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Margin Notes

This is not ‘generation jobless’

Overeducated, underemployed graduates are not the new normal, as CBC doc claims.


I watched the CBC’s recent documentary, “Generation Jobless” (which aired on Jan. 31 but can be viewed now anytime on the Internet), and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I kept asking myself, what exactly was the message the documentary was trying to convey? Perhaps, on that point, it’s best that I defer to the CBC, which described the documentary this way:

There was a time when a University degree assured you of a good job, good pay and a comfortable life. Not anymore. Today, the unemployment rate for young people in this country is close to 15% – double that of the general population. But the real crisis is the increasing number of university and college grads who are underemployed – scraping by on low-paid, part-time jobs that don’t require a degree. … GENERATION JOBLESS delves into why so many young Canadians are overeducated and underemployed.

Maclean’s magazine ran a similar story, “The new underclass,” which claims that “a [new] generation of well-educated Canadians has no future.” That premise, I believe, is a crock.

But, before I get into the particulars, let me say that I do think it is tough for young adults entering the workforce right now, due partly to the lingering aftereffects of the world financial crisis of 2008. But this is not the first generation to graduate into a bum market – just ask those who graduated in the early 1980s or the early 1990s. In fact, the share of job losses among youths under age 25 was higher during both those past recessions compared to today.

On the other hand, it does seem, anecdotally, that the nature of employment is changing, with fewer of those coveted full-time, long-term, benefits-paying jobs of the type the previous generation took for granted. However, even if that is true, I doubt that would have anything to do with Canadians being overeducated or mis-educated. I would argue, in fact, that higher education is a buffer for individuals against those trends, providing them with a greater chance of meaningful long-term employment.

Youth unemployment

The first canard raised by the CBC documentary is the 15 percent unemployment rate (it’s actually closer to 14 percent) for “young people.” That statistic refers to those aged 15 to 24, which includes a lot of people who aren’t even out of high school. How can that possibly tell us anything about the usefulness or not of postsecondary education? The more relevant age range to look at is 25 to 29, looking at those individuals who have finished their degrees or college diplomas a few years before and are now in that transition period trying to make their way in the job market. What was the unemployment rate for this group in 2012, according to the Labour Force Survey? Just under six percent.

Ah, but many of these people are underemployed, working in low-paid, part-time jobs, says the documentary. Not true. In 2012, there were 405,000 bachelor’s graduates working full-time across Canada – 40,000 more than in 2008 and 105,000 more than in 2000. What’s more, almost 90 percent of those jobs were in permanent positions. (Those statistics were provided by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, again based on the Labour Force Survey. AUCC is preparing a fact sheet to counter claims like those in the documentary, and I’ll provide a link when that document is available.)

Even the CBC website uses a graphic showing that the proportion of all employees under 30 working in non-permanent jobs was just 11.6 percent. To be fair, we don’t have data to show precisely what kinds of permanent jobs the other 88 percent have; some of them are no doubt serving in restaurants as was depicted in the documentary and were hoping for something more in keeping with their career aspirations. I do not in any way wish to downplay or denigrate their experiences. But you can’t build a story on anecdotes. Yes, there are baristas with bachelor’s degrees or, as in the documentary, the one unemployed engineer, but the data is on their side.

And here’s a thought experiment: All those interviewed in the documentary as experts – the young woman from TalentEgg, the youngish TD Bank economist, the senior economist from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the futurist – they seem to be doing well in their careers. What do you want to bet they all have at least a university degree? There’s an anecdote for you.

Sectoral employment changes

Looked at somewhat differently, and using a longer time frame, according to the slide below (Labour Force Survey again), since 1990 there have been 1.4 million more jobs created in Canada in professional areas that require a university degree. The slide after that shows that, at least until 2006, the higher your level of education, the more you earn over time. It’s possible the situation might have changed in the past few years, but I’m not aware of any data proving that.

That being said, I do think the documentary makes some useful points. Serial unpaid internships, for example, are exploitative and an abomination, and should be regulated; outsourcing and globalization likely are having an impact on jobs in certain sectors; industry could do more to train workers on the job, as was once more common; we definitely could use more national data collection on the PSE system; co-op programs and other experiential learning programs are very effective and can give students a leg-up.

In the end, the biggest disservice of the documentary was its alarmist tone and lack of balance. No doubt Canada could do better in terms of postsecondary education policy and matching people’s skills with the market’s needs. But, in general, we’re doing OK. We are a prosperous and highly developed country, and part of the reason for that is the strength of our institutions, including the postsecondary education sector. It would be a terrible shame if a young person viewing the documentary got the impression that the situation was hopeless and decided, why bother pursuing a postsecondary education at all?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / February 5, 2013 at 14:41

    “the nature of employment is changing, with fewer of those coveted full-time, long-term, benefits-paying jobs of the type the previous generation took for granted.”

    This is an important point, too often overlooked in this debate. And it directs our attention to things other than education. There is now good data showing that inequality is increasing. If we measure the “success” of PSE in terms of social mobility then it will fail. Except that it isn’t a failure of PSE, it’s a failure of the economy.

    If we want secure employment with good salaries and benefits then we have to fight for that separately, not exhort students to study more or universities to prepare students differently.

    The education system, as you rightly point out, is doing a good job. But it can’t compensate for broader economic trends.

  2. Rick Butler / March 7, 2013 at 15:16

    The issues arise because of the disconnect between ‘education’ and labour market demand. In the global business climate we need ‘excellent’ market-responsive post secondary education… doing OK – in general – is not good enough.

  3. SC / November 27, 2014 at 17:37

    What is the unemployment rate for people aged 21-24 yrs who (1) can speak English/French, (2) have finished high school and (3) do not have a criminal record?
    That’s the rate that matters, not what 17 yr olds are doing!

  4. Franco Ferrari / April 25, 2015 at 11:33

    I have watched that documentary several times. The first time, I didn’t really understand what the CBC was trying to convey. To me I don’t think we are doing enough at the elementary and secondary levels to support all types of learners and post secondary pathways. This is why we need a national or provincial policy. All students should have an equal opportunity to explore all options. This is not the case. Currently our public schools do a good job preparing students entering university. I can’t say the same for workplace, college or apprenticeships. In the community that I live in, the school board is moving away form technical education and pushing students to explore these options at the colleges. I agree, this is too late. How many experienced trades people or certified technicians work at the administration level in our school boards creating policy? Instead we have over educated baby boomers creating policy and programs embedded in our school systems that lead our future generations no-where. Furthermore, none of these people ever had a single public vote to put them in power. Good job CBC!

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