When the recession hit, Gaelan Love’s future changed—maybe, he says, for the better. The recent McGill University graduate had always planned to work at a bank when he completed his major in geography and minor in economics, but thanks to the recession, he’s come to the realization that it’s just not going to happen, at least not yet. “It’s not really the right time to be going into the market,” he says. At first he spent his time doing interviews, but now he’s given up, and he’s happier for it. In fact, he says, now he just wants to have fun.
The sheer impossibility of finding a job in the middle of Canada’s worst recession in decades forced him to think, Love says. “Maybe I don’t want to grow up so fast. I mean, you can graduate and go into the working sector. But then you think: I’m 22, and I’m never going to be 22 again.”
So instead of pounding the pavement in a soul-destroying—and likely fruitless—quest for a real job, he’s decided to enjoy his summer in Montreal instead. He’s saving up money working at a Mexican bar before travelling to London in September, and then to Vietnam for internships at management consulting firms.
Love is part of a whole wave of young people who, in the face of harsh economic times, have decided they’re not jobless, they’re “funemployed.” They know they can’t get the work they’ve trained and studied for, and they could spend their time brooding over the stacks of rejection letters—but why? They’re confident that eventually things will get better, and they know it isn’t their fault.
There’s a proliferation of websites and blogs dedicated to people in Love’s situation, such us Funemployment.com—“because not everyone is lucky enough to work at a job they can’t stand”—and Stuff Unemployed People Like, a take-off on the cultish Stuff White People Like site.
The jokes aside, times are indeed rough for the recently graduated cohort. A labour force survey by Statistics Canada showed that in May alone, the unemployment rate for youth climbed to 14.9 per cent—the highest rate since 1999. Among students aged 20 to 24, participation in the labour force fell “substantially” from 2008, dropping from 75.2 to 68.6 per cent.
A recent study by Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank, reports that “Generation Next,” also known as “Generation Y” (born 1977 or later), is being squeezed harder than any other age group by the recession. A third of people aged 18 to 29 have cut down or cancelled their cellphone plans altogether. To judge by the emphasis on social networking and Twitter, that is no small sacrifice. Four in 10 say they have cut down on alcohol and cigarettes due to the recession. And one in five young adults have moved in with a friend or relative since the downturn.
Spencer Burns, like Love, is 22 and, like Love, he’s hit hard times. He was working as an application engineer for CAM Solutions in Burlington, Ont. He’d work from eight to five (but often later), then hit the gym for an hour and a half. Afterwards he’d run an errand or two, eat dinner, and watch hockey on TSN before going to bed. He loved his lifestyle—and his job. “I was in an environment where I was considered an expert,” he says.
But once the economy contracted, Burns’ ideal workplace environment disappeared. On Monday, May 1, Burns was let go. Over the next few weeks he devoted himself to finding another job, calling friends in the business, previous managers and even presidents of companies he hoped to work for. Finally, after a couple weeks of beating himself up, he decided to make the best of his time off. “I’m young, I’ve got experience, and I’m not worried about getting a job eventually,” he says. “If I don’t work for a couple of months it’s not the end of the world.”
Equipped with a severance package and vacation pay, Burns plans on taking a week-long trip to Barcelona in July and, in the meantime, he’ll play his favourite pastime, golf. “If I had a family I would be out there working,” he explains, “but I’m career-oriented and I’m not going to take a step backwards.” He will be patient and keep his ear to the ground for an opportunity, trusting he’ll get another job in a month or two.
Kellan Higgins, a 24-year-old graduate of UBC, has a similar outlook. “I have savings, so I don’t really have a huge pressure to go out and get a job,” he says. “I just want to take a break for a while.” Higgins took six years to complete his B.A., the last two of which were spent part-time while he worked at UBC’s student newspaper, the Ubyssey. “Right now I’ve taken an interest in woodworking,” he says. “I really enjoyed it in high school and I haven’t had time since university.”
In fact, Gen-Yers seem relentlessly optimistic about the future—more than any other generation, with 76 per cent in the Pew study believing their personal situation will improve by next year. And who can blame them? “If you grew up over the last 20 or 30 years, you’ve grown up in one of the biggest booms in modern economic history,” explains Catherine Douglas, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, “so if that’s your total frame of reference you’re going to feel pretty optimistic.”
“In general, unemployment is extremely detrimental for happiness,” says Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor at the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has devoted her career to studying happiness. “However,” she says, “it’s not for the reason we might think.” In a joint study with Harvard University, Dunn’s research concluded that people overestimated the relationship between income and happiness.
The worst thing about unemployment isn’t less cash, says Dunn; rather it’s that unemployment can be socially isolating. “It’s bad for you if other people think you are a loser,” she says. “By labelling yourself as funemployed it says, look, I’m not just an unemployed loser— I’ve found a way to be part of this cool, new group.”
But while many young people don’t seem to be worried, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. David Livingstone, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, says that today’s twentysomethings don’t realize just how bad things are. “These people are tremendously overqualified and doing all sorts of makeup work to make ends meet,” he says. And he believes that rather than being a temporary blip, underemployment is part of a larger trend in Canada, so some of these young workers may never entirely recover.
Mary Green, a 30-year-old graduate of St. Thomas University with a major in sociology and a minor in philosophy, wrote about funemployment between jobs on her blog, The Mary Report. She first heard the term from a friend. “Her contract had expired, so she was unemployed and collecting EI,” she explained. “She took advantage of the time to work on her art.”
Green was one of the lucky ones—she now works as a software engineer for the province of New Brunswick. But her period of unemployment may have had an effect on her outlook on work. “I don’t think people incorporate their day jobs into their identity the way they used to,” says Green. “I’m a software developer during the day,” she explains, “but I really try not to think about my job too much.” Instead, she focuses on her passions: playing in a band and writing blogs.
To anyone who has lived through a depression before, the attitude of the funemployed may be baffling. “It was tough for me to work through the ’80s and meet the recession midway through the ’90s,” says Cynthia Gentles, 44, a high school teacher at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School in Ottawa. “I worked minimum wage when I was 28 just to get a bag of groceries on the table.” Gentles has a B.A. honours in history, an M.A. in war studies, and a B.A. in education; she teaches technological design to teens.
Gentles is skeptical of young people who are elevating slacking to a viable career path. “Those kids that say ‘I’m just going to have a fun time,’ ” she pauses, “I would suspect it’s a little arrogant.” But that’s partly because Gentles sees how funemployment affects parents. “I know many colleagues around my age whose kids are graduating,” she says. “They are selling their houses and downsizing in order for their kids not to be able to move back home.”
And that’s the kicker for the funemployed: at the end of the day someone has to foot the bill. Gen-Yers may enjoy coasting through the recession, but if their parents have anything to do with it, that joyride might be over soon.