Why a generation of well-educated, ambitious, smart young Canadians has no future
Melanie Cullins is no pipe dreamer. She chose a vocation that, by unanimous opinion, represented a path to steady employment—teaching English as a second language to the thousands of immigrants pouring into B.C., a good many of whom, the experts predicted, would be making their way to Victoria, where she grew up and wished to make a home. That was back in the early 2000s, when opportunities for the young and industrious appeared unlimited. A rewarding career seemed within reach for all.
Cullins’s degree in applied linguistics was the gold standard of ESL qualifications. But she graduated in the thick of the 2008 financial meltdown, and the entry-level position she imagined would launch her career never materialized. Governments cut back on language transition programs. Resumés piled up in recruitment offices. Her calls to program directors went unanswered. “For me, that was a huge blow,” she says. “I had almost perfect performance reviews from my practicums, but I couldn’t even get an interview. You start to wonder: what’s wrong with me?”
She took temporary work to support herself—waitressing, schlepping lattés, baking cupcakes in a family friend’s café. She volunteered in an ESL classroom in order to beef up her C.V. Yet the weeks slipped by with nary a callback, and when she got pregnant 2½ years ago, her dreams took a back seat to necessity. She took another stab at finding work in her field when her son Liam was old enough for day care. But by then, incredibly, the job market had worsened. Now, with her husband, Benjamin, doing contract work for the B.C. forest ministry, the 28-year-old wonders whether she’ll ever attain a comfortable, middle-class life—a house, college funds for the kids, money left over for retirement. “I have no pension plan. My husband has no pension or benefit plan,” she says. “We’re renters in one of the country’s most expensive cities, and we’d like to someday own a home. Once you have kids, these things really start to worry you. You’re always thinking, ‘Will I ever get ahead?’ “
Many in Cullins’s age bracket are asking themselves the same question. In Canada, as in the U.S. and Europe, workers in their 20s increasingly find themselves wandering the perimeters of their chosen careers. Youth unemployment in this country reached 15.2 per cent during the recent downturn, the highest level in two decades. Yet the top-line number fails to capture the depth of the problem. It turns out that most young people are working—typically in jobs well below their levels of qualification, and often outside their fields. Those lucky enough to get a toehold in their chosen professions have a hard time getting enough hours or pay to support themselves, statistics show. Yet they forge on, from unpaid internship to dead-end contract, giving the lie to depictions of a shiftless generation addled by an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.