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Give Us a Break: Generation Y and Precarious Work

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Belonging to Generation Y has, of late, started to feel a bit like being a lab rat under high scrutiny.

As pundits and journalists peer at, and dissect, our cohort's every so-called habit and proclivity--be it our work ethic, psychological state or sexual behaviour--sweeping, often inauspicious, declarations about Millennials have become ubiquitous.

Among other things, it's been said that we're entitled, non-committal, politically disengaged, superbly stressed and promiscuous.

Notwithstanding the audacity of painting an entire generation with one brush, irrespective of factors like economic or social class, educational opportunities and individual experiences, there is something to be said for coming of age at a particular moment, amid certain cultural and labour market conditions.

And it's the state of the current labour market that has triggered much of this Millennial stereotyping.

We're often pegged as lazy, unwilling to commit to a stable, full-time job because it means forsaking our supposedly cherished sense of freedom and flexibility.

But in reality, so many of us twenty and thirty somethings in Canada and elsewhere have had to struggle to find any job, let alone one that offers secure, full-time hours, pays decently or offers any sort of benefits; this "freedom" has not been chosen, but flung upon us unwittingly.

A 2011 Statistics Canada labour force survey found that, in Ontario (where I'm writing from), 10 per cent more workers in the 25 to 44 age range held down multiple jobs (suggesting precariousness) than those in the over-44 category.

And it's not our fault. As I explored in an article that I wrote last spring for The Grid, socio-economic developments of the past three decades, such as deindustrialization, globalization and burgeoning technological advancements have made the one-employer-for-life phenomenon enjoyed by preceding generations a distant memory--one Generation Y-ers have never had the fortune to experience.

And, as Andrew Langille, Toronto employment lawyer, youth labour market researcher and author of the blog "Youth and Work" explained, the 2008 financial recession further destabilized the "already flimsy youth labour market" in Ontario.

Following the economic crash, Millennials were frequently among the first ones fired, and even now employers are often reticent about hiring new blood--especially in any sort of permanent capacity (why offer someone a proper salary with benefits when you can get a freelancer to do the work?)--or participating in the bygone process of investing in, and grooming, a young employee fresh out of school.

Basically, the job landscape has become an employer's market, and Generation Y is left to scrounge for the remaining dregs of employment: mostly precarious work, which labour analysts have categorized as insecure, temporary, part-time, contract-based, and often, low-paying.

Interestingly, a study released just last month by the United way Toronto and McMaster University, entitled "It's More than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being" revealed that precarious work is alarmingly widespread, and by no means just a problem for Millennials.

It showed that nearly half of workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas hold precarious or unstable jobs, and that precarious work in this area has increased by fifty per cent in the past twenty years.

It indicates that precarious work is the new normal, and that, in contrast to our parents' generation, twenty and thirty something workers have entered a job market characterized by increasing income inequality and the rise of precarious employment.

And the implications are far-reaching, extending to people's decisions about forming relationships and having children (take that, Grandma) and participation in their communities.

To come into the workforce, and adulthood, at a time when jobs are slim and underemployment and unstable work rampant, is hard enough.

To be inundated with headlines proclaiming our generation's utter lack of commitment on top of it is plain insulting.

There's no easy answer, and experts maintain that addressing precarious work for people of all ages will require a comprehensive effort on all fronts, one that includes commitment from government, employers and post-secondary institutions.

It goes without saying, then, that it's time to turn the lens outwards, to quit the Millennial finger-pointing and leave us so-called protracted adolescents alone--unless you've got a job to offer.