To what, exactly, are we entitled?

8 Nov

As a sociologist researching generations and work, I read and hear one word with alarming regularity. That word is entitlement. In the context of intergenerational workplaces, this word is most frequently lobbed at the youngest people in the workforce. Its enduring message is that the post-secondary educated twenty-somethings on the labour market today think that, just by virtue of having a degree, they should be able to get and keep whatever job they want, receive an outlandish salary and benefits, avoid overtime, afford a home and a car and an iPhone and a range of other consumer goods, and be in touch with their friends and families all day long.

The people who level this critique against Generation Y – a term I use reluctantly, and only for ease of communication – claim that today’s young workers “don’t get it” – “it” being the historical fact that the only way to a comfortable lifestyle is through hard work.

Today, as a researcher and a member of Generation Y, I want to set the record straight.

When the critique outlined above comes from Baby Boomers – those who came of age around the 1970s and are now creeping toward (semi-) retirement – it is simply unfounded in anything other than conjecture. Moreover, the struggles particular to Generation Y are traceable, via a fairly straight line, to the beliefs, values and priorities of the generation pointing the finger at their entitlement.

Let’s compare the worlds of learning, working and earning in which each generation came of age. If you were born in 1950, you may have walked to school uphill in your bare feet, but you went to university (if you went at all) for free or a nominal fee. If you were born in 1980, your tuition rates were approaching $5,000 a year by the time you were old enough to enroll.[1]

The average young person’s ability to afford a $5,000-a-year education, on the other hand, has not increased in-step. In fact, the average income of a young person has actually dropped between 1980 and the present. A 20-year-old could expect to earn around $22,700 in 1981 (2004 dollars), whereas a 20-year-old in 2004 could only count on $15,200 a year. The average earnings of 30-year-olds dropped from $34,600 to $33,200 over the same period. Meanwhile, the average earnings of Canadians aged 45-54 have increased, from $40,200 to $44,600 between 1981 and 2004, even controlling for inflation.[2]

The kinds of jobs available to us have also gotten progressively crappier. Many of the people I talked to about younger generations and work pointed to examples like Google – companies that provide employees with strange perks such as foosball tables and beer fridges. They said their younger co-workers “expected” free coffee, insisted on being connected to their iPods at work, and vanished as soon as the clock struck five.

I can understand why that might be frustrating, but it detracts from the really important changes going on at work.

For one, when my parents were in their twenties, temporary jobs were mostly confined to certain sectors – domestic help, for example – but temp work is diffused throughout the job market I encounter today. It has also increased: temporary employment accounted for 10% of all jobs in 1973, and by 2006 this proportion had risen to 18%.[3] More to the point, the percentage of new hires who are employed in temporary contracts has doubled since 1981 (11%-21%).[4] Part-time work is also more ubiquitous, accounting for less than 5% of all jobs in 1989 and 12.5% today.[5]

These statistics are reflected back at me when I look at my friends. They are highly educated engineers, teachers, scientists and administrators, people with PhDs and MAs and BScs, but most of them are working contract jobs because they cannot find permanent work in their field. They are doing the exact same work that used to come with a permanent, stable and full-time contract, but they have no benefits and no guarantee of employment beyond a few months, or a year if they’re lucky. Many of them are also working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, and to increase the chances that they’ll land more or less on their feet if one of their jobs falls through.

Say what you will about unions, it is no coincidence that the changes above have taken place as trade unionism has declined.

The labour movement – which brought us the weekend, the 8-hour workday, child labour laws, maternity benefits, and many other ‘perks’ to which we do not question our collective entitlement – has come increasingly under attack in recent years. Even worse, its significance has been questioned or altogether shrugged off.

I hear so many young people – including one who sat behind me at a recent conference on multigenerational workplaces – say that unions are anachronistic, out-of-date and no longer necessary. The conservative government (which my age demographic did not elect) depicts unions as greedy, bloated bureaucracies that ask for too much and only succeed in creating inconvenience for the public. And people, my generation included, eat that message up.

Union coverage has, accordingly, declined between the 1970s and the present; where it has not altogether disappeared, its efficacy is being challenged with back-to-work legislation.[6] This is the beginning of the sort of slippery slope we will look back on in ten, twenty, or thirty years and wonder why we allowed it to happen.

Turning from the money we earn to the money we spend, even assuming a 20-something today has made it through university with no debt, their prospects for owning a home are pretty bleak compared to the 20-somethings of the 1970s. The average price of a home today is $339,045. Adjusting for inflation, the average price of a home in the 1970s was $192,390. (Many of my friends’ parents bought their homes with cash. With cash!)

Compared against average incomes of 25-34-year-olds, the average home represented just under 3 years of income in 1976. In 2006, the average home represented nearly 5 years of income.

More importantly, nearly a quarter of Canadian households today spend over 30% of their annual income on shelter – 30% being the tipping point between comfort and risk of poverty. For the record, as a renter, I spend half of my income on rent, and I’m lucky to have found a place in Toronto for so cheap.

But I’m lucky in other ways too.

I made it through my undergraduate degree with no debt. My Dad paid for every single class I went to. I was given an old car to get me to and from school and work (which I took on for gas and spending money), so I could continue to live with my parents, in their home, 20 minutes outside the city.

I did a Master’s degree on full scholarship, followed by a PhD, also fully-funded by a combination of government and university scholarships. I am so grateful to my parents for supporting me, in so many ways, through the first four years of university.

So I don’t blame them for my problems (which are minimal compared to other people my age). I don’t think they wanted me to worry about how I will manage to support myself in a climate of precarious work, sky-high housing prices, rising costs of living and stagnating wages. No, I don’t blame them… not entirely.

I know the Baby Boomers sincerely wanted their children to grow up and prosper, get educated and see the world. As a demographic, they accumulated a great deal of wealth and, individually, many passed it on to their children in the form of material things, brand-name clothes, expensive schools, used cars, tuition, family vacations, and the like.

But the Boomers as a generation did all of this as individuals while collectively scorching the earth behind them.

The scorched earth I’m referring to is the privatization of education and other once-publicly-funded services, the political prioritization of tax cuts or freezes, the shifting of public resources toward military expenditures (much of them unneeded – standing armies, technologies we do not or cannot use, the global arms race), and the withering of union support.

The Boomers were on the vanguard of all of these things, and I believe that they thought they were doing the right thing: that we, like them, would flourish under conditions that forced each individual to be responsible for his or her welfare.

But the reality is that, as these changes were taking place (and not coincidentally), wealth was concentrating in the hands of a small segment of the Canadian population. Multinational corporations were pulling up stakes in Canada and moving jobs to places where people would work for next to nothing.

Companies were finding ways to get their work done with fewer people, working fewer hours for less money and benefits.

And every time someone stood up to say “wait a minute,” they were told that if they didn’t like their job, they should get another one. Every time a union went toe-to-toe with an employer, people on the sidelines called them greedy, told them someone else would gladly do their job for less money, and cheered when back-to-work legislation forced an end – but not a resolution – to the conflict. Every time a political party proposed raising taxes to lower tuition fees, the political discourse of individualism responded with a request for lower taxes, and the result was stagnation and no new money for education.

The people who dominated the world over the last thirty years, in number and in political power, dismissed any semblance of society, collectivism and communalism in the name of individual flourishing and self-determination. The unintended and unfortunate consequence is that their children will not reach the level of comfort and prosperity they had, no matter how hard they work.

More importantly, there is the fact that Occupy will not let us ignore: the worst-off among us are drifting further and further from the wealthiest.

Generation Y is not entitled to big screen TVs and tropical vacations, glass condos and games rooms, but we are entitled – obligated, even – to protest and plead for the collectivism, compassion, redistribution and economic justice we have been denied.

*full references available upon request

[2] 2004 dollars; Statistics Canada data, tabulated in Côté, J., & Bynner, J. M. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), p. 259.

[3] 1973-2006; OECD Data from Leah Vosko’s Managing the Margins (2010)

[4] 1981-2004; Statistics Canada and Morissette and Johnson, 2005

[5] 1989-2006; 2010 OECD Data from Vosko, 2010; HRSDC data

[6] See Andrew Jackson’s (2008) Work and Labour in Canada, published by Canadian Scholars Inc. Press.


4 Responses to “To what, exactly, are we entitled?”

  1. Bernie Gauthier November 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Terrific post. The scorched earth menu you provided didn’t even get into environmental degradation and massive amounts of debt that younger generations will have to somehow pay down. It’s a wonder more young people aren’t writing these kinds of posts and voting for change.

    • elementalpresent November 15, 2011 at 10:46 am #

      Thanks for the comment. You’re so right – the “menu” was short a few items.

      I will say, regarding the point about more young people not writing these sorts of things, is that I’ve been trying to write pieces for newspapers and online news sites, and I can’t get a foot in the door. My husband and I also wrote a 200-page manifesto for “our generation” and it was summarily dismissed by the publishers we approached. It seems like a combination of gate-keeping and an editorial inability to see things in a new light – we’ve mainly confronted a crippling emphasis on identity politics (race/class/gender), and that seems to get in the way of any grand, unifying statement of just what our generation is up against.

  2. Bryan Clifford Batty December 17, 2011 at 1:33 am #

    Amazing posts!

    Nailed it right on the head. I’d love to see this manifesto!

  3. Tony Ezzy Gets a Blorg June 8, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Hey, can you post the sources for your stats on the cost of housing, changes in income etc? Would like to use those!

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