Monthly Archives: November 2010

Labour Unions and the Boomerang Generation

Anna Maria Tremonti broadcast a documentary about the boomerang generation earlier this week (the documentary by Suzanne Dufresne , entitled Bouncing Back, is available here and here.) Dufresne reports that the most recent census recorded a doubling over the past thirty years of people between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine who live at home. Now, about forty-four percent of Canadians between twenty-five and twenty-nine still live with their parents.

Dufresne and her numerous guests, who include adult children, parents of adult children, and psychologists who study adult children, give lots of reasons for why so many more people are moving back home in their late twenties: adult children spend too much of their money on consumer goods, they need their twenties as a time of self-discovery, they like the comforts of home, they’re embroiled in a search for identity, they enjoy home-cooked meals, they want to save up for a house, they need that time to search for the “perfect job,” they are going through a self-focused stage. Indeed, their standards are too high: instead of  a marriage partner, they want a “soul mate”; instead of settling for a roof over their head and food on the table, they want “self-fulfillment.” Frankly, they need to learn that there is no perfect job and that “we all have to suck it up and do things we don’t like.”

I’m sure that these account for some cases of adults moving back home, and I’m sure that someone who resents the fact that their own adult child recently moved back home will have this kind of outlook on the situation. But I think there are some systemic changes at work that the documentary overlooks, that have a better chance at explaining what’s going on. Some of these changes are described in a timely article in this week’s Georgia Straight about the dearth of unionized workers among the younger crowd, and said crowd’s apparent apathy about the whole union thing. The article, by Pieta Woolley, points out that in Canada, union membership had been declining since the 1980s, and it recently dropped below 30% (of non-aboriginal workers) in 2009.  The source of this decline is hard to pin down, but growing disillusionment among young workers seems to be a likely culprit: according to a 2007 Robert Half International report, “Generation Y” (whatever that is) values wages over job security, they have little employer loyalty, and they want “swift, merit-based promotions.” Woolley suggests that young people have been discouraged from getting involved in labour activism because of changes in the ways unions are administered, such as with tiered contracts or the mandatory representation vote that was introduced by the BC Liberals in 2001, and because of the lacklustre results of union organization (even unionized employees in BC often start jobs at barely above minimum wage). Plus, along with recession, youth job mobility is one of the biggest impediments to job activism.

At one point, Woolley contrasts the relatively prosperous 1980s, when “thousands of urban students canned salmon up the coast for $20 an hour,” when “grocery chains paid living wages,” and when Murray Gore, an organizer with the Canadian Auto Workers Local 3000, was able to score a job right after dropping out of high school, at a farm, that paid $1200 a month (about $3100 in 2010 dollars. Notably, full-time at minimum wage today pays about $1300).  It’s almost as if something has changed since the 1980s…

The fact is, things have changed since the 1980s. Back in 1986, the Institute of Personnel Management (now the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) published a report called Flexible Patterns of Work that described changes in the ways corporations were managing their workforces so that they could be more resilient in response to fluctuating market conditions. The report described three categories of workers. The first was the core group that is constituted of employees who work on a full-time, permanent basis—the employees who enjoy “greater job security, good promotions and reskilling prospects, and relatively generous pension, insurance, and other fringe benefit rights.”* The second group is made up of the “full-time employees with skills that are readily available in the labour market, such as clerical, secretarial, routine and lesser skilled manual work.” This group is characterized by high turnover and easy replaceability. The third group is constituted of “part-timers, casuals, fixed term contract staff, temporaries, sub-contractors and public subsidy trainees,” to which I would add interns. The latter two groups together constitute the periphery, which is the segment of the workforce that was growing rapidly at the time the report was written, especially in comparison to the shrinking core group of employees. As David Harvey pointed out in 1989, “the current trend in labour markets is to reduce the number of ‘core’ workers and to rely increasingly upon a work force that can quickly be taken on board and equally quickly and costlessly be laid off when times get bad.”

The flexibility of these peripheral jobs can be beneficial for the employees themselves, but it’s reasonably clear that the bulk of the advantage falls on the corporations’ side of the fence. Compared to a generation or more ago, there are fewer jobs available that offer long-term security, and the jobs that are available are afflicted by low wages and poor union representation, especially for entry-level workers. Considering the degree to which corporations have blossomed over the past several decades, and the degree to which corporations are granted power in political circles, it is no surprise that young workers—people in their twenties—are struggling to plant themselves firmly in the work world. In this context, it’s strange to listen to the guests on Dufresne’s documentary place the blame for the increasing numbers of “adult children” (a disparaging term if there ever was one) squarely on the youth themselves.

* Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

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Potent Quotables

…Unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen. The fact often adduced as a reason for scepticism—that the same horror stories come up in war after war—merely makes it rather more likely that these stories are true. Evidently they are widespread fantasies, and war provides the opportunity of putting them into practice.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Potent Quotables

He came at last to the saddest conclusion of them all for it went beyond the war in Vietnam. He had come to decide that the center of America might be insane. The country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled, schizophrenia which had been deepening with the years. Perhaps the point had now been passed. Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul. For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology that the bleeding heart of Christ. The average American, striving to do his duty, drove further every day into working for Christ, and drove equally further each day in the opposite direction—into working for the absolute computer of the corporation. Yes and no, 1 and 0. Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia; the average American believed in two opposites more profoundly apart than any previous schism in the Christian soul. Christians had been able to keep some kind of sanity for centuries while countenancing love against honour, desire versus duty, even charity opposed in the same heart the lust for power—that was difficult to balance but not impossible.  The love of the Mystery of Christ, however, and the love of no Mystery whatsoever, had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition—since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic. So the average good Christian American secretly loved the war in Vietnam. It opened his emotions. He felt compassionate for the hardships and the sufferings of the American boys in Vietnam, even the Vietnamese orphans. And his view of the war could shift a little daily as he read his paper, the war connected him to his newspaper again: connection to the outside world, and the small shift of opinions from day to say are the two nostrums of that apothecary where schizophrenia is teated. America needed the war. It would need a war so long as technology expanded on every road of communication, and the cities and corporations spread like cancer; the good Christian Americans needed the war or they would lost their Christ.

In his sleep did Mailer think of his favorite scheme, of a war which took place as a war game? of a tract of land in the Amazon, and three divisions of Marines against three divisions of the best Chinese Communists, and real bullets, and real airplanes, real television, real deaths? It was madness. He could not present the scheme in public without exercising the audience—they were certain he had discovered the mechanism of a new and gargantuan put-on, no one could take it seriously, not even as a substitute for Vietnam. no, the most insane of wars was more sane than the most insane of games. A pity. Before he had gone to sleep, he had talked for a while with one of the guards, a mournful middle-aged Southerner with a high forehead, big jaw, long inquiring nose, and the ubiquitous silver-rimmed spectacles. The guard had been upset by the sight of so many college boys romping in the dormitory, pleasant looking boys, obviously pleased with themselves. So the guard had asked tentative questions about the war in Vietnam and how they all felt, and why they felt as they did, and Mailer tried to answer him, and thought it was hopeless. You could use every argument, but it was useless, because the guard didn’t want to care. If he did, he would be at war against the cold majesty of the Corporation. The Corporation was what brought him his television and his security, the Corporation was what brought him the unspoken promise that on Judgment Day he would not be judged, for Judgment Day—so went the unspoken promise—was no worse than the empty spaces of the Tonight Show when you could not sleep.

Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

Potent Quotables

Oh, how incomprehensible everything was, and sad, although it was also beautiful. One lived and ran about the earth, and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or cow. And sometimes it seemed as if something never seen but long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

Potent Quotables

The movement and cross-currents of so many crowded minds drove me about, restlessly, like themselves. In the night my colour was unseen. I could walk as I pleased, an unconsidered Arab: and this finding myself among, but cut off from, my own kin made me strangely alone. Our armoured-car men were persons to me, from their fewness and our long companionship; and also in their selves, for these months unshieldedly open to the flaming sun and bullying wind had worn and refined them into individuals. In such a  mob of unaccustomed soldiery, British, Australian and Indian, they went as strange and timid as myself; distinguished also by grime, for with weeks of wearing their clothes had been moulded to them by sweat and use and had become rather integuments than wrappings.

But these others were really soldiers, a novelty after two years’ irregularity. And it came upon me freshly how the secret of uniform was to make a crowd solid, dignified, impersonal: to give it the singleness and tautness of an upstanding man. This death’s livery which walled its bearers from ordinary life, was sign that they had sold their wills and bodies to the State: and contracted themselves into a service not the less abject for that its beginning was voluntary. Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, for the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity. Only women with a lech were allured by those witnessing clothes; the soldiers’ pay, not sustenance like a labourer’s, but pocket-money, seemed most profitably spent when it let them drink sometimes and forget.

Convicts had violence put upon them. Slaves might be free, if they could, in intention. But the soldier assigned his owner the twenty-four hours’ use of his body; and sole conduct of his mind and passions. A convict had license to hate the rule which confined him, and all humanity outside, if he were greedy in hate: but the sulking soldier was a bad soldier; indeed, no soldier. His affections must be hired pieces on the chess-board of the king.

T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Potent Quotables

The tip of the cape at San Lucas, with huge grey Friars standing up on the end, has behind the rocks a little beach which is a small boy’s dream of pirates. It seems the perfect place to hide and from which to dart out in a pinnace on the shipping of the world; a place to which to bring the gold bars and jewels and beautiful ladies, all of which are invariably carried by the shipping of the world. And this little beach must so have appealed to earlier men, for the names of pirates are still in the rock, and the pirate ships did dart out of here and did come back. But now in the back of the Friars on the beach there is a great pile of decaying hammer-head sharks, the livers torn out and the fish left to rot. Some day, and that soon, the more mature piracy will stud this point with gray monsters and will send against the shipping of the Gulf, not little bands of ragged men, but projectiles filled with TNT. And from that piracy no jewels or beautiful ladies will come back to the beach behind the rocks.

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez