Poverty and the precarity generation.

10-31-16

“It’s going to happen. We have to accept that.”

That’s what Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the other day about the future of precarious employment – contract work, short-term roles without benefits, and “gig economy” jobs (think: driving for Uber) – for youth in Canada.   

man-running-with-briefcaseAt the Precarious Generation: Millennials Fight Back forum in Ottawa on October 26th, community organizers, advocates of all stripes, union members, young workers, and students definitely did not accept this future of instability.

Much of the #GenYAsksY discussion focused on the reality facing young people in the modern workforce, which often includes employers engaging in contract flipping, “perma-temp” lifestyles, and the anxiety of entering an unstable economy with an average of $27,000 in student debt.

Although much of the public discourse about the status of millennials focuses on their careers and position in the workforce, it is clear that the problem is not just about the capacity of young people to get and retain long-term jobs with a living wage. A myriad of overlapping issues illustrate how challenging it is to be low-income at any age in Canada in 2016.

Panel and video contributors raised their own experiences having to choose between filling prescriptions and paying bills, balancing career ambitions with family life and prohibitive childcare expenses, as well as feelings of total exclusion from the housing markets in major cities. We heard from many young people who couldn’t afford to jumpstart their careers by taking crucial unpaid internships because they needed paid work to afford rent.

This insecurty is echoed in a recent Maclean’s article and Meal Exchange study which found that nearly half of students surveyed had forgone healthy food to pay for books, tuition fees, and rent.

Young workers leaving post-secondary education expressed serious concern that “the deck is stacked” against them and that they aren’t struggling to get ahead in the world, but are just trying to catch up, while feeling burdened by overwhelming debt and an absence of adequate social protection.

The reality is that 4.9 million people in Canada currently live in poverty. Poverty is even more acute when viewed through a gender, disability, racialized, Indigenous, immigration status, sexual orientation, or gender identity lens.

At its current rate, Canada will only achieve gender parity in wages in 2186. Almost 70% of part-time workers are women and 60% of minimum-wage earners are female. Racialized persons had a median income in 2005 of $19,100 compared to $27,100 for non-racialized persons. In 2011, the employment rate of Canadians with disabilities was 49%, compared with 79% for Canadians without a disability. And the list goes on.

The truth is that people from marginalized communities face incredible obstacles in achieving economic stability.

Understanding how systemic causes come together to create barriers demonstrates that poverty cannot just be solved through “jobs” alone. That’s why Dignity for All: A National Anti-Poverty Plan for Canada has six categories that must be incorporated into a comprehensive poverty strategy: income security, housing and homelessness, health, food security, early childhood education and care, and jobs and employment.

The conference was also a reminder of why CWP calls for people with lived experience to be part of any consultation process on anti-poverty policy in a meaningful way.

While some the staff at CWP are themselves part of the millennial generation, we are already out in the workforce and don’t experience the most destabilizing conditions described by many young workers. At the forum, we were able to hear first-hand from first year to fifth year students on their fears and concerns about life after university – how they wanted to achieve their academic and career goals, and how they aspired to have stable, fulfilling lives.

With the movement to create a national poverty reduction plan, we have an opportunity to build a multi-faceted structural approach to address poverty in Canada that makes it possible for people to have those lives. But this will only happen if the process is inclusive and effective – and not if we simply accept what is unacceptable.

Laura Neidhart is the Development & Communications Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.