As a curious kid with a notoriously big mouth, I was always told that there was no such thing as a stupid question. Well, there is. While hosting the VICE SPENT Series, I asked every person I interviewed this very stupid question: do you think that today’s economy works for or against young people?
After spending some time musing over how my interviews could have gone better (a nervous post-filming ritual I have), I realized that I’d fundamentally misunderstood the issue. The series has taught me that there is no singular “young person,” nor is there a singular “economy.” There are many economies that work differently depending on exactly who you are and what you do.
If you’re creative and entrepreneurial — skills which often require resources like time and money to cultivate — then it’s a great time to be alive. The most advantaged young people today are exceptional field leaders, the Zuckerbergs and Spiegels of the world. These kinds of creatives and self-starters are awarded more success and social appeal than ever before.
But for everyone else, it’s a much tougher ride. Our economy disproportionately rewards a certain type of young person, at the expense of those who are pursuing bedrock jobs like nursing and teaching. The discrepancy itself isn’t the story — what’s striking is how fast this gap is growing.
I’m certainly no economist, but it doesn’t take one to realize that this imbalance will eventually undercut the foundations of our economy. After all, bedrock jobs are called bedrock jobs for a reason. But we’re taking the value of bedrock jobs for granted because we’re attracted to the glamour of app founders and hedge fund analysts. I’m not saying we should admire one group over another, but simply that we should not mistake our admiration of “dream jobs” for the real value that each sector provides for our economy, and for our society.
Take Bridget for example. She’s a school teacher, and like any teacher currently working in a Canadian city, she’s lucky to even have a job. Bridget became a substitute teacher after finishing her education degree, and for five long years she had no guarantee of how often she’d be working in a given week or month. Now, even after securing a permanent position, she has to teach extra classes after school and throughout the summer just to afford a condo in the suburbs.
I can already feel people getting worked up reading this. This is just the new reality for teachers, right? Life’s tough for everyone, and we should all just learn to live with it.
It’s true. A lot of people are feeling the burdens of this new economy. But my point is not about Bridget’s particular story, as much as it’s about what her situation represents for the many others working in bedrock industries. Compare her financial reality to that of her parents, both of whom were also teachers in Toronto. Bridget doesn’t have half the financial security her parents had at her age. Her only fault was that she was born 40 years too late. Teacher unemployment in the Greater Toronto Area is now about 50 percent, and if you’re able to crack this privileged group, you still can barely afford to live in the same city that you work in. That’s not a very attractive proposition.
Bridget happens to be a young person working in a type of job that the economy isn’t prioritizing. Whether this means that there is a surplus of teachers competing for the same positions or a lack of government support in the education system, there is a problem. This is a dangerous thing, because not protecting these kinds of work also can affect the standards for other bedrock jobs.
On the flip side, there are sectors that are booming for millennials. If you’re a “creative” or a tech star, you have more opportunities than ever before to become successful. This doesn’t mean that all creatives and self-starters are reaping the benefits of this new economy, or that they will forever be advantaged as industry professionals. All I’m saying is that today more than ever, self-starters have the groundwork to be successful.
Take Dani. She’s a graphic designer and founder of Kastor & Pollux, a full-service digital and experiences agency. Her company is doing some really amazing things around the city when it comes to branding, fashion, and design, and she’s only 24 years old. What Dani’s doing today — her passion — wouldn’t have been possible 40 years ago. This new economy has uncovered incredible possibilities for people like Dani, and this is of course, a good thing.
There are many reasons why Dani is flourishing while Bridget has struggled. In my interview with economist Sheila Block, she pointed to the larger economic forces of globalization and automation, and a lack of creative policies from our governments as among the major catalysts. We’re also unwittingly pitted against each other. The young people who are successful today are often the ones building the infrastructure to replace many others’ jobs — it’s a catch 22.
It might all sound pretty bleak, but Sheila still told me she was optimistic about millennials’ potential for success in this new economy. Our generation is the most highly educated in history, and we’re known for our resilience, creativity, and resourcefulness. We’re designing unique new career paths, organizing ourselves, and speaking clearly to government and employers about the labour and economic changes that we need to succeed.
I’m still that curious kid with a big mouth. And I’ve got one more question to ask about this lopsided system we find ourselves in: what are we as millennials going to do to challenge, address, or adapt to it?
The writer hosts the VICE Money’s “SPENT” video series on how young people in Canada navigate a hostile financial landscape. You can watch it here.