Illustration of young Canadians in employment office line

Forty-seven thousand net jobs have been created for youth since 2009, compared to 1.9 million for everyone else. (Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

A lost decade

The real problem with youth employment is quality, not quantity

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A decade after the financial crisis, the general wisdom seems to be that Canada has fully bounced back. When it comes to young workers, though, it’s not that simple. 

Youth unemployment was a matter of huge concern both during and after the crisis. Despite representing just 16 per cent of the labour force in 2008, young Canadians aged 15 to 24 accounted for 45 per cent of the jobs lost, driving the unemployment rate for that age cohort up by 5.5 percentage points to 16.4 per cent, nearly double the national average. In the succeeding years, job growth has been almost non-existent. Since employment for the group hit bottom in the summer of 2009, only 47,000 net jobs have been created as of this past May—a pittance compared to the 1.9 million net jobs created in total over that period. 

At the time, not everyone agreed this was an issue that Canadians ought to be worried about, mainly because nothing about these statistics was new, per se. Many pointed out that the same thing had happened during the recession of the early 1990s, and what was termed its “jobless” recovery. Besides, the youth unemployment rate wasn’t any further from its long-term average than the total unemployment rate was from its historical norm. And the evidence shows that labour market outcomes improve significantly beyond the age of 25. Those younger than 25 should be in school or in training in any case, so what’s to worry about anyway? 

Yet, despite all of this, the issue resonated with Canadians. Even now, nearly a decade later, and with the youth unemployment rate having largely returned to its previous low, it still resonates. 

Why is that? 

Perhaps it’s because the youth unemployment issue was never about the quantity of employment. Perhaps these statistics reflected something people were feeling on the ground that had more to do with the quality of employment. Perhaps the real anxiety is that new technology and automation have turned our fundamental notion of jobs and careers into something much less stable, and that young Canadians have been in the vanguard of the resulting movement away from full-year, full-time work toward task-oriented, short-term arrangements. This manifests not just in the gig economy that we so often hear about, but also in the growth of part-time and temporary arrangements, such as contract and term employment.

Indeed, the growth in these types of “non-standard” work relationships has mostly been concentrated among Canada’s youth. For example, the share of total employment accounted for by part-time jobs has been unchanged at around 19 per cent since the early 1990s. Yet broken down by age cohort, the picture changes dramatically. The proportion of women over the age of 30 working part-time has fallen by roughly three percentage points since 1993. Meanwhile, for women between the ages of 20 and 24, that share has risen by 10 percentage points. For men, the share has risen across all age groups, but mostly for young men between the ages of 20 and 24. Interestingly, among those younger Canadians, the largest increases in part-time work are happening among those with either high school degrees or with post-secondary educations other than a university degree, such as college degrees, CEGEP or apprenticeships.

A similar story plays out for temporary employment. As a whole, temp work has only grown by about 2.5 percentage points as a share of total employment since the late 1990s. Yet, among young men and women, that share has grown by six and eight percentage points, respectively. In other words, the headline statistics belie the fact that a growing number of new graduates find that their first job coming out of school is perhaps far less stable than they would like, or than they were led to believe.

Though not a perfect predictor, non-standard work also tends to lend itself to more precarious working conditions, such as higher levels of income volatility or less job security. The Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research project has tracked the social and health impacts of those facing these work outcomes and found that precarious workers tend to report higher levels of anxiety and more difficulty making ends meet. 

So there are two ways we can look at the youth unemployment issue. We can ask that young Canadians grit their teeth and bear through it, because the statistics do support that things will get better over time: part-time and temporary work are indeed no more prevalent among older age cohorts now than they’ve been historically. But, we can also acknowledge that maybe there is something different about what youth face today: a rapidly changing labour market with fewer full-time entry-level jobs and, in turn, a potentially more precarious start to their careers. Let’s not even mention the cost of housing. 

So yes, they’ll probably be fine, and come through it just as previous generations dealt with their economic demons. But when young Canadians talk about their unique challenges, even naively, maybe we could spend a bit of time understanding the uncertainty they live with. And maybe we should cut them a little slack.