In the wake of the Federal Budget, the CCPA’s Alternative Federal Budget, and months of disappointing job numbers, it seems that the national conversation about youth and work is undergoing a bit of a revival. Following on the heels of Jim Flaherty’s announcement of interest-free loans for skilled trades students, CBC’s The National called together a panel of experts to talk about the fit between post-secondary programs and the kinds of jobs available in our evolving economy. Between on-the-street interviews with anxious students, panelists were asked to make sense of the confusing labour market for young workers, to cut through conflicting statistics and rhetoric around labour shortages and the value of a university education. They were pressed, as so many experts are, to offer advice to recent graduates.
I’d like to offer some advice of my own.
Young workers, students, and recent graduates: what’s happening to you might be ‘normal’ in this economy—the same basic one we’ve had for over a century, with some fun modifications—but it sure as hell isn’t right.
By now, you know the injustices to which I refer. The labour market greeting you when you graduate—from high school, university or college—isn’t pretty. A growing number of you are either working in jobs (or unpaid internships) that are well below your skill or education level. Many are employed part-time and/or in short-term contracts instead of full-time, permanent jobs. A report pulling together hundreds of peer-reviewed studies found that “when youth enter the labour market, they are most often employed in low-paying jobs, and often have credentials that exceed the job requirements.” Indeed, the proportion of workers under 30 working non-permanent jobs has nearly doubled since 1997 (from around 7% to 12%). Not coincidentally, when we hear the monthly job creation numbers, we usually find out that most of the growth has come in the form of part-time positions. The youth unemployment rate is higher than that of the general working age population, and while that's nothing new, it just shows that our economic system has some intransigent flaws.
And yet nearly every public voice is telling you that you need to change. As Trish Hennessy put it on the CBC’s Bottom Line panel, we’ve individualized the problems of underemployment and skills mismatches and student debt. Our societal problem has become your personal problem. That’s why everyone’s turning themselves into knots to offer you advice.
My advice to you? Get angry.
Channel your anxiety about getting a job into frustration that we’re back here, again, talking about a “lost generation”, just like we were in the 1980s and 1990s.
Be indignant. When someone tells you it’s your fault for doing sociology instead of welding, tell them to stuff it.
When someone assures you it’ll get better in 10-15 years when the boomers retire, try repeating it back to them so they can hear how ludicrous it is.
When someone tries to divert societal attention toward labour shortages instead of the spread of crappy jobs, call bullshit, because there is no national skills or labour shortage. The empirical research on this is nearly unanimous. There is some mismatch, but this is normal (albeit stupid) part of a dynamic economy.
By some accounts, there is also no generalized surplus of labour—no widespread overproduction of university graduates, no flood of sociology majors with skills nobody wants. This is not to say that we don’t have the occasional, isolated overproduction of certain kinds of grads—we’re all familiar with the glut of law students who can’t find articling positions in Ontario, or the throngs of teachers who can’t get full-time placements in nearly every province. This is also not to deny credential inflation—the fact that jobs that once required only a high school diploma are suddenly able, because of the supply of university graduates, to ask for a bachelor’s degree.
But scores of peer-reviewed studies show that most graduates eventually find work, that a post-secondary education will get you a higher salary in the end, and that surpluses and shortages in our country are generally short-lived—they haven’t lasted more than about a year and a half—and are confined to specific sectors. In short, there is. No. National. General. Labour. Shortage. And because of that, there is no sound basis for a national labour market strategy to address a general labour shortage.
There’s also no sound basis for an individual strategy. By the time you finish even a 3-year college degree, the job you’re supposedly training for might be non-existent, or the requirements changed.
But all of this is beside the point. The real injustice is not that you are overqualified for or mismatched to the jobs available to you, but that the career you’re shooting for is probably being dismantled into a set of lower-wage, no-benefits, no-security jobs. This is the trend in government, where temporary contracts are the new junior position; it’s also the trend in universities, where contract instructors are taking on more and more of the teaching once performed by tenured faculty. It’s even happening in other unionized workplaces, where collective agreements are being amended to allow for two-tier wage and benefit systems (you can guess who’s in the bottom tier). The situation, in other words, is grim.
This is not to say that you are powerless. There is much you can do.
Read and familiarize yourself with the critiques of capitalism as we know it.
Join the movements that aim to press back against capitalism’s most damaging characteristics.
If you find yourself in a retail job for which you are overqualified—or even if you’re perfectly qualified—follow the lead of a growing number of retail workers who’ve unionized in an effort to take back some control over the conditions of economic production and the conditions of their lives.
Take to the streets on tuition freeze day, May Day and Labour Day.
But your most effective and threatening power lies not in what you’re capable of doing, but in what you can refuse to do. I’m going to borrow from a philosopher (Giorgio Agamben) and a philosopher friend (Matthew Furlong) to tell you to focus not on your potential, but your impotential; not on what you can do, or even what you cannot do, but what you can not do.
Everyone is pressing you to adapt to the present. But you can not adapt. You can not re-train for a job that might just disappear like the first one you trained for. You can not work for minimum wage when you graduate. You can not mold yourself into the perfect worker so that corporations can escape the cost of training you.
This is all a bit rich, coming from me. Barring catastrophe, there’s a full-time, permanent job awaiting me after my current short-term post is up. But I count myself among those whose duty is to push back on contractualization, precarious work, devalued labour, and market fundamentalism. If you get a good job, good for you. But it will be your duty to ally yourself with the growing legions of young workers who are exploited—and underemployment is exploitation—just because they can be.
Whatever you do, don’t simply figure things out for yourself. If we keep on figuring things out individually, we will never figure things out collectively.