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.
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.