire early and spend, too”.

That’s the main finding of a survey commissioned by the Bank of Montreal, released today in newspapers across the country.

The coverage of the survey report is problematic on its own. For instance, although 1000 Canadians aged 18 and over were surveyed, the focus in media reports has been on the 40% of the youngest respondents, who said they intend to retire by age 60. Moreover, although 73% of those young people said they’ve “tucked some money away” for retirement, the headlines point to the 27% who haven’t.

But let’s ignore, like everyone else has, the relative weight of those numbers. Let’s shove aside the majority who are planning financially for retirement and the 60% who think they’ll retire after age 60, and let’s focus on why young people are irresponsible with their money, naïve, materialistic and lazy, shall we?

Let’s ask why there is this apparent delusion on the part of SO MANY young people who, at the beginning of their working lives, are already dreaming of Freedom 59. I propose we seriously consider the findings of another survey, released last month by the Pew Centre.

That study found that in most countries, a minority or only slight majority of people believe that “hard work leads to material success.” Those who do have faith in the rewards of work effort are more likely to support capitalism, while those whose faith is wavering are more likely to believe that people would be better off under some alternative form of political economic organization. Subsequent commenters have interpreted these findings as signs of “declining” faith, despite having no historical or longitudinal data to back up that claim, and in the spirit of totally ignoring data in order to proceed with argument, I’m going to accept the “decline” narrative and add it to the “irresponsible youth” narrative.

But I also want to add one more study, which does seem to have a bit more reverence for its empirical findings. Specifically, NPR released data on “how America spends its money,” and it showed how people in the bottom, middle and upper income brackets divide their money to cover standard expenses. Perhaps surprisingly to people who want to think that poor people are idiots with no self-control, the figures show that compared to wealthier folks, people in the lowest income brackets spend a greater proportion of their income on housing, food (at home, not at restaurants – not even the fast food restaurants you might assume all poor people go to; don’t get your Stephen Harper Brand knickers in a knot), transportation, health care and utilities. They spend virtually nothing on education, and very little on retirement. In fact, among the poorest families, only 2.6% of income gets put toward retirement savings. Among the richest, it’s 15.9%.

Taking all of these surveys together, I want to make two more tenuous arguments.

First, if young people aren’t saving money, maybe it’s because they don’t have it. If our data look anything like the US data in the NPR report, young people’s money is going toward housing, transportation (and to tuition, which is rising yearly in most provinces) and ramen noodles for home consumption.

I can support this argument with an anecdote for now. Last year, as a highly educated 28-year-old research fellow in Toronto, I spent 45% of my income on rent. I spent another 12% on food at home, and 8% on tuition. I spent about 10% on flights to and from Nova Scotia to visit family. I spent 3% on a monthly cell phone bill and about 1.5% on internet. I spent about 3% on clothing and shoes, and about 8% on medical and dental, because I had no coverage. I blew the rest on moving everything we owned to Nova Scotia to start a new job.

I spent virtually nothing on daily transportation because I couldn’t. I didn’t put away anything for retirement because there was nothing left. And I don’t even have any debt – so I can only imagine what it’s like for the many people who paid for their education on credit, on the hope that it would pay off in the end.

Second, if young people want to retire early, it’s because the rewards of hard work are increasingly difficult to see. We’re told we’re not owed a pension, benefits, bonuses, vacation, or even raises at the level of inflation. When we ask why, when we cry foul, we’re called entitled, spoiled, or just idealistic.

But we’ve seen what the protestant work ethic – the belief in hard work as a reward in itself – does to the body, the mind, families and communities. At least, we’ve seen what it does in an economic system where most people are required to sell their labour for pay, and relinquish any of the profits or surplus value their work makes possible. I’ve seen pelvises crushed by coal cars in the mines of Spring Hill, heard of fathers and grandfathers swept from their fishing boats and washed away in the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve witnessed ageing workers, with 20 years at a company, watch their yearly raises shrink to below inflation in the name of ‘tough economic times,’ while their employers continue to increase their share of company revenues. Why on earth would I have any sense of obligation to a system like that? Why would anyone?

The real shame of the retirement savings data is that it’s pitched as a warning to young people to be more sensible, to come to terms with the realities of the day, to look out for themselves because no one else will. What we should be doing is getting angry, coming together, and fighting for a social, economic and political system that helps (nay, forces) us to take care of one another.

%d bloggers like this: