Who’s hit hardest by the recession: young workers or the old?

Boomers and millennials both feel they're hardest done by

090914_generationwarTeaching has never held the promise of riches, but it’s always been thought of as a safe career choice—and with good reason. Aside from full benefits and an enviable pension, it’s a profession with a built-in foot in the door: the supply list. For young teachers awaiting a long-term contract, substitute teaching is a way to cut your teeth, and pay the bills. Or at least it used to be. These days an influx of retirees on the supply rolls—baby boomers supplementing their pensions with part-time work—means that new grads are increasingly competing with veterans. The invasion of so-called “double-dippers” has created a palpable resentment among new teachers, says Barry Weisleder, spokesman for the Toronto Substitute Teachers’ Action Caucus. “They might get their name on the list, but they’re not going to be called for months, if ever,” he says. In Burnaby, B.C., the teachers’ association president Marianne Neill observed last year that thanks to fewer calls*, “some of our members are living in poverty. But I don’t believe retired teachers are to blame, and I question anyone who would draw that conclusion.”

Their circumstances may be unique, but new teachers are not the only ones with an axe to grind. This summer, average unemployment for students aged 15 to 24 hit nearly 20 per cent—the second-highest rate since 1977, when Statistics Canada first began collecting comparable data. And many of those who managed to obtain entry-level positions before the crash have since been shown the door: this June, the year-over-year increase in the number of youths receiving Employment Insurance reached a staggering 108 per cent. At the same time, those aged 55 and over are entering the workforce with renewed vigour: while the economy bottomed out, these older workers saw an increase in employment of five per cent. And it’s not going to change soon: a recent Pew Research Center study showed that from 2006 to 2016, workers over the age of 55 will account for a stunning 93 per cent of labour force growth in the U.S. And the Center for Work-Life Policy now reports that 47 per cent of American boomers see themselves as being “mid-career.”

Boomers, though, are not without their own plight. The fear that is prompting many older workers to hold on to their jobs longer or to return for another kick at the can is very real. Though they’re less likely to be laid off, as University of Toronto economics professor Aloysius Siow points out, “those who are [laid off] suffer larger negative consequences” than their younger counterparts. They are typically out of work for longer (last year in the U.S., those aged 45 and over spent 22 weeks looking for a job after being laid off; younger workers spent 16 weeks), and upon their return, are often forced to take significant cuts to their salaries and standard of living. With their investment portfolios decimated, many are coming to terms with the fact that they may never retire.

Both groups feel hardest done by. Figures aren’t available for Canada, but in the U.S., age-related discrimination complaints shot up 30 per cent from 2007 to 2008. At the same time, in union shops, younger workers are frustrated at often being the first to go, while boomers enjoy the protection of seniority or the promise of hefty severance packages. For the youngest and oldest workers, at the root of the acrimony is disappointment, a sense that what was once given is now gone. The recession has amplified the natural push and pull between generations; it’s a dynamic that is subtly playing out in workplaces across the country.

Amanda Pires, 23, graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in math. She wants to become an actuary (a poignant choice given the current economic situation). She’s sent out countless resumés, and “no one calls back,” she says. Sure, older workers may not have their parents to fall back on, says Pires. “But they have the experience and they’re going to be selected over us.”

But the generational dynamic is not always a negative one. When Kristen Lipscombe, 29, started working at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald after graduating from journalism school in 2004, she hoped to spin a summer contract into a full-time job. One of the few independent papers left in the country, the Chronicle-Herald was also the only unionized print outlet in the city. “I felt really fortunate to be there,” she says. More than job security, the union meant that, unlike in many other newsrooms, there were still plenty of veteran reporters around to show her the ropes. She credits them with helping her to secure a permanent job in 2005. And when she was laid off in February, part of a “bumping” process that saw a number of young journalists marched out, senior reporters rallied together, taking buyouts to “keep some doors open for younger workers,” she says, and organizing rallies to protest the cuts. “They were an incredible support system to me.” Though she regrets that younger workers like her were forced out the door, as far as her older colleagues are concerned, “it’s hard to hold anything against them.” Now Lipscombe is on contract again, waiting for a break.

But laying off young workers can also take a toll on the company, and those left behind. Jeff Foley, who has worked in a paper mill in Liverpool, N.S., since 1986, has lived with what many companies may now be experiencing in the short term with the recession. He says his employer, AbitibiBowater, hasn’t hired in earnest in more than a decade. The hiring freeze has meant there are people at the bottom who have been at the mill for years, still classified as “spares.” Though they get the occasional fresh-faced worker, the lack of job security means that they don’t last long. And when they go, says Foley, who’s 45, they leave the others, mostly boomers, to fill the gaps, working long hours in the intense heat. Says Foley, “I would love nothing more than to see the young people hired because we need them here.” What’s more, he says, “there will come a point where all of a sudden, they’re not going to have any trained people left at all.” Still, Foley, who has two teenaged kids, knows the prospect of losing his job is worse. “It’s not the same,” he says. “It’s mortgages, and kids, and paying for school.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Millennials, the so-called entitled generation of tech-savvy multi-taskers, were reared to believe that employers would be falling over each other to recruit them, so it’s no wonder that the recession has left many of them with a sense of betrayal. “You want to get to the next step in life. It feels like you’re stuck,” says Shiyam Pillai, a 25-year-old with a quality assurance certificate. Sometimes he wishes he was born 10 years earlier. “The bust came, but there were some good years. We’re coming right at the end of the bust,” he says. But beyond frustration about being unemployed or living with their parents, for many the anger also stems from being led astray. “It’s one thing to encourage this ideal where we can pursue whatever we want regardless of financial payoff,” says 22-year-old Aviva Levy, who just wrapped up her job as a summer student at the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. “But when push comes to shove, [children] need to be able to support themselves.”

Young workers, of course, are not the only ones who bought into a vision for the way their lives were supposed to turn out. So did boomers. Just weeks before Brenda Lock, 52, learned that she was to be laid off, she told one of the executives at the telecom company where she’d worked for the past 12 years, “I’ll be here for the next 14½ years if you’ll have me.” She had always assumed that they would want her. “The only way I thought I would ever be let go is to be fired because I did something stupid,” she says. According to Vancouver-based career coach Alanna Fero, a sense of entitlement is just as common among boomers, who entered the workforce before tech support was outsourced to India, and receptionists still opened the mail. They reasoned that if they were good employees and saved accordingly, retirement would look something like a Freedom 55 Financial advertisement, complete with cocktails and little umbrellas. More than any other group, says Fero, “it’s people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are saying, ‘I worked this hard. I want what my predecessors had at my age.’ ” And not getting it feels like a raw deal.

What may have catalyzed the battle between the oldest and youngest members of the workforce is that shared sense of entitlement. But if younger workers have had to throw that entitlement out the door, so perhaps should older workers. One novel—and controversial—idea that has emerged in the wake of the recession is a proposal forwarded by Boston University economics professor Laurence J. Kotlikoff in a recent New York Times online round table: if older workers are less attractive to rehire because of the high salaries they’re paid, why not pay workers less as they age? Though the concept of rewarding more experienced workers with higher salaries has long been ingrained in the minds of employers, Kotlikoff argues that pay should instead be commensurate with productivity. And since most workers peak at 40, he says pay should gradually decline after that. Not only would commanding a lower salary make it easier for older laid-off workers to get hired, he says it would make it more worthwhile for firms to keep them around in the first place.

On the other side, millennials are already reconsidering the assumptions that defined their generation. According to Toronto Youth Opportunities coordinator Khadija Ellis, young people are realizing that the Internet is no substitute for a “face-to-face meeting.” Pillai says one of the most valuable things he has learned from the employment program he attended is “how to cold call”—a far cry from the kind of social networking to which he is accustomed. For Lock, in some ways, losing her job was what she needed “to get booted in the butt to get out the door and do something different.” Instead of trying for another job in telecom, she’s retraining to become a library technician. More than the books, she says she’s excited about the technology. And, she adds, with a tone that evokes a fickle millennial, “You have to be happy, otherwise it’s just drudgery.”


*Text revised from original; the original wording suggested that Marianne Neill blamed double-dipping for the fact some teachers were living in poverty. We regret the error. Ms. Neill responds here.