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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