Young and out of work

Ross Laver July 16 1984

Young and out of work

Ross Laver July 16 1984

Young and out of work


Ross Laver

In Coquitlam, B.C.,23-year-old engineering technologist Darren Bartel invests 20 hours a week watching television or lying on the beach because the reality of 13 months of unemployment has dashed his dreams of a promising future. In Halifax 19-year-old high school dropout Phillip Downey has discovered that no employer will hire him because he lacks skilled training and on-the-job experience. And in Calgary, Vivian Hertz, the 17-year-old daughter of an unemployed gas station attendant, is so distraught because she cannot find work that she spends entire days in bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting in vain for a reply from any of the hundreds of companies to which she has applied. Bartel, Downey and Hertz are all victims of one of the most potentially dangerous social problems that Canada has had to face since the Depression of the 1930s.

For the more than half a million unemployed young Canadians the summer of 1984 offers no rewards of youthful exuberance or sunny optimism. Instead, because of the economic slowdown and

the fierce competition from the baby boom generation that preceded^ them to the job market, they are unable to find work at the very time that society expects them to begin laying the foundations of adulthood. The most pessimistic analysts talk of the danger of social unrest and the creation of a “lost generation”—a hardcore group of alienated youths for whom the temporary protection of unemployment insurance payments and welfare is gradually becoming a straitjacket of lifelong dependency.

Aftershock: The dimensions of the problem are staggering. Of the more than 1.3 million Canadians listed as officially unemployed in June, fully 531,000 were youths—whom Statistics Canada defines as people between 15 and 24 years old. And although the unemployment rate for young people has improved slightly over the past year as the economy struggled toward recovery, it is still 17 per cent, almost double the 8.7per-cent jobless rate for those 25 and over. To meet the crisis the federal government is spending an average of $3.6 million a day this year on programs designed solely to lessen the number of

unemployed young people. Officials estimate that an additional $3 billion will go toward unemployment benefits and welfare payments to unemployed youth.

Among the many young people still suffering the aftershock of the recession, despair is widespread. “You get pretty depressed about it. You can’t really think ahead,” said Edward Doyle, 23, of Burnt Cove, Nfld., a fishing village 40 km south of St. John’s. A high school dropout who still lives with his parents, Doyle calculated that he has worked a total of 18 months in the seven years since he left school. He spent a month with relatives in Halifax recently trying to find work. But he left disappointed. Said Doyle: “I would go through the paper every evening. But if you have not already learned a trade you need to have experience. If you do not have one or the other, nobody wants to hire you.”

The same sense of frustration affects Toronto’s Michael Goodhead, who left home last August—the day after his 16th birthday. After moving in with a friend for a few weeks Goodhead wound up in a downtown hostel living on student welfare of $278.10 a month. Then he left Grade 10 and began drifting from

job to job, usually working as a dishwasher or a busboy in a restaurant. “What happens is that you get fed up with the monotony of it all,” he said. “The job does not go anywhere. You are actually working harder than anybody else in the entire restaurant. You are required to take out the garbage, wash the dishes and close up.” Finally, Goodhead turned for help to a local youth counselling agency, which recently helped him enrol in Katimavik, a federally sponsored youth program. Participants in the nine-month program work on community projects for $1 a day and free room and board. At the end they receive $1,000 to help them re-enter the work force.

The inability of so many young people to find jobs has become a political timebomb. Early last month then-acting Prime Minister Jean-Luc Pepin provoked a shouting match in the Commons when he suggested that the reason why an estimated 106,000 unemployed youths have given up looking for work —the so-called hidden unemployed-may be “psychological.” Said Pepin: “The reason may be, T have looked for two or three months and have not found one.’ The reason could also be ‘because I am lazy.’ ” For their part, opposition MPs described the official StatsCan estimates of 533,000 unemployed young people in the month of May as only the tip of the iceberg. They cited a June study by the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, which concluded that the true number of unemployed young people in the same time period was 701,000, a figure that included underemployed young people and the hidden unemployed. Charged the report’s author, Leon Muszynski: “The problem is more serious than the government is willing to acknowledge.”

Limbo: Among the thousands searching for work even higher education is not the guarantee of success that it once represented. After graduating from the British Columbia Institute of Technology two years ago as a mechanical engineering technologist, Bartel spent eight months looking for work. He finally won a position at the University of British Columbia, but that job ended after five months, and he has not had a steady job since, despite making roughly 130 calls to prospective employers in his field. Said his mother, Patricia Bartel:“I feel badly for him. It is very depressing for young people right now.” Added Darren: “We were all quite surprised when we graduated. The grads before us all had their pick of three or four jobs. Then, in January, 1982, it was like somebody turned off the tap. It has been like that ever since.” Now, Bartel said, he is willing to take a job in any related field as long as there is some opportunity for advancement. “It is like being in limbo,”

he said. “My plans were to be living on my own by now and in a career position, working my way up the ladder.”

At Toronto’s York University 12 outof-work 1984 graduates, including 25year-old Kevin Smith (political science) and 23-year-old Cynthia Kantor (English and linguistics), are taking part in a university-sponsored “job club,” in which members pool employment leads and co-ordinate their job searches. They are facing a bleak job situation. According to Martha Casson, president of the University and College Placement Asso-

ciation, a nationwide organization of career counsellors and major employers, there has been a sharp reduction in the number of high-profile corporations that recruit on Canadian campuses since 1980. Added Rivi Frankie, director of the University of Toronto’s placement centre: “The past couple of years have been bad for everyone. In the heyday of the 1970s perhaps 80 per cent of our engineering students would have gotten jobs by graduation day. At this point 50 per cent of those looking for

permanent jobs are still seeking employment.” Although there has been a slight improvement in job prospects this year, those who do find employment often have to settle for low-paid, shortterm positions to gain experience for a job in which they will feel fulfilled.

Challenge: Indeed, for many young people a desire to perform work that is both stimulating and meaningful complicates the challenge of finding employment. Frustrated by what they consider menial jobs, many youths drift in and out of the labor market, collecting

unemployment insurance during idle times and despairing about their inability to find a job that meets their expectations. In Vancouver qualified teacher Karen Kuliesa, 22, recently took a cashier’s job in a local department store. Explained Kuliesa: “It is discouraging to pound the pavement for days and weeks and find nothing.” Said Karen Jesmer, 18, of Winnipeg: “There are a lot of jobs out there if somebody wants to work at just anything, but you have to have your standards.” A high school

graduate, Jesmer hopes eventually to work in an office but settled recently for a $4-an-hour shipping job in a garment warehouse after a three-month stint on unemployment insurance. “A lot of people do not want to admit they work for certain companies because they think it degrades them,” she added. In Calgary 23-year-old Todd Nynych has been out of work since the construction company he worked for went bankrupt last November. Now he lives on $790 a month in unemployment insurance benefits and says he would probably turn down any job that pays less than $7 an hour. Said Nynych: “I will not take anything below a certain amount unless it has a really good chance for advancement. But if it is slinging hamburgers—no, not now.”

At the same time, experts worry about the long-term effects of high rates of youth unemployment. John McDonald, assistant dean of the University of Calgary’s faculty of social welfare, said that one result of the job crisis is a breakdown in the traditional social process that young people use to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Said McDonald: “One of the ramifications may be that we are moving into an era in which full and responsible entrance into society will be postponed.”

Instead, young people who endure prolonged periods of unemployment enter a no man’s land in which they are unable to support themselves and yet are criticized as irresponsible for relying on others. Added McDonald: “Members of that group are being watched very closely for signs that they are lazy. They are subjected to constant harassment. But with 25-per-cent unemployment there is little chance of them getting a job. So we march them mercilessly though a bureaucratic maze, and they end up being on social assistance.”

Stress: Other experts worry about the long-term psychological and physical effects of unemployment on the young. Léandre Desjardins, dean of social sciences at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick and chairman of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) committee on unemployment, said that research has shown a direct link between unemployment and deteriorating health caused by poor diet, inactivity and stress. Jobless workers in general also experience what the CMHA calls a “roller-coaster effect”—a gut-wrenching series of emotional highs and lows in which the initial burst of optimism about finding a new job soon gives way to crushed hopes, self-reproach and chronic depression. Said Desjardins: “It may be that a young

person who has never held a job does not suffer the same withdrawal pains as someone who is laid off. But the effects are still remarkably similar. What we are raising now is a generation of young people who will not want to follow the path that society is preparing for them because they see it is not working.” Currently, many young people who fail to find work are taking refuge in the classroom. According to Statistics Canada the number of full-time students aged 15 to 24 attending university or college jumped a startling 26 per cent between 1980 and 1983, reversing a three-year downward trend. Observed a StatsCan study: “With the recession more young people are going to college and university and they are staying longer.” Still, the same economic conditions that lead some young people to want to excel in school are causing disturbing apathy in others. In a nationwide survey last summer of 3,724 high school teachers, guidance counsellors and school principals, York University psychologist Ronald Burke found unsettling evidence that the effects of the recession—including budgetary cutbacks, poor teacher morale and pessimism about future job prospects—had led to a loss of interest in school work among many young people. Said Burke: “On the one hand we did find that some

of the kids seemed to knuckle down and become more diligent about their studies in order to ready themselves for the job market. But a much larger group of students just gave up and became less serious about learning. It was almost as though they did not see the point of studying hard if there were no jobs to go to when they finished.”

Crisis: And without adequate education many of today’s youths will find it more difficult than ever to find a job. A May survey by StatsCan showed that the national unemployment rate for youths with a Grade 8 education or less was 28.6 per cent. For those with a high school diploma it fell to 19.3 per cent, while the rate for those with a university degree was only 15 per cent. “The kids with only a high school education have a tough road ahead,” said Rev. Harold Parsons, who operates St. Michael’s Mission in a church basement in the shadow of Montreal’s opulent Place des Arts complex. Almost a third of them who arrive at the mission’s door are under 25, but most, if not all, of those have limited educations. Said Parsons: “Two years ago we would get cases of people with university degrees coming in. But that seems to have fallen off since the worst days of the economic crisis.”

Another dilemma is that the longer a

young person remains unemployed, the less valuable he becomes to potential employers. The reason: work habits deteriorate, and it becomes harder to adjust to the 9-to-5 discipline of a steady job. “If someone is unemployed for the first five or six years of his adult life, then their ability to hold a job suffers drastically,” said Elizabeth Beale, chief economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in Halifax. Patrick Johnston, executive director of the Ottawa-based National Anti-Poverty Organization, expresses a similar opinion. Deprived of the social contacts and sense of self-esteem that go with paid employment, he said, young people gradually lose touch with the values of the workplace, eventually drifting toward the margins of society.

The results of that alienation include a sense of hopelessness—and an increasing crime rate. “One of the big problems in the big cities is the amount of opportunity for criminal activities,” said Royce Charles-Dunne, 17, who moved to a downtown Toronto hostel after leaving Grade 9 last fall and running away from home. So far, he said, he has been in jail twice. “You are bound to find someone careless who is walking around with his wallet half out of his pocket,” he explained. “The stores do not have the best security. And people leave

their car keys in the ignition.” Richard Stubbert, program manager of Mercury Youth Services in Toronto, said that there are probably as many as 1,000 homeless unemployed young people in the city at any one time and 5,000 during a full year. Most move from hostel to hostel and “are easy prey for whatever goes on there,” including prostitution and theft.

In Montreal 25-year-old Yvon Moreau freely admitted that he has resorted to prostitution to earn money. A former go-go dancer at a strip club in Montreal’s east end, Moreau was one of two young Quebecers who staged a hunger strike in a downtown square last month to protest the discrepancy between the $418 a month in provincial welfare bene| fits paid to people 30 and over and the $152 given to younger recipients. “No ’ one should have to live like a criminal,” said Moreau, who lost 10 lb. before calling off the protest “because it seemed futile” after 10 days.

Bewildering: For their part, government officials insist that the problem of youth unemployment is too deeply rooted for simple solutions. Said Céline Hervieux-Payette, Canada’s first minister of state for youth, shortly before Prime Minister John Turner dropped her from the cabinet: “You just cannot spend a few billion dollars and

put everybody back to work.” Instead, this year’s federal budget for youth employment—$1.3 billion —is spread among a bewildering array of programs and pilot projects aimed at employment counselling, training and skill development and job creation. Of that, approximately $480 million will be spent to create fulland part-time jobs for 170,000 youths.

Still, many critics insist that the government’s efforts to assist young job seekers are underfunded and poorly conceived. Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney, for one, has attacked the Liberals for their failure to solve the crisis and promised that a Tory government would introduce an unemployment tax credit to encourage businesses to hire

and train unskilled workers. Other critics, including Harry MacKay, senior research adviser to the Canadian Council on Social Development, contend that Ottawa’s job creation efforts are often of little benefit because firms that receive financial aid to hire young people are forced to declare that they will not allow themselves to become dependent on the subsidies.

As a result, many jobless youths are critical of such programs and blame the government for their problems. Stephen Nicks, 21, a high school graduate who has not worked since he was laid off from an unskilled job in the iron ore industry in western Labrador in March, 1982, said that too many government initiatives provide short-term handouts rather than training for a permanent career. Said Nicks: “A lot of programs, especially here in Newfoundland, get people in a rut where they only want to

work long enough to draw unemployment insurance.

Promising: In the long term many experts believe that Canada’s economy will have to undergo significant structural changes if it is to provide sufficient permanent jobs for the ranks of unemployed youth. One promising development is that long-awaited reforms to the country’s pension system could encourage some older employees to retire before they reach 65, which would free up jobs for younger workers. At the same time, some economists have proposed a shorter work week—with a corresponding loss of pay—to ensure that the jobs that are available are more evenly distributed among those who are willing to work. But organized labor has been cool to the suggestion.

Still other economists—including

Walter Block of Vancouver’s conservative Fraser Institute—contend that a lower minimum wage is needed to ensure that young, unskilled workers are not priced out of the market. But Pierre Fortin, a professor of economics at Laval University in Quebec City and adviser to Finance Minister Marc Lalonde, said that he doubts such a move would create many jobs. Said Fortin: “The real solution is not a lower minimum wage—it is a healthy recovery.”

One point on which there is widespread agreement is the question of job training. For years government and industry spokesmen alike have complained that Canada’s ability to produce skilled workers lags far behind that of more technologically advanced nations with larger markets, such as West Germany and Japan, both of which have extensive apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs. In Germany about

60 per cent of students who finish compulsory schooling enter industrial training, usually as apprentices; for Canada the figure is less than 10 per cent. A1983 Employment and Immigration Canada study of youth unemployment contrasted the European emphasis on training for vocational specialities with Canada’s educational system, which, it said, “has allowed students to take a wide variety of options, many of which are very general in nature,” and does little to prepare students for the job market that awaits them. The study concluded with a call for urgent efforts to develop a more effective and flexible training system in Canada.

That approach has wide appeal. Said David Conklin, research director of the Ontario Economic Council: “I would say that ours is an age of change and adjustment, and our ability to change and adjust depends on the amount of education we have.” A devout supporter of proposals to pour more money into vocational training, Conklin describes most existing job creation plans for the young as “make-work projects suitable for the 1930s, not the 1980s. They have no impact whatsoever on the growth potential of the nation and they are a wasté of money in that sense.” For his part, sociologist Alan King of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who has spent seven years studying the transition of m young people from school o to work, has urged the y creation of a massive sys2 tern of oneto three-year apprenticeships funded by governments and offered through community colleges across the country. Explained King: “Unfortunately, what happens now is that when the economy goes into a tailspin a lot of companies drop their apprentices in order to cut expenses. Then, when things start to improve we have to import skilled workers through immigration.” Still, King acknowledges that improved vocational training would only go a small way toward solving the jobless crisis for the young.

Contrary: Other experts believe that the plight of the young unemployed is not as severe as some specialists have portrayed it. University of Toronto professor of psychiatry Dr. Saul Levine, for one, who has studied the social and psychological effects of joblessness on the young, says he is convinced that Canada’s youth unemployment problem is no worse than in most other developed

Western countries. And contrary to fears of widespread unrest, Levine asserts that most unemployed young people remain remarkably optimistic and are convinced that their troubles are only temporary. Said Levine: “A lot of us do-gooders do not want to face the fact that many young people are not particularly inclined to hold a job. They just do not feel like working at that particular time—they would rather travel or take it easy. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is one of the joys of youth.”

In the end, it may be demographic changes—not political policies—that help to solve the current youth unemployment crisis. As the baby boom generation passes into adulthood, the ranks of Canada’s youth population are gradually beginning to shrink. According to federal statistics the number of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 19 reached a peak in 1978 and it is now declining; the 20-to-24-year-old group is at its peak now and it is expected to begin falling next year. In all, the total youth population is projected to decline to 3.8 million in 1991 from 4.7 million in 1981. At the same time, the number of high school and postsecondary graduates who enter the labor market will fall to 447,000 in 1990 from 535,000 in 1983, a drop of 16 per cent.

Spotty: Based on those changes University of Toronto economist David Foot has predicted a decline in youth unemployment from the current level of 17 per cent to about 12 per cent over the next five years. But Foot also forecasts a rise in joblessness among the 25-to-34 age group—from 12 per cent in 1983 to as much as 18 per cent by 1988. “What is happening is that the unemployed youth of today are gradually turning into the unemployable adults of tomorrow,” Foot said. “They will have a spotty employment record and out-of-date job skills in an age of rapidly changing technology. And I am suggesting that they will continue to face a very hostile labor market as they grow older.”

Such predictions provide no comfort for unemployed young people including Airdrie, Alta.’s Georgina Mahoney, 24, who has been out of work for 18 months. She dismisses government employment programs as “bureaucratic bull,” and echoes the frustration of thousands of her peers this summer who have failed to find a job that would give them a head start on the future. “It is aggravating,” said the discouraged Mahoney. “It’s so discouraging. You go out and spend all that time looking for a job and people just shut the door in your face. Some days you want to kick the door in.”

With Gordon Legge in Calgary, Diane Luckow in Vancouver, Susan McPhee in Halifax, Gary Moir in Winnipeg, Pat Roche in St. John's, Bruce Wallace in Montreal, and Dave Silburt and Robert Block in Toronto.