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Two degrees above zero

Two degrees above zero

There’s no question the job market for recent grads is lean these days, but if you think their parents’ generation has it any easier, you’ve got another think coming.

The Last Word

While perusing the lipsticks at a department store makeup counter recently I traveled from “Do you have Creamy Nude?” to “What do you really want to do with your life?” in about three minutes. (We freelance writers are a lonely bunch and often get close to strangers much too quickly)

It turned out that the 30-something salesclerk and I had both gone to Queen’s. We also discovered we were strangely in the same boat (or sinking ship) despite the fact that she was a quarter-century my junior. We were both smart and educated but having a heck of a time getting a job that matched our capabilities.

The clerk’s name was Lemma and she’d graduated with two degrees. She’d wanted to go to medical school, but didn’t get in. She’d worked at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health until funding was cut for the program in which she was employed. “I did everything to find a new job. I enroled in a government-funded program to help me with job searches. I worked on my résumé, making different ones for different jobs. I volunteered at a hospital,” she said. “I even started tutoring at a local women’s shelter to improve my job chances.”

Finally, to pay off her student loans, she’d taken this job selling cosmetics. As Lemma related her story, I felt badly for her. Here she was, a young university grad, and she should have been well on her way to a promising career. She should have had hope, which is what I had when I was her age. Instead, she faced what too many young people face nowadays – rejection, low expectations, and despair.

I’ve been self-employed as a freelance writer for 12 years, after having worked as a reporter and editor in TV and radio. I wanted to re-enter the traditional workforce because freelancing pays so poorly. After applying for dozens of jobs, I’d received one rejection letter and no interviews. I felt old, dejected, and pushed out by the young folks. But at least I had my own freelance writing company.

Statistics Canada’s figures show that adult men and students in particular have been hit hard. And yes, students do have it tougher these days than did my generation. Back in 1976, when I was in the job market, student unemployment was 12.4 per cent. These days it’s 15.6.

Demographer David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo, says the situation is terrible. “There are no jobs for anybody right now. It’s horrendous for young people – the children of baby boomers. It’s not likely to get any better.”

He notes that many young people stay in school because they can’t find a job. For people over 50 seeking employment, the situation is even more dire. “Corporations don’t want to hire these people because they have to pay them too much. They think over 50s don’t have the same energy level and that they’re more likely to question management’s strategy. Companies are also more averse to giving them time off to care for aging parents.”

Young people resent us because we’re still shuffling off to work every day, but we have to because our savings and retirement funds have been wiped out – if we had any in the first place. At the same time, older workers resent the younger ones because they will work for less. I remember reading about one of Canada’s top-notch magazines hiring an intern to be the editor. The guy wasn’t even 30 and he had a plum job.

I’ve read that the University of Regina is offering a year of free classes to any of its grads who can’t get a job. President Vianne Timmons is quoted as saying, “Right now, 97 per cent of our students are employed in a career of their choice within six months and we want to push this to 100 per cent.”

That’s it. I’m buying a parka and heading out to get another degree and then that job that meets my qualifications. Because if I don’t, I’ll be fighting it out with the other old fossils who are sitting in front of the liquor store with their tin cups in hand.

That job at the department store cosmetics counter isn't even a prospect. Now that I've met Lemma, I know you need two degrees to land that job. With just a BA hanging on my wall, I come up short.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]