At the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit this past weekend, Chi Onwurah, a UK Labour MP, spoke about how, quite often, the left ends up defending the past rather than re-imagining the future. She went on to explain the ways in which issues of inequality might be understood and addressed in the new context of the ‘sharing economy.’
Ms. Onwurah’s comments got me thinking: How often are old solutions used to address new problems? In the case of the 2016 federal budget, might initiatives meant to support young people be suffering this very fate? Will the proposed policy solutions end up leaving young Canadians stuck in the past?
The optics of the budget are good, and the fact that this is the first budget in recent memory that both recognizes and aims to address the challenges faced by younger Canadians is something that should be celebrated. In the introduction to the budget, Finance Minister Bill Morneau described how “over the past 30 years, the median wage income has barely risen. For younger Canadians, this unacceptable trend has been a reality for their entire working lives.”
It appears Canadians are happy about the focus on youth in the recent budget. In a recent Abacus Data poll, 33% believe that this budget will have a positive effect on opportunities for young Canadians, and 62% support measures targeted at students.
Initiatives like the Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council, designed to “provide non-partisan advice…on key issues such as employment and education,” also appear to have widespread support. A survey commissioned by the National Youth Service Agencies (NYSA), found that 69% of Canadians over 18 years of age supported the establishment of the youth council.
Where the budget falls short, however, is in basing policy solutions on traditional mechanisms that don’t fully reflect the current or future context that Canada’s young people are facing.
It is surprising that in the section dedicated to youth employment, precarious employment, and unpaid internships, the sharing or ‘gig (freelance) economy,’ and even entrepreneurship don’t get a mention.
It could be argued that $165.4 million committed to the Youth Employment Strategy in 2016–17, and a similarly large investment in Canada Summer Jobs, reinforce existing work structures rather than re-imagine what work might look like in the future.
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Former MP Andrew Cash recently launched The Urban Worker’s Project, which aims to support young workers in the context of the ‘gig economy’. He comments that “the new reality of work is so diverse and disparate — this coffee shop right now is a workplace.”
Sure, the government could spend money trying to ensure that young people retain traditional jobs, but shouldn’t we also be looking forward? Looking forward could start by prototyping what a stable, supported, and satisfying career might look like in the new normal of the ‘gig economy’.
There is a brief mention of on campus incubators as an example of what may be funded going forward. But it is surprising that in a budget with a significant focus on innovation, a stronger connection isn’t made between innovation as a driver of the economy and the employment challenges and opportunities young people will face as a result.
When it comes to education, much of the same can be said. It is certainly not a budget that re-imagines education. As I wrote here, we have a post-secondary education system that isn’t built to train young people for the jobs of the future. So why then are we doubling-down on a model that worked in our industrial past but doesn’t prepare our young people for what’s on the horizon?
Increasing the Canada Student Grants program by 50 per cent, and raising the loan repayment threshold, are measures that might take the pressure off of young people now, but they certainly won’t fix the mismatch between how post-secondary institutions operate and what kind of young employees we will need in an innovation economy.
The focus on young people in this budget is significant. But the ‘generational change’ this government hopes it represents won’t fully be realized until we stop using the mechanisms of the past to address the problems of the future.
What should this government do to take a step forward towards the future? Well, it might just be a very small line item in the budget – the Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council. If this government truly wants to embody generational change, it should do what every smart adult does when trying to figure out how to use Snapchat: talk to young people and ask them what they think.