Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

‘I can’t even get a job waitressing’: Gen Y on its work woes

GeN Y Money

'I can't even get a job waitressing': Gen Y on its work woes

Starting a career as a young adult today is precarious work.

Almost one-quarter of the generation of young adults born between 1981 and 2000 are working temporary or contract jobs, nearly double the rate for the entire job market. Almost one-third are not working in their field of education, 21 per cent are working more than one job, and close to half are looking for a new job.

These numbers come from a Globe and Mail online survey of millennials that attracted 2,636 responses from people who weren't in school and either working or unemployed. Taken together, the results show a significant number of millennials are not prospering in today's economy.

Story continues below advertisement

"My metaphor is an escalator going down faster than young people can run up, no matter what adaptations they make," said Paul Kershaw, a University of British Columbia professor and generational equity expert who founded the group Generation Squeeze. "They go to school longer, they work longer hours, they delay starting families. But those adaptations aren't enough to sprint up faster than the escalator is going down."

Job quality is more the issue for millennials than quantity. The unemployment rate for young people is a little less than double the national rate of 6.6 per cent, which is in line with previous generations. People entering the work force after graduation have always battled to find their way.

But the survey results suggest there are additional challenges today that can't be dismissed as a brief stage young people must pass through on the way to career success. Of the people who answered our questions, 45.6 per cent turn 30 this year or are already in their 30s.

"What boomers might have experienced when they were 21, people are now experiencing when they're 31," said Vasiliki Bednar, who headed the federal government's Expert Panel on Youth Employment. "I think a lot of people would agree that the 20s are a messy time. When we see people in their 30s who are experiencing delayed adulthood, that's a problem."

A late start in career-building can have effects for decades to come. Parents have children later or not at all, major purchases like houses get pushed off and saving for retirement is postponed. For governments, this raises questions about whether today's young people will be productive enough as taxpayers to bear the costs of our aging population.

Here are the highlights of The Globe's millennial employment survey with analysis from a trio of experts – Ms. Bednar, Prof. Kershaw and Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets.

Employment status

What stands out here is the percentage of young adults who are working term or contract jobs, also known as precarious work. "I think it's very high," Mr. Tal said. "We don't have one-quarter of the [total] labour force in contract jobs." In fact, Mr. Tal's data show that 13 per cent of the broader population works temporary or contract jobs.

Story continues below advertisement

Part of the explanation is our aging population, he said. "There's a little bit of a bottleneck with baby boomers still in the labour market, and the [millennial] generation is the one that is really suffering from this."

Another factor is the current environment in the corporate world, where cost-cutting priorities stand in the way of full-time job creation and technology is being used in ways that may replace human workers. "It's not that young workers want to be in contract jobs," Mr. Tal said. "That's what's available at this point."

Both Mr. Tal and Prof. Kershaw were struck by the low percentage of people in our survey who were self-employed – in the broader work force about 10 per cent of people are self-employed. Ms. Bednar said millennial entrepreneurs tend to treat their projects as what's known as a "side hustle," or a job on the side.

Voices from the Gen Y job market:

All jobs taken or applied for are short term contract with the possibility of renewal, but no chance of permanent full-time work with benefits.

-A Saskatoon man born in 1984

Contract to contract to contract to contract to burnout to back to school to new degree to still unemployed.

-A Victoria man born in 1987

Job satisfaction

"You don't see a lot of smiling faces here, do you?" Mr. Tal said. He sees these numbers as a reflection of the fact that young adults don't have a lot of bargaining power in the work force and thus are forced to take jobs they don't really want. Ms. Bednar described the dissatisfaction numbers as disappointing. "This is sad to see from people are who are starting out in their career."

Prof. Kershaw links these numbers to the lack of earnings growth among people aged 25 to 34 over the past 40 years. He said that in the mid-1970s, median earnings were about $4,020 higher for permanent workers than they have been in recent years after inflation is accounted for. He estimates that median wages for precarious work are down even more over that same period.

Story continues below advertisement

"Young people were sold this idea that if they went to school, they would get security," Prof. Kershaw said. "Well, that didn't actually play out very well. Not only did they not get security, they were also asked to work more for less."

Voices from the Gen Y job market:

My degree was in chemistry, and I’ve done retail, construction, elections, and computer installations. Since I graduated, I’ve been to more funerals than interviews.

-A Vancouver man born in 1988

Work and education

Prof. Kershaw said he was heartened by these numbers to some extent. "This is a random sample and two-thirds are actually finding a job in the field they trained for. That strikes me as reasonably positive."

For him, the bigger question is whether millennials are earning enough money in their jobs to live their lives. He doubts, for example, that many are earning enough to be able to buy a home.

Mr. Tal sees these numbers as evidence of some young people not studying the right things while in university or college. "If you're not employed in your field, it means you don't have the skillset that is needed." Ms. Bednar suggests that universities and colleges bear some responsibility as well for people not working in their field. "We push education as a ticket to the middle class, but we haven't adapted our institutions."

Voices from the Gen Y job market:

I am definitely an underemployed millennial as I work in a restaurant to earn money until I can find a full time job in finance and make use of my MBA.

-A Calgary woman born in 1985

There are, thankfully, jobs available in my field (computer science), but there is just a lot of competition to get there.

-A Waterloo, Ont., man born in 1997

Looking for new work?

"Look how high that is," Prof. Kershaw said of the nearly half of poll participants who were looking for new work. "This strikes me as signalling that earnings are not meeting expectations for earning a living, or for the time and money they put into their education."

Mr. Tal was likewise struck by the high percentage of people who were evidently not happy with their work. "Clearly, they're young, they're restless – you know the story. But almost half are looking for a new job. That's significant."

For Ms. Bednar, the high number of people looking for a new job suggests young people are tired of the lack of security that comes from precarious work.

Voices from the Gen Y job market:

Growing up, you do everything by the book – study hard and go to university – and you’re met with unrealistic wages for the amount of time and money spent in school. Sometimes forced to take two or three jobs just to make ends meet. It’s a recipe for failure.

-A Toronto woman born in 1989

Multiple jobs

Mr. Tal's data show that in the broader population, 6 per cent of people work two jobs. So the percentage shown here for millennials is exceptionally high. Prof. Kershaw believes this number highlights how people are trying to make multiple part-time or temporary jobs equal a full-time living.

Ms. Bednar said the high number of people working two jobs highlights the fact that it has never been easier to have a side hustle in addition to a regular job. But she wonders whether people are working multiple jobs by choice or necessity. "Is this a matter of someone saying, I cannot make ends meet? I cannot pay my rent unless I'm babysitting or cleaning someone's home or bartending or working as a barista?"

Voices from the Gen Y job market:

I have a Masters of Engineering plus five years’ work experience. Been looking since February 2016, managed to pick up a short-term contract job. Been doing odd jobs and handyman work.

-A Vancouver man born in 1984

Health benefits

Prof. Kershaw sees these numbers as supporting his view that millennials are getting a worse deal in the work force than previous generations, while Mr. Tal said these numbers reflect the high incidence of contract work offering no benefits.

Ms. Bednar said the lack of benefits disproportionately affects younger women. "For women, birth control can be quite expensive, and the best kinds of birth control are the most expensive."

An indication of the dollar value of company health benefits to even healthy young millennials can be found in data from the benefits consulting firm Morneau Shepell on expected dental claims by age group. In British Columbia, these dental claim costs averaged $1,094 in 2013 for people between the ages of 25 and 29 and $1,067 for those between 30 and 34.

As with the broader population, a minority of participants in the Globe survey had a company pension plan. This puts the onus on them to save enough to retire comfortably.

Voices from the Gen Y job market:

I never anticipated it would be this difficult to secure short term employment, let alone establish a career. I had no problem in my early 20s, but since turning 30 no one has responded to any of my applications! I can’t even get a job waitressing.

-A Niagara-area woman born in 1985


Ms. Bednar's panel on youth employment reported to Patty Hajdu, federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, on March 31 (the report has not yet been made public). "People were very frequently dismissive of the panel's work," Ms. Bednar said. "They said, you have to prove what's different now."

Her answer comes back to the difficulties people are having in the work force in their 30s, not just their 20s. She worries about what this trend means for the economy and government finances if it continues for the long term. Will millennials turn into a generation that can't pay its way?

Mr. Bednar says there's a case to be made that precarious work has some value when you're just starting out in the work force. You can find out what you're good at, and what you value in an employer. "But the alarm bells go off when precarious work turns into a lifetime career of cobbling it together."

Report an error Licensing Options

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at