Call it Generation Interrupted.
Bystanders to the economic train wreck of the Great Recession, members of Generation Y have acutely suffered the aftershocks and a painful recovery four years in the making.
Although past generations faced much more daunting challenges — global wars, deeper and more widespread economic depression — this rising crop of Canadians, also known as millennials or echo boomers, has also seen its future hijacked by events not of its own making.
Of the nine million Canadians born since 1980, about five million are over the age of 18. This should be prime time, when careers are launched, résumés built, families begun, and power assumed. Yet millennials are struggling, consumed by worries over jobs and the future, an exclusive poll conducted for The Huffington Post Canada by Abacus Data shows.
The poll paints a complex portrait of Canadian millennials. They are engaged citizens, connected by technology but disconnected from traditional politics. They’re more tolerant than their parents, yet cling to goals that would resonate with their elders — from owning a house before turning 30, to marriage and children, to early retirement.
Above all, the findings suggest that the past four years of economic turmoil have left a profound scar on their collective psyche, most likely shaping their outlook and politics for years to come.
The poll, which surveyed 1,004 Canadian millennials between Oct. 23 and 25, firmly vaults jobs, unemployment and personal finances — the toll of a hobbled economy — to the top of Y’s to-worry-about list. Asked what their biggest challenges are, nearly half of the millennials in the poll ranked jobs first or second.
"We've heard a lot about it, but I didn't expect to see it so clearly in the data — how pessimistic and worried the generation is as a whole when it comes to the economy and their future jobs," said Abacus’ David Coletto, a card-carrying member of Generation Y.
"It really does confirm a lot of the discussion that's been going on about the whole notion of 'Generation Doom.' It’s not just true of people looking at us [millennials], but there's a sense among the generation that times are tough.”
Can you blame them? Expectations were high; the collision with reality hit very hard.
Mom never said it would be like this.
Many millennials were raised in the 1980s and 1990s by doting parents who embraced praise over criticism, success over failure. The education system took the same approach: a child’s self-esteem was paramount; deficiencies were played down.
You can do anything. You can be anything.
For children, it spelled an unprecedented sense of security.
Fully 85 per cent of respondents to the HuffPost poll agreed with this statement: “Growing up, many people told me that I could achieve anything I wanted to.”
Is it any wonder, then, that as the recession took hold and good jobs disappeared, millennials found the landing harder than most?
It’s not that they lack the skills for Canada’s modern information economy.
BORN IN CONNECTIVITY
In fact, the majority of millennials — 79 per cent — say the use of technology is what makes them different from their parents’ generation.
They may not have invented computers or the internet, but as digital natives born into connectivity, they’ve exploited them in ways Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had only begun to imagine.
It’s no longer about setting up email or online banking. Now, it’s chatting live from buses, bars, classrooms. It’s mapping each other’s locations. It’s peer-approving (or disapproving) restaurants. It’s flash-mobbing. It’s ordering a pizza on your phone — without actually having to talk to anyone.
There is, indeed, an app for almost everything.
A study published earlier this year by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found a resounding 95 per cent of people aged 17 to 19 were online. Compare that with people between the ages of 50 and 64 who weighed in at 74 per cent.
That same study found the rate of teens using social media exploded between 2006 and 2011 — from 55 per cent to 80 per cent.
Not to kill the buzz, but there may be a point when social media become downright antisocial.
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NO LOLLING MATTER
When Carleton University Professor Eileen Saunders stands in front of a class of fresh-faced millennials, she often asks this question: "Where do you feel most comfortable in terms of engaging with peers?"
Uniformly, students say they would rather communicate through text or instant messaging, Saunders said. Second choice? A phone call.
If all of the above fail, students will grudgingly agree to meet someone face-to-face.
“That mediated interaction becomes the common currency rather than face-to-face interaction,” she said. “To me, that's incredibly depressing information.”
For a millennial, however, the gadget is simply an extension of them.
Consider the findings of yet another youth study. Last May, McCann Worldgroup took the digital pulse of 7,000 young people around the world and got a telling diagnosis.
If they could save just two items from a list, the millennials were asked, what would it be?
Nearly half of those between 23 and 30 indicated that they would rather give up their sense of smell than an item of technology — typically their smartphone or laptop.
As of yet, there is no app for that.
But it’s not just the physical senses that some millennials would surrender in order to breathe online. Many more surrender their privacy.
“Their emotional lives are often lived online in very public spaces,” Saunders said. “What's interesting to me is that it's almost like social networks have become the foundation on which intimacy is built. What happens in that process is young people are losing certain skills. They're losing the skills of direct interpersonal interaction."
But they are a well-travelled generation. Sort of. No one circles the globe quite like a millennial — and in so few clicks.
“We can think of all kinds of benefits in terms of access to information and cultures, that they wouldn't normally have been exposed to in a previous generation,” she said.
But Y’s devotion to digitalia may actually be narrowing social horizons.
"I think we are more self-absorbed,” consultant and millennial Daniel Canestaro-Garcia said. “In social media, you're at the centre of various circles, it feels like you're the happy buzzing nexus of life, watching people intersect ... wherever they are in the world.”
Generation Y’s devotion to technology has helped feed the stereotype of the perennially distracted technomancer — not to mention a clever marketing campaign or two. But real life takes more than 140 characters to express ... much less live.
"I speak Facebook, partially because of my job, partially just to keep up in my social circles," Canestaro-Garcia noted.
But he also tires of “friends diving into their phones when we are at the bar, and they will surface saying, 'Sorry for being so rude,' and then diving back in.”
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THE MILLENNIAL AND THE MYTH
It’s the kind of scene that has spawned many a myth surrounding these multi-tasking millennials. An earlier Abacus survey asked Canadians what words they associated with the generation. More than half saw a generation half empty — branding them “materialistic,” “coddled,” “lazy” and “entitled.”
They didn’t ask Eric Moran.
“I would define myself as evolutionary, dynamic, and versatile,” the Toronto artist and entrepreneur said. “My girlfriend would define me as the love of her life. My friends would define me as a crazy, eccentric bearded man. My enemies would define me as an asshole.”
He isn’t the only one bucking the brands.
“I clearly see where they [non-millennials] come from,” said Kyle Allen, a high-schooler who grew up in Kapuskasing, Ont. “They don’t realize we have a lot on our plate. We feel extremely pressured to succeed at all we do.”
BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN
Reality doesn’t dote. It doesn’t negotiate. And, as Gen X learned in that seminal 1994 film, reality can bite.
A poll for Sun Life Financial Canada released this month found 90 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 reported feeling excessive stress, compared with 72 per cent of all adult Canadians.
Why? Economic instability and underemployment, the survey said.
HuffPost’s Abacus poll mirrored those concerns.
Asked to rank the biggest challenge facing their generation, 43 per cent of millennials cited the availability of quality jobs as their first or second choice. That compares with student and personal debt by 32 per cent, the cost of education (24 per cent), affordable housing (20 per cent), pollution and environmental protection (20 per cent), health care (11 per cent), and retirement security (8 per cent).
According to the C.D. Howe Institute, Canada’s latest recession officially lasted seven months, from November, 2008, to May, 2009. The same report marks the U.S. recession lasting 18 months -– more than twice as long.
While Canada fared better in the downturn than many other industrialized nations, young people were hit hardest. Youth employment remains 250,000 jobs below the prerecession high, and 2012’s summer jobs were at the lowest level since 1977.
Youth unemployment peaked at 15.2 per cent, though, “noticeably below” the worst experienced in the downturns of the early 1980s and early 1990s, when the jobless rate among youth climbed to 19.2 per cent and 17.2 per cent respectively, a recent paper by the Certified General Association of Canada said.
Of greater concern for Generation Y is underemployment — the problem of part-time and temporary jobs, or jobs that don’t match one’s training. In the Sun Life poll, 30 per cent of Canadians said they were underemployed, but the numbers were highest among young Canadians, with 39 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds feeling they are not being used to their full potential.
Tara Topp has been there — for years. At the time, it seemed like she was running to stand still at work.
“I had a job as a front-desk manager at a hotel and I was trying to tell myself it was only for a little while,” she recalled.
“Fast-forward eight years and I was still in the same job, doing the same thing and telling myself only a little while longer.”
Topp was weighed down by an economic reality that felt “like a hot bag of nickels,” she said.
But she held tight to her dream of becoming a makeup artist, networked with the right people and moved cities to make it happen. In a sense, she credits hard reality for galvanizing her dream – narrowed choices only pushed her to fight harder for it.
“I am doing a job I love,” she said. “And, who knows, if the economy, my parents, my skills and environment were different, I may not be where I am now.”
Not everyone catches that kind of break. Many millennials are still waiting for meaningful work – with mounting frustration and resentment.
All that millennial angst, however, could go a long way toward transforming Canada’s political scene if someone knew how to tap into it.
According to pollster Coletto, there’s a fairly simple cipher for decoding Y.
“When a candidate goes out there and says ‘I need you. You are important. Get involved,’ then a lot of young people, a lot of millennials, will take up that call,” he said.
“We saw shades of it with [late former NDP leader] Jack Layton. But I don’t even think he took full advantage of the opportunities the generation provided. No one has come to us and said, ‘I need your support’ and ‘We can do this together.’”
Millennials don’t appear to play politics like past generations. A dismal 38.8 per cent of voters aged 18-24 cast a ballot in the last federal election, despite the fact that 74 per cent of millennials polled by HuffPost said regular voting in elections is “very important” to being a good citizen.
The majority of millennials said they are good citizens, but few thought it was important to be active in social organizations (35 per cent) or to donate money to charity (28 per cent).
“Honestly paying your taxes” was ranked first on the citizenship question by 81 per cent of respondents.
More telling was the percentage of millennials — just 15 per cent — who felt that active participation in political parties was a very important part of citizenship.
That may jibe with evidence linking low voter turnout to the decline in young people’s attachment to political parties, most recently cited in a study on Canada’s youth vote.
“Young people don’t really think it’s important to be involved with formal political parties,” Coletto said.
“Why pay attention to someone who doesn’t really care about us? If somebody — a party or candidate or movement — were to latch on and really ask the generation to get involved, and it was meaningful and authentic, you could see a big change in Canadian politics.”
The student protests in Quebec this past summer offered a master class on the political perils of underestimating Y. It all began with a seemingly modest tuition hike — a bid by then-premier Jean Charest’s government to push tuition to $3,793 from $2,168 over five years. No one expected riots, Molotov cocktails and emergency law. No one thought that protesting students could eventually lead to toppling one of Canada’s longest tenured premiers.
In Quebec, you saw an “explosion of activism that demonstrates that there is a core activist inside [millennials]. Maybe not the way it was in the ’70s, but nevertheless it can have a huge impact and spread wildly through social media,” Coletto said.
Generation Interrupted had simply... erupted.
FACING THE MUSIC
Millennial tension isn’t likely to ease any time soon. This generation is just entering its prime years and looking for a slice of an ever-elusive future.
In a sense, their arms are already tied.
Many polled by HuffPost said they doubt they will be able to retire as early as they had hoped. They worry about debt. Their savings are scant – and, as the survey suggests, millennials don’t even see it as a priority.
Even issues of traditional importance to youth, such as the environment, social equity and the desire for more liberal drug laws, have fallen by the wayside to the all-encompassing pursuit of the most essential goal of all.
Getting a job. Putting a roof above their heads.
And not getting buried in debt along the way.
If millennials have already proved one thing, it’s that they aren’t easily discouraged.
David Coletto sees them as strategists, carefully biding their time, plotting their future course – and yes, worrying a great deal about it.
And yet millennials are equipped like no other generation to navigate these economic straits. They are technomancers, clicking with minds and movements across the globe. They are activists, transforming their social environments in fresh and innovative ways. And they are a potential powder keg of a political bloc.
Interruption or not, this is their time.
For all those who think they won’t meet this challenge, remember: Millennials are their parents’ children – children who were infused with that one abiding mantra.
They can do absolutely anything.
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— With a file from Rachel Mendleson
— Abacus Data has focused research on the Canadian Millennial. Read more here.