“I don’t expect vacations, shopping or extravagance in my life,” said Angie Robbins, a 27-year-old who has a bachelor’s degree in nursing. “I want to work, [but] I seem to not be allowed to.”
The Canadian youth unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 has been rising steadily for a year, hitting 14.5 per cent in April. In May the number dipped to 13.6 per cent as the economy surprised analysts with 54,000 new jobs for young people, but the numbers for youth are still double the overall national jobless rate and the bulk of the May gains were in the general construction industry rather than high-skilled jobs.
Meanwhile, Manpower Canada's June employment outlook survey fell to its lowest level in three years, with only about a fifth of employers planning to increase their payrolls in the coming months.
For many Canadians under the age of 30 it's a struggle to find a job, but the even greater crisis is the struggle to find work and start building experience in the career they’ve trained for.
As a recent cover of Time magazine suggests, this has been interpreted by some as entitlement and laziness on the part of millennials who feel like they should be handed more than they’ve worked for.
Likewise, a request for personal anecdotes for this story was met with comments claiming, “the majority of [millennials] have their faces buried in their cellphones instead of doing their job” and that they are “useless mouth pieces whining about ‘poor me.’”
“Every generation thinks that about the one that came before — it’s not about the generation, it’s about the age,” said Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg.ca, a job and career resource website for students and recent graduates that also works closely with employers.
“It’s a little bit unreasonable and unproductive. A generation can’t be expected to know what being in the workforce is like when they’re new to it.”
- In their own words: Millennials describe job-market challenges
In fact, most “underemployment” these days isn't kids coming to terms with not being a rock star or professional hockey player and facing the reality of the working world. It’s young adults who had practical goals of being lawyers, teachers and medical care workers — and who went through extensive training and education to do so — having to settle into low-skilled jobs that can barely cover their bills and multiple-degrees-worth of student loan payments.
The average post-secondary graduate is now carrying $28,000 in student loan debt, but many millennials aren't able to find a way to start the careers they’ve invested so much to prepare themselves for. Based on data from Statistics Canada, one in four millennials with a university degree is employed full-time in a job that doesn't require that level of education.
That number climbs to one in three when looking only at those between 25 and 29. In contrast, it's about one in five when looking at the entire university-educated population of employable age.
Robbins is one of those graduates with lots of training but few job prospects where she can put it to use. “I have approximately $50,000 worth of education, an expected level in our society."
After graduating, Robbins worked as a registered nurse in Toronto. She moved to Calgary when the cost of living, coupled with repaying her student loans, became too much to keep her head above the water financially. When the contract on the only job she could find there expired, she moved back to her hometown of Chatham, Ont.
With no immediate job prospects, Robbins is now enrolled in an agriculture program at University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus.
“I hear they’re desperate for workers,” Robbins said. “Funny, I can’t find a summer job as of yet, and I’ve been applying since December.”
Mathew Dueck is 19 years old and working three part-time jobs in Selkirk, Man., to save money before heading to university to get into the medical field. He's going to school because it’s the only path to a job in the field he's interested in, but seeing the trials of his peers is giving him doubts.
“My worry is going to school and getting a degree and not being able to find work afterwards,” Dueck said. “I know so many people here that have went to university and have degrees. They are still looking for work.”
The value of an education
Part of the problem is sheer competition for skilled jobs.
In 1990, little more than half of the Canadian under-30 population had completed some form of post-secondary education. By 2011, that number had ballooned to 75.5 per cent.
Even though universities are more focused on education itself than ensuring people will have career opportunities — which are where apprenticeship and trade programs would be more applicable to young people — the notion that higher education is the way to a better career and a happier life is one that schools in Canada have fostered.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a university not being career focused, but those expectations have to be set properly,” said Friese.
She added that many universities advertise misleading statistics about the employability and salaries of their graduates, with some touting post-graduation employment rates of 90 per cent.
“Schools that are focused more on research, and the professors that are teaching there, don’t care about their students’ hireability,” Friese said
Another effect of the increase in the number of people with degrees is the watering down of an education’s value.
According to a survey by Career Builder North America, 36 per cent of employers are now hiring college and university graduates for jobs that used to require only a high school diploma. And 45 per cent of the employers who raised their hiring standards said they are looking for candidates with at least a four-year degree.
As a result, many graduates are settling for jobs that haven't traditionally required the level of training they've attained.
Nearly half of young people in Canada are now employed in retail, food service or clerical work, which doesn’t offer a lot of opportunity to save for retirement or put a down payment on a home after student loans.
Claire Ferris, a 24-year-old from Fergus, Ont., who now lives in Windsor, is a prime example. After graduating from the University of Windsor with a degree in drama and creative writing, and earning a post-graduate certificate from Humber College, Ferris took a job as an administrative assistant at a staffing agency in Windsor, even though she had been accepted to two more post-graduate programs.
“The job came up and I took that over trying to afford living in Toronto and building up more student loans,” she said.
Ferris, who has put her career goals of writing and teaching on the backburner, is now focused on sticking it out at her current job.
“I am a little bit resentful of my schooling,” Ferris said. “I feel like my program could have more co-op options, anything that offered a little more job market application.”
Sense of entitlement
Even so, Friese, who is a millennial herself, admits there is some truth to the idea of Generation Y having a sense of entitlement, and points out that it has been fostered and reinforced by society.
In September, Harvard Business Review published a story showing that the phrase “follow your passion” rarely appeared in any printed material before 1990, suggesting that millennials are the first generation to be raised with an attitude that doing anything less than your dream job is a failure.
“We’re a product of what we were taught,” Friese said. “We’ve been told to find our passion and do what we love. And the reason parents told us this was because they wanted their kids to have better life experiences than the ones they had.”
Sarah Gordon is a 29-year-old from Vancouver with a four-year marketing degree and an additional communications certificate. For four years, she worked with FIFA and the South African Broadcasting Corp. leading up to the 2010 World Cup, but since returning to Canada, she’s been doing part-time bar and clerical work to pay the rent. She's still hopeful that her education will pay off with a rewarding career.
“We have been told since we were born that we could be anything,” she said. “We were taught to have a higher standard of education and what we should aspire to own and be. These expectations are simply what was instilled in us.”