Generation Y and the Precarious Work Force: How the Decks are Stacked
July 6, 2012 8:21 am
By Jodie Shupac
Generation Y, or Millennials—individuals born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s—are, apparently, the laziest group in memory to enter the work force. This, at least, is the opinion of numerous pundits, who have inundated the media with the argument that these twenty- and-thirty-somethings belong to a cohort too egotistical, frivolous, and starry-eyed to pursue a stable career or remain loyal to an employer for longer than five minutes.
In his 2008 book, The Trophy Kids Grow Up, former Wall Street Journal editor Ron Alsop propagates this myth by seeking to “prepare” companies for dealing with Millennials—or, as he describes them, “the most demanding and most coddled generation in history.”
Alsop writes, “Many Millennials feel an unusually strong sense of entitlement…‘They want to be CEO tomorrow,’ is a common refrain from frustrated corporate recruiters. Whatever happened to paying your dues? For the ‘We want it all’ generation…if they find work boring and unfulfilling, they’ll be out the door in a snap.”
Of course, this generation’s work ethic also gets examined in Canadian publications. In a Toronto Life article from 2009 called “How to Get Ahead in a Recession,” Katrina Onstad describes how the job market’s decline hasn’t fazed Millennials, who are too drunk on their “inherent specialness” to grasp that the new economy can’t promise them the nice lifestyle they grew up with. “If [members of Gen Y] have an inflated sense of entitlement, so do we all. But there’s a difference: Even chronically underemployed, barely meeting rent and shouldering debt, they have a wide-eyed faith in their special power to come out okay.”
And, just last month, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente wrote about the Quebec student protesters, chastising them for being too naïve to recognize that their job prospects are slim: “They’re the baristas of tomorrow and they don’t even know it, because the adults in their lives have sheltered them and encouraged their mass flight from reality.”
By suggesting that Gen Y-ers are too obtuse to comprehend that comfort and luxury stem from stable, long-term work, cultural observers ignore the reality that Millennials are dealing with a crummy job market, and not simply enslaved by the need for instant gratification. This notion that Millennials are choosing precarious employment—defined by labour analysts as insecure, often low-paying work that is temporary, part-time or contract-based—over full-time work is a myth, and an insidious one at that. So why does the media perpetuate it?
“There’s been a tendency to dumb down a lot of these issues,” says Andrew Langille, a Toronto employment lawyer, youth labour-market researcher, and author of the blog, “Youth and Work.” Today’s economy and labour market are incredibly complex infrastructures; most reporters fail to delve beneath the surface.
Provincial employment regulations (which Langille describes at outdated) have failed to adapt to what labour analysts call a soft, largely unstable job market. So, for young workers, receiving benefits, having the ability to contest exploitative working conditions, and the prospect of advancement are increasingly remote possibilities.
The Boomer Career Path vs. The Gen Y Career Path
Click here for a close-up view our comparison chart
Instead of dissecting these issues, the tendency in popular dialogue has, in general, been to gloss over them, shifting the blame onto young workers. Not finding stable work? Must be fickle. Not having kids until your mid-30s? Selfish. But as the spectre of precarious work sneaks past its traditional residence in the arts-related and service sectors (where it’s long been the plight of retail workers, artists, and nonprofit staff), and invades traditionally stable sectors like law and health, it’s crucial that these misconceptions about Millennials be put to rest.
In reality, transient and poorly compensated work has been thrust upon Generation Y by socio-economic developments over the past 30 years. Deindustrialization, globalization, and the rise of technology have rendered the single-employer-for-life model (granted, one that predominantly applied to the white, male breadwinner) a relic of the postwar era.
“In the wake of the 2008 recession, the already flimsy youth labour market in Ontario has been decimated and derided to the point where employers are now hesitant to even hire young people.” says Langille.
Unlike unemployment rates, it is difficult to find definitive numbers on precarious work in Ontario, and Toronto specifically. However, a Statistics Canada national labour-force survey from 2003 showed that two-thirds of workers aged 15 to 24 were engaged in part-time work, as were one-third of workers 30 to 34. Langille says those figures likely skew higher post-recession. More recently, Statistics Canada’s 2011 labour-force survey found that 10 per cent more Ontarians aged 25 to 44 held multiple jobs—indicating a lack of permanent work—than workers in the over-44 category. Naturally, there are consequences to this ongoing series of part-time gigs: Studies have linked precarious work to low wages and, due to the stress of uncertainty, a range of mental and physical health issues.
While being written off as lazy when you’re scrambling for a decent job is infuriating at best, some argue it’s no different from any other era, when cranky middle-aged folks eagerly knocked “the spoiled youth of today.”
“I have a feeling if we looked at hieroglyphs on the side of Egyptian pyramids, that’s what employers were saying about youth,” says Tom Zizys, a labour market analyst and a fellow at the Toronto-based Metcalf Foundation, which promotes social justice.
Still, in his 2011 report, “Working better: Creating a high-performing labour market in Ontario,” Zizys zoned in on a pronounced disconnect between the highly educated Millennials and their would-be Boomer employers, who believe the new crop of workers lack skills and especially experience. Zizys suggests there’s a grain of truth to the idea Millennials hold too-high job expectations—though perhaps not without good reason.
“[Millennials] have been told: Go to college or university and you’re going to get a good job,” he says. “That’s not the case, especially when they’re starting off. There’s a certain amount of resentment [from them] about that.”
That kind of bitterness was also prevalent during the heyday of the so-called Generation X/“McJobs” phenomenon 20 years ago. Gen Y is facing a similar conundrum. Their middle-aged employers typically pride themselves on having paid their dues and climbed the career ladder back in their day, when managers used to seek out inexperienced young workers and groom them for a lifetime of work. Needless to say, this option is essentially unavailable to Gen Y-ers today, having been made virtually obsolete by our ramshackle labour market.
The Catch-22 is, while older employers no longer have the resources or incentive to groom young workers, they seem to expect Gen Y employees to enter the workforce already primed—not just having a degree (or three), but arriving with the skill-set of someone much more experienced.
“When employers say, ‘We don’t have enough skilled workers,’ policymakers say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to get more graduates,’” explains Zizys. A vicious cycle sets in, with universities churning out graduates faster than the workforce can accommodate them. This is when we see the social worker moonlighting as a barista, or the new teacher reduced to part-time tutoring gigs.
One way to mend this, Zizys suggests, is having a discussion that puts managers, government, and post-secondary institutions on the same page, and seeks to benefit both employers and younger employees.
“Why don’t we treat employers as clients of a training program, college, or university?” he asks. “We have to understand what companies need, and make employment and training services nimble, so the services can adapt.”
Sure, they’re both guilty of mislabelling and misperception, but both Gen Y and Boomers would benefit from a conversation that bridges their experiences and expectations. While it’s perhaps inevitable, all this cross-generational sniping and stereotyping leads us nowhere. At the end of the day, people of any generation should be able to agree that, in order to build a life of middle-class proportions, one needs stability rather than precariousness—or, at the very least, some freedom to choose between the two.
Millennial Job Prospects
CASE STUDY A
Name: Tammy Uppenborn
Profession: Occupational therapist
In 2007, Uppenborn got her Master’s in occupational therapy. She assumed there would be no shortage of work in a field tied to healthcare and the rapidly aging population. But government cutbacks and a shift away from in-patient hospital care proved a game-changer for the profession—and for her.
She found work, just not the sort she had envisaged. For five years, Uppenborn has completed a series of short-term contracts at various Toronto healthcare and rehabilitation facilities, serving as a perpetual stand-in for employees on maternity leave or vacation.
Despite hoping each contract would lead to a permanent job, her longest stint at an agency fell just shy of a year.
Uppenborn has never received health benefits, nor had an employer contribute to her pension. Employers require that she pay into an Employment Insurance fund, but regulations around temporary work prevent her from accessing EI during the scary months between jobs. Having recently started an eight-month contract at a new agency in Guelph, she will again be left scrambling for a new position this winter.
“I’m always on the steep end of the learning curve, always putting in extra, unpaid time, because I want to look good if another position opens,” she says.
Contract work has caused her anxiety, and thrown off her plans to start a family: “I can’t go on maternity leave because I don’t have a permanent job. But I’m going to be 36 this month. Like, tick tock!”
CASE STUDY B
Name: Cameron Jones
Profession: Legal researcher
Like many who slog through law school, Jones (not his real name) recalls holding lofty expectations prior to his 2008 graduation: “I thought, My future’s made. I’ll finish law school, get an articling position, and move into a permanent job.”
Then, like many of his peers flung from the cozy academic bubble mid-recession, Jones faced a harsh reality. He spent five months looking for work, followed by six months doing piecemeal legal-writing gigs and short-term contracts. He remembers the irony of one company referring to him as an “independent contractor.”
“I was an employee,” he clarifies. “I came into the office every day, I perfected the work I was told to do. There just weren’t benefits.”
Eventually, Jones secured stable legal work, a feat that may become increasingly difficult to achieve for Ontario law graduates, in light of the province’s shortage of articling placements. This year, nearly 15 per cent of them couldn’t find articles—a prerequisite for becoming licensed.
CASE STUDY C
Name: Aafreen Malik
Malik (not her real name) has worked as an occasional teacher for six years, alternating between day-to-day supply work and, when she’s lucky, maternity contracts. She has vied for a permanent position with the Toronto District School Board, but to no avail—openings are usually snapped up by transferring teachers.
“You’re often not respected by colleagues and the administration as much as if you were a permanent teacher,” she says. “I’m not going to be there in a couple months, so it doesn’t really matter [to them] to keep me happy.”
Originally published as “Dude, Where’s my Pension Plan?” in The Grid; republished with permission from Jodie Shupac.
Image from here