Find speakers by:
Request more info

Precarious Work and the Passage to Adulthood

Precarious Work and the Passage to Adulthood

Ilona Dougherty is a leading expert on millennials and generation Z. For businesses, organizations, and governments striving to succeed in the innovation economy, and anyone who hopes for a bright future, her perspective is what you have been waiting for. In her column below, Ilona explains that today’s policy-makers need to have an honest conversation with millennials about what they can expect in the job market:

A new report on millennial values by the Environics Institute includes a compelling statistic – 67 percent of young people consider a full-time, steady job to be an essential rite of passage toward becoming an adult. Not marriage, kids or buying a house. For millennials, obtaining and holding a steady job is the true sign of adulthood.

But what makes this finding so sobering is that in an era in which precarious work is becoming the norm, many Canadians of this generation may never actually realize their dream of what full adulthood looks like.

Last fall Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were criticized for seemingly shrugging their shoulders and suggesting that there was nothing much younger Canadians could do about so-called job churn, the phenomenon in which employees jump from one temporary contract to another, except to get used to it. As Morneau said: “It’s going to happen. We have to accept that.”

There’s no doubt the working world is changing, but the label “job churn” is a misnomer. Young workers are changing jobs at the same rates as they did in the 1980s. How the world of work is changing is in fact much more complicated. The major shift is from stable, predictable employment to precarious work – employment arrangements that lack the security or benefits provided by more traditional jobs. That includes work that’s unstable or temporary in nature, features unpredictable hours and provides no benefits.

The data illustrate that precarious work is on the rise. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), this type of employment has increased by nearly 50 percent in the last 20 years. In the GTA alone, 20 percent of people working are in precarious forms of employment, and an additional 20 percent work in situations with at least one precarious element. According to the 2013 report It’s More Than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being, people who are in precarious employment are also more likely to hold more than one job at a time.

We don’t have data at the national level in Canada to enable us to fully understand the reality of precarious work across the country, but the numbers we do have point to a similar trend.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of people in the category “self-employed without employees” increased almost 45 percent between 1989 and 2007. Although this is not a perfect measure of precarious work, people in this category are likely working from contract to contract. In addition, Statistics Canada is finally starting to grasp the implications of the so-called gig economy and the sharing economy. New data released at the end of February reported that “72,000 people aged 18 and older living in Canada reported offering peer-to-peer ride services during the 12 months to October 2016.”

The full picture is still somewhat unclear, but what is certain is that precarious work is on the rise, and that young people are disproportionately affected. A 2014 report from the Metcalf Foundation found that, in Ontario, “the brunt of this increase has been absorbed by youth: for the last four years, roughly one out of three employed youth was working in a temporary job, compared to one out of four in the late 1990s.”

Millennials have lower levels of wealth and personal income than Gen X and Baby Boomers had at the same stages of their lives. And a 2015 survey by Abacus Data reported that “when asked directly about delaying major life events, a majority of millennials (59 percent) agreed that they had or will have to as a result of financial pressures.” Is this in part a result of precarious work? We’re not sure yet, but what might the long-term impact be on a generation likely to face precarity throughout their working lives?

Government will no doubt suggest many policy prescriptions to address the problem of precarious work. Some will be on the supply side — ensuring young people have the right skills for the future of work. Some will focus on workforce development — ensuring employers of all kinds step up and offer much-needed stability.

But before we settle on policy solutions, we must have a more fundamental conversation.

There is a disconnect between what policy-makers and politicians are telling young people to expect and what young people themselves are hoping for, and aspiring to do with their lives. It is critical that we bridge this divide. Telling young people to ‘just get use to it’ and lower their expectations isn’t the answer. It is a sure way to fuel distrust between generations. Our solution can’t be to diminish expectations about what adulthood will look like, instead we need to boldly replace current aspirations with reimagined ones. No young generation should be expected to settle rather than dream. If we can agree on that, then we will be able to move forward towards a solution together.

Ilona Dougherty/Policy Options/April, 2017