Boomers, you had it easy

Stop being so cynical about young people

by Emma Teitel

Photo by Patrick Lor

The Toronto Star ran a story recently about a 24-year-old “super intern” named Maeghan Smulders, who graduated from Mount Royal University with 29 job offers—all of which she rejected. Smulders figured if she was going to begin her career, she was going to do some research first. So ProjectONE12 was born, a postgraduate’s 112-day exploration into the world of unpaid internships. Smulders took stints in Toronto, Montreal and even San Jose, interning with 10 companies, all in the hopes of finding and landing her dream business job.

She did. At the end of her seven-month journey (which she documented online) she took a job at Beyond the Rack, a Canadian online retail start-up. “Being in all the different places,” she said, reminiscing about the project, “you get a taste for culture and you get a taste for not just the work you’re doing, but the people there. I really wanted to find an environment I could really grow in.” Don’t we all.

Maeghan Smulders is not spoiled. She worked incredibly hard and obviously incredibly well to rack up those 29 job offers, and an additional 18 during ProjectONE12. But a hard job well done doesn’t make you a “super intern.” Money does: a reality that both our increasingly ageist media and government don’t like to acknowledge. Because while it’s true that the economy has severely limited our postgrad opportunities and unpaid internships are replacing the entry-level job, it’s also true that it costs a lot of money to work for free. Log onto Smulders’ website and you’ll see a heading called “sponsors,” under which is listed (among a few other groups) “my Toronto family.”

Funny. We have the same sponsor. Mine was kind enough to fund my three-month internship (for which I was extremely lucky to have been paid at all) and all 22 years of my life preceding. I would not be writing this column right now were it not for my sponsors. Thank you, Jay and Karen. Sorry about the trip to Curacao.

Unfortunately not everyone has such generous sponsors, parents or otherwise (or a sponsor who can afford to be that generous). In fact, most people don’t. Yet our elders in the Conservative party (ahem: “There is no bad job”) and the media (isn’t it awesome when Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente writes a column railing against Gen Y kids for not finding jobs followed by a column about how she’ll never retire?) point to ambitious grads like Smulders, or the Toronto girls who pitched a tent at a busy intersection to attract potential employers—in order to illustrate their allegedly simple and logical point: times are tough and us kids need to get off our butts and just work a little harder. In a recent column, the National Post’s resident killjoy, Barbara Kay, went to town on my generation after a twentysomething waiter knocked over a glass of water in her lap and didn’t apologize (which Kay immediately interpreted as, “Because being Gen Y means never having to say you’re sorry”).

She was equally shocked and appalled that according to an October 2011 National Report Card on Youth Financial Literacy (which I have now seen cited in at least three Gen-Y bemoaning editorials) 70 per cent of high school students “erroneously assumed they’d own their own home in 10 years,” and “the average respondent overestimated his future earnings by 300 per cent.” Wow. Breaking news! Teenagers have dreams. Apparently it has become a crime to think beyond your means.

The anti-youth, “kids these days” attitude of many older people today, in reference to the ongoing student protests in Quebec and the Occupy movement, is cynical beyond belief—especially coming from a generation that in their youth could afford to be protesting about “big” things like the military-industrial complex, and not “little” things like tuition hikes and unemployment. When Margaret Wente was 23 years old, a chocolate bar cost 10 cents and a box of Corn Flakes cost 25. Tuition at the University of Toronto was well under $1,000. My father, who is roughly the same age as Wente, says he could make enough money at his summer job (he was a camp unit head) to pay for his tuition at U of T in the fall. And his books.

Which isn’t to say we deserve what they had, but it’s odd for the Canadian baby boomer generation to be so curmudgeonly about “kids today” when prospects in their younger years were so much better than ours. To hear them kvetch it’s as though they were slaving away in factories on a few cents a day, instead of dropping out to bask in free love and patchouli oil, all the while marking time until they could drop back in and get a job working at Uncle Bernie’s sportswear company.

So if you’re a baby boomer, whether you think youth unemployment is an easily solvable problem—if we’d just get off our butts and stop banging pots and pans together—or you think it’s the unfortunate, unavoidable given of our time, please don’t be so surly about it. Can our cohort seem entitled? Sure. After all, our parents raised us to think that the sky was the limit. Will that sense of entitlement get us a job? Not likely. If we’re spoiled, we’re also screwed. This isn’t a statement of self-pity, but a sober description of the economic reality of what it is to be young today. Do I think it’s hopeless? No way—screwed is not doomed. But we live every day with a kind of dissonance and insecurity that your generation never had to deal with. It might be nice if you kept that in mind.

Emma Teitel is a columnist with Maclean’s magazine. Follow @EmmaRoseTeitel on Twitter.




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Boomers, you had it easy

  1. Canada needs immigrants because the youth of today feel it is beneath them to tak a $10/hour job.

    “…a chocolate bar cost 10 cents and a box of Corn Flakes cost 25. Tuition at the University of Toronto was well under $1,000″

    And what was the average hourly wage then compared to today?

    • Your subtle implication that minimum wage was lower in the 1950s, does not justify for those prices to be equally as low. First off let’s set one thing straight. If you want a true comparison of the cost of living, many (if not all) economist would tell you that wages are not the only things that should be factored, but the cost of living and prices of goods over time (which if taken into account, it would generally not be favourable towards that subtle implication you made).

      However, if you really want to head down that road where we simply compare minimum wage, then gladly. Note that first we must adjust the values accordingly based on inflation and deflation over time periods. We’ll establish the base year for our constant dollars (this is the metric for valuing the price of something over time) at 1996.

      With the adjusted inflation rate, a person can find that the 2007 minimum wage in the U.S. was actually $4.41 (it’s really hard to find historical rates for Canada so I used the U.S., but the trend should be generally similar even with the political-economic differences). Why you might say, “Well that’s great in proving the lowering minimum wage rates since 1996, but that proves nothing against my point of Boomer’s minimum wage rates”.

      Well then, what were the minimum wage rates for the Baby Boomer generation adjusted with inflation? Well one can find that minimum wage in 1964 (note 1964 is when the very first Baby Boomers, born in 1946, would be the age of 18, and thus eligible for full minimum wage rights) was $6.33, or in other words $1.92 more than the minimum wage in 2007. In fact, from 1955-2007, the year with the highest minimum wage factoring in inflation was 1968 (note that the year is when at least 4 years of Boomers have entered the age of majority) where it was $7.21, or in other word $2.80 more than minimum wage in 2007.

      If I would take this even farther, the last time minimum wage was at the adjusted levels of the present day, was from 1950-1954, when the plateau of the Silent Generation (those born from 1925-1945) was entering the workforce. So really, all you have made me prove is that, at least in the sense of minimum wage, Baby Boomers did have it the easiest not only compared to Generation Y, but also Generation X, and the generation which was before the Baby Boom, the Silent Generation.

  2. @ A Boomer

    Would you like to take a $10/hour job when you have tens of thousands of debt for your post-secondary education to pay off — debt for an education that is becoming increasingly mandatory for even the most basic of jobs?

    Would you like to try to have a house of your own, a car (public transit isn’t always available in this big country of ours), and a family on that kind of income? Oh right, it’s actually impossible . . . minimum wage is something that even one person can barely live on.

    I am the first to criticize many of the shortcomings of my generation, for we certainly have many flaws, but your comment about jobs is ludicrous. Most of the students I know work all sorts of crappy minimum wage jobs to keep themselves afloat throughout their years of university. I don’t think there is anything wrong or unreasonable with students hoping for a better job with a better wage after graduation, especially because starting an independent life of their own and paying back their student debt requires precisely that.

  3. I think that some people believe that you do what you have to do to survive, no matter the circumstances, and if you want to succeed you have to pull out all of the stops. When your back is up against the wall, you come out fighting. Some people will go the extra mile, and others won’t, just like in any other generation. I think the difference now is that you will not stay afloat without higher education. When I say ‘staying afloat’,what I mean is being able to have a mortgage, own a car, and raise a family. Higher education is now unreasonably unobtainable for some families and their children. Financially difficult, but also getting accepted in your field of interest can be super competitive, and is not for everyone. It can be hard to keep a proper perspective on your own financial reality when so many others are given so much. Trying to create a better future for yourself with some meaning to it requires support and encouragement. The economy is shaky, job security is unstable and the cost of living keeps going up. Will hard work guarantee success? What is the best direction to take? Some guidance would be helpful. For myself, I started working when I was 14 years old, and going to work was in itself entertaining, and something to do. After work we did a lot of partying, and spent money at the bars and restaurants, and renting cottages. I saved quite a bit, and bought a couple of cars during those years, and eventually a large down payment for a home, and RRSPs – and had a lot of fun. It was easy to get jobs through friends, and I didn’t worry about my future. The future is somewhat more unpredictable now, and hard work doesn’t necessarily mean recognition or success. You just do what you have to do to survive, and hope that you can be adaptable enough when needed. Pitter patter get at ‘er….but seriously, if you cannot find a way to get hired, how do you get everything else to fall into place?

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