The world of work has changed. A wave of technology, globalization and new ways of working has created employment challenges that threaten the future prosperity of our young people. Although they are accumulating skills and working hard to find employment, many young workers are struggling.

Certainly, the numbers indicate that Canada is doing better than most countries when it comes to youth participation in the workplace. But when we contrast our youth today with young workers a generation ago, trends of precariousness and uncertainty emerge.

In late May, Statistics Canada released a study on 70 years of youth employment. The data show that young people are increasingly likely to hold part-time jobs, and that wages are decreasing for youth with full-time jobs. Another StatsCan study released the week before tracked recent changes in income mobility in Canada, questioning whether children in Canada have had better economic opportunities than their parents. The income mobility findings give rise to optimism, revealing that the percentage of those whose incomes match or exceed their parents’ has remained fairly stable. But the study ignores many of the realities youth face today, like the ever-rising cost of housing.

Today, as younger Canadians finish school, look for homes and start families, they are squeezed by stagnant incomes, high costs, less leisure time and mounting debts. They are more likely than previous generations to be stuck in temporary or “precarious” jobs and are at risk of earning and saving less over their lifetimes.

Encouragingly, all levels of government want to help. In fact, the partnership-driven, extremely intergovernmental nature of the youth employment system is what makes it as fascinating as it is convoluted and opaque. Overlaps and gaps in programming make it complicated to navigate this well-intentioned set of programs.

In October 2016 the federal government established the Expert Panel on Youth Employment. Our report to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, 13 Ways to Modernize Youth Employment in Canada, recommends many strategies to strengthen the youth employment system, including these:

  • investing in the most vulnerable
  • enhancing the Youth Employment Strategy (YES) to target those who need it most
  • placing a particular focus on Indigenous youth
  • rethinking the delivery of youth programming
  • embracing civic technology (the use of technology for the public good)
  • encouraging employers to be more active participants
  • supporting mentorship
  • modernizing federal supports like Canada’s labour standards
  • broadening employment insurance eligibility
  • recognizing entrepreneurship, despite its risks, as a viable path for young people in the knowledge economy

The federal government’s role in leading these strategies is critical, not just because of its capacity to hire more young people but because of its ability to clearly outline roles, responsibilities and goals for all the actors in this ecosystem.

Many of the policy levers connected to youth employment are provincial or territorial — which complicates the employment challenges for youth who want to move around the country . As well, programs are frequently available only to youth who meet very specific age, income and education criteria, and for short bursts of time. These rigid requirements mean that employers may be reluctant to invest time and resources in accessing young workers through employment programs.

To improve these programs, we need better data. Our mandate asked us to focus on young people aged 15 to 29, when many data sets define youth as those aged 15 to 24. Key youth employment statistics should be redesigned so that they accurately represent the unique dynamics of employment for youth.

Our panel heard that many young people feel that governments at all levels make decisions — about the environment, for instance, or the national debt — without considering how present-day trade-offs may affect the younger generation down the road. We have proposed that the Department of Finance could view Budget 2018 through an intergenerational lens in order to demonstrate that youth are truly a priority group and to invite more mindfulness of the future.

Canada depends on young people to build and support the economy for the next generation. When changes to the nature of work and social conditions make it difficult for them to gain a solid foothold, the very foundation of our society is threatened. Two words that we heard a lot during our consultations were “flexibility” and “fluidity.” It seems like society keeps cautioning young people that they’ll need to be able to adapt quickly to a changing labour market. But are employment supports adapting to keep up too? Are universities and colleges “flexible”?

Our mandate as a panel was to assess the barriers that youth face when it comes to finding and keeping jobs, and to examine innovative practices that could help to improve opportunities for vulnerable youth. But if we over-focus on job search and retention strategies, we risk glossing over the profound structural changes that young workers face today. On the supply side of the youth employment equation, the new generation is well educated and highly skilled. On the demand side, the labour that employers are looking for in an increasingly digital economy is significantly changing. What will we do about it? Our report offers 13 ways to start answering this question.

Photo: Shutterstock by fotoinfot

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Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar
Vasiliki « Vass » Bednar (@VassB) est directrice du programme de politique publique pour la société numérique de l’Université MacMaster et professeure associée de sciences politiques. Elle est aussi membre du Forum des politiques publiques et autrice de l’infolettre Regs to riches.   

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