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Generation Y vs. Boomers In Canada: Is It Really Tougher For Millennials To Get Ahead Today Than Past Generations?

Millennials Vs. Boomers: Who's Got It Worse?

Data and graphics compiled by Jeff Fraser; text by Daniel Tencer.

It’s a common assumption that when it comes to careers and the economy, young Canadians aged 18 to 30 have it tougher than previous generations: Job security is harder to come by, the cost of living is higher and the government’s social safety net less generous.

But is it true? To find out, The Huffington Post Canada dug through decades of data to measure just much tougher it is to get started in life today for the Millennial Generation than it was for the Baby Boom Generation, that large group now in their fifties and sixties.

The data paint a picture of a new generation that in some ways is better off than its predecessors — day-to-day consumer goods have come down in price, sometimes by huge percentages. But on the larger costs, and on earnings, the picture is considerably more negative: While the small stuff keeps getting cheaper, the large costs that eat up so much of people’s earnings over a lifetime are growing.


How much could you buy with an hour of work at minimum wage?

Millennials Vs. Boomers By The Numbers

As of 2010, the cost of shelter — mortgage or rent, plus utilities and maintenance — ate up 28 per cent of average household spending, compared with 21 per cent in 1979. The cost of transportation, including automobiles and fuel, takes 21 per cent of the household budget, up from 17 per cent in 1979.

Taxes paid by Canadians have also grown in that time. In 1978, the average household tax burden amounted to $9,000 in 2012 dollars; by 2010 that number had jumped to $12,000. (The tax burden peaked in 2000, at $13,500 on average.)

Some things, however, have become more affordable. In 1979, the price of a typical coffee maker was about $37 (in 1979 dollars); today the price is closer to $24. Put another way, it took 12 hours working at minimum wage to buy a coffee maker in Canada in 1979, at the average minimum wage, but by 2012 it took only 2.5 hours. (The average minimum wage across Canada in 1979 was $3.11.)

But perhaps the biggest change has come in the cost of education. Tuitions vary pretty widely across Canada, but the average cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree went to $22,324 in 2012, from $2,568 in 1979 in unadjusted dollars. In 1979, it took 800 hours of work at minimum wage to earn a bachelor’s degree; by 2012 that had risen to 2,200 hours. A medical degree that on average would have taken 1,000 hours to pay for in 1979 now takes some 4,700 hours to pay for.

“In most cases, a minimum wage job is no longer enough to cover tuition,” said David Macdonald, an economist with the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Macdonald said the jump in Canadian tuitions largely began in the 1990s, when the country’s politicians were heavily focused on deficit reduction and the “deregulation” of university education became a popular move.

“Almost every single province” began to raise tuition rates on an annual basis, Macdonald said. While some have since pulled back, as in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Quebec in particular, in many places the tuition costs continue to rise.

According to research Macdonald carried out with colleagues at the CCPA, post-secondary education costs grew at nearly triple the inflation rate between 1990 and 2011.

Those rising costs have discouraged some students from seeking higher education, the report states. But an equally important effect, Macdonald said, is that students now graduate burdened with much more debt than in the past.

A recent survey from the Bank of Montreal found that most students expect to graduate with more than $20,000 in debt, and more than a fifth are anticipating debt of more than $40,000.

While those numbers are dwarfed by the sort of student debt seen in the United States, the added financial burden has an impact on students’ lives after graduation, Macdonald said.

Indebted students “are less likely to own a house, to make investments, and they will put marriage off,” Macdonald told The Huffington Post Canada. Saving for retirement also has to be put off, he added.

In an Abacus survey carried out this fall for the Huffington Post Canada, 32 per cent of millennials chose student and personal debt as the largest or second-largest challenge facing their generation from among the most-cited challenges in the survey. Twenty-four per cent identified the cost of education as one of the top two challenges.

And while costs may be rising, millennials don’t appear ready to give up on their ambitions. The Abacus survey found that 73 per cent of millennials who do not own a home plan to do so. But as millennials age, those who still do not own a home begin to lose hope about fulfilling that desire.

Among those aged 21 to 23, 76 per cent believe they will be able to own a home by age 31. Among those aged 28 to 30, that number falls to 48 per cent.

But Macdonald said the biggest challenge for Generation Y is the same one identified by Canadian millennials surveyed by HuffPost — getting a job. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents ranked finding quality jobs among the top three most important issues facing the generation today.

And a university education isn’t the guarantor of a good career it once was, so many graduates end up as a “barista at Starbucks,” he added.

“They’re employed, but they’re not climbing up a career ladder,” Macdonald said.

HuffPost’s data show that the youth unemployment rate, which measures those aged 15 to 25, saw a major spike to around 15 per cent during the 2008 financial crisis and continues to hover there to this day.

But from a historical perspective, that is not an unusually high unemployment rate: It went well above 15 per cent during the recession of the early 1990s, and is well off its modern record high of 19.2 per cent in the early 1980s.

One silver lining to the education picture is high school: The proportion of Canadians over 25 without a high school education has dropped by more than half, from 36.4 per cent in 1990 to 17.1 per cent in 2010.

Yet a high school diploma today is hardly a guarantor of success in the workforce, as most are well aware. So Canadian millennials now face a new financial obstacle in life: While their predecessors struggled with the costs of housing and transportation and food, millennials find themselves struggling with the cost of education as well.

And that marks a change in the standard of living that all the cheap coffee makers in the world couldn’t make up for.

— Abacus Data has focused research on the Canadian Millennial. Read more here.

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