Bread and roses for Generation Y, books too

Written by Tracy Glynn and Tomi Gbeleyi on April 2, 2013

About 100 students gather against tuition hikes at St. Thomas University on March 21st. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

About 100 students gather against tuition hikes at St. Thomas University on March 21st. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Fredericton – Canada’s youth today are starting off their adult lives in what has been called an age of falling expectations. Unemployment, underemployment and soaring education costs are making life especially difficult, stressful and challenging for them.

The jobless rate for Canadian youth between the ages of 15 and 24 is 14.7 percent, about double the national average for all age groups, according to the latest Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey. Approximately 27,000 fewer youth are working today in Canada than at this time last year. Across the ocean, the youth unemployment rate has reached a devastating 51.1 per cent in Greece.

Thom Workman, Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick, writes in his 2009 book, If You’re in My Way, I’m Walking: The Assault on Working People since 1970, about an age of falling expectations where today’s generation face a future that will not be as bright as their parents’.

“They fear precarious work and doubt that they will be as comfortable both emotionally or materially as their parents or grandparents. Their lives have unfolded entirely in the context of neoliberal austerity, and it really is a stripping away of what was commonly thought of as job security,” says Workman.

Rising wages and enhanced living standards for working class families in Canada followed the Second World War owing to pressures from labour and relatively high rates of profitability. However, in recent decades, achievements won by the working class have been rolled back. Workman describes the effect: stagnation of real wages, a disproportionate number of women entering low-wage work, gutting of social programs and unemployment insurance, and declines in unionization rates and union militancy.

“It really has involved dividing the working class according to the more protected–usually unionized–and the unprotected, and then hammering away on both fronts,” says Workman.

Many university graduates are finding themselves working in positions that do not require a university degree. These students are in particularly precarious situations as they often have large student loans to pay back to the government, which are due for automatic repayment soon after graduation.

Soaring costs of post-secondary education mean that Canadian students who rely on public and private loans are graduating with an average debt load of $37,000, according to Statistics Canada. Many students from lower-income backgrounds face student debt loads much greater than the average, especially if they are studying in professional programs that charge higher tuition fees. They also end up paying more for their education, since they must pay the loan principle and the accumulated interest. The burden of having a five-figure debt after graduation means that they are less likely to pursue more education, make large purchases or take financial risks.

For Adam Melanson, a student activist and political science student at the University of New Brunswick, the alienation that youth and all ages of the working class suffer is inherent to capitalist social relations.`

“Young people want to work in a meaningful job. They also want to learn at our universities but can’t afford it. They shouldn’t be forced to give up their dreams of a university education. They shouldn’t be forced to work alienating and precarious jobs for low wages or be coerced to remain docile and without complaint in bad work environments because of their need to pay off debt. They want meaning to their work, to build a more equal and just world,” says Melanson.

A recent Community Foundations of Canada survey notes that youth are competing with baby boomers affected by the latest economic recession who are being forced to delay retirement. Many boomers hold 20 more years of work experience than youth. The mature workers are also competing with the youth who are just starting out and will accept lower wages.

Emily Dickison is a recent Bachelor of Applied Arts graduate of the University of New Brunswick who is concerned about the lack of employment opportunities for youth.

“There are so many overqualified people, so it is extremely hard for someone fresh out of school to get even an interview for a decent paying job,” says Dickison.

The Harper government’s overhaul of the Employment Insurance Program is also very worrisome for young workers like Matthew Belyea, a social work student at St. Thomas University and member of the Fredericton Scrap the EI Changes Committee.

“New Brunswick’s youth are battling staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. This is happening in an economy where a demand for flexibility has created an increased amount of part-time and temporary work. The Harper government cut employment insurance benefits and promoted reduced eligibility while maintaining premiums. These cuts force our young people into more precarious low-wage jobs before they can receive benefits, and are therefore another incentive to leave New Brunswick in the rear view,” says Belyea.

The struggle for bread and roses, a slogan calling for fair wages and dignified working conditions for all workers, and the activism against unemployment and tuition and school fees has taken on different messages, strategies and tactics. According to Workman, the promotion of the collective memory of working-class achievements, the creation of venues to listen to and organize working people and the encouragement of the labour movement to be more militant on behalf of the working class are paramount.

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