What if . . .
. . . we expected — and got — more from public infrastructure investments?
Many cities are making substantial investments in themselves. Like Toronto, they’re making multi-million-dollar deals to extend transit systems, improve social housing stock, restore architectural treasures and build community facilities. Some are no longer satisfied, however, with the traditional contracting process. Los Angeles, Edinburgh, New York and others expect more — more for their money, more for residents, and more of themselves and their partners.
These far-sighted cities expect developers and civic coalitions to negotiate Community Benefit Agreements as a first step in the planning process. CBAs are legally binding contracts. They define the benefits residents will receive from the development, such as local hiring and training programs, living wage guarantees and affordable housing. They single out groups who are not already benefiting from the city’s growth — young workers, newcomers, foreign-trained professionals and low-income communities — and send opportunities their way.
How would your idea transform the city?
CBAs demand a disciplined process for finding common ground and strategizing to deliver the highest returns. They earn community support for development projects, diffuse opposition, and build the reserves of trust, skill and resolve needed to tackle other complex issues.
Toronto is becoming a city that expects more — and gets more — from urban redevelopment initiatives. Metrolinx and the Toronto Community Benefits Network, an alliance of residents, labour, and community groups, are currently negotiating a CBA for the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT. It’s leading to a smarter strategy for investing provincial dollars, creating apprenticeships and jobs for low-income communities, support for affected neighbourhoods and world-class infrastructure.
How much would your idea cost?
It’s not about new money. It’s about working differently with the resources already on the table, and building a broad base of supporters.
Unlike old-style backroom deal-making and shallow public consultations, this process empowers everyone who has a stake in the outcome and sets their sights higher. It counters the cynical view of development as serving only a select few with real evidence that it can serve us all. CBAs have the potential to help make Toronto more cohesive, more prosperous and more equitable at the same time.
Colette Murphy is the Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation.
This is the final article of the 2013 Atkinson Series: Me, You, Us, journalist and author Michael Valpy’s investigation into social cohesion in Canada — what binds us together, what pulls us apart.
Question: How do you stop the unravelling of social cohesion in Canada? Answer: Not with political Botox or quick-fix policy nips and tucks. This is deep cultural stuff.
It’s a winter storm of globalization-and-technology assaults that Canadians’ governing elites haven’t stood up to. It’s the continuing fallout of a cruel neo-liberal hoax. It’s a massive decades-old shift from a collectivist to a more individualist society aggravated by a withdrawalof the state from Canadians’ lives.
And it’s a thrice-told tale, with each account over the past 15 years bearing striking similarities.
From a scholarly 1999 Senate report, from research by Heritage Canada published between 2000 and 2002, from work done under the auspices of the Atkinson Foundation published over the past three weeks in the Toronto Star, the symptoms identified have been the same, and they’ve been related.
A dramatically widening generational rift, with a depth and width we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
A rapidly growing disengagement of Canadians, especially young and economically vulnerable Canadians, from their democratic institutions.
The emergence of social and economic barriers to an inclusive society most noticeably in the workplace — leading, in a word, to inequality. Or maybe two words: “class warfare.”
Dalhousie University economist Lars Osberg, an internationally acknowledged expert on socially inclusive societies, wrestled with the meaning of social cohesion more than a decade ago and concluded it was more than just a path to something better: “It is not just a means that we use to produce something that we value even more, such as economic growth.,” he said. “Social cohesion is in itself something that people value.
“People value the idea of a sense of community. People value the ability to deal in a mutually trusting way with each other … Therefore, social cohesion is not just something that is a means to an end; it is an end in itself.
“In that sense, we can think of it as a valid objective of policy in and of itself.”
Let’s start with the Big Four ways we can advance social cohesion in Canada.
1. Mandatory voting.
Nationally and provincially, Canada is heading toward voter participation rates of less than 50 per cent. Young and poor Canadians vote in such small numbers that it makes it difficult for any political party or government in the country to claim to speak for them. Canada’s youngest cohort of voters may fall into the teens in the next federal election.
This is pushing democratic legitimacy to a crisis stage. In a decade or two, younger voters will be in the prime of their lives and paying for the political choices of their now departed grandparents. These choices are not likely to reflect the priorities or the needs of next Canada.
If we can make jury duty mandatory, we can make the basic task of democracy mandatory. If we can legally enforce rights of citizenship, we can legally enforce responsibilities of citizenship.
2. A proportional representation electoral system.
Our first-past-the-post system has too many flaws, from the wasted votes cast for candidates and their parties who don’t win to the excessive tilt of Canada’s politics to territorial and linguistic representation rather than to class and values representation. Most Western democracies use some form of proportional or multi-winner system with the notable exception of the U.S., United Kingdom and Canada.
3. A guarantee of basic income.
For so many of us, work is our primary identity. Work gives us our sense of well-being and meaningfulness. And work increasingly is being debased by globalization, technology and corporate competitiveness and greed.
Good full-time jobs with benefits and security are disappearing, ushering in the new age of precarious employment, the age of the precariat. There is no indication that this will change any time soon, and sociologists and economists believe that barriers to economic participation in society contribute far more to social fragmentation and social exclusion than differing values and personal attitudes.
Personal transfers and what remains of Canada’s progressive taxation system are no longer protecting Canadians from rising inequality.
When inequality rises, people are more inclined to define themselves with class labels and Canada increasingly is experiencing the phenomenon of people deselecting themselves from the middle class.
Does this continue unchecked? Canadians marching like lemmings into the abyss of temporary, low-wage, insecure employment?
The Danes have met globalization and technology with so-called flexicurity: in a system supported by business and labour, the government allows precarious employment to exist but has introduced state supports that guarantee workers decent incomes, benefits and pensions. Some question whether this Danish flexicurity system would be a good cultural fit with Canadian society.
But an increasing number of Canadian economists, public policy commentators and politicians do advocate a guaranteed annual income. The estimated annual cost of such a program has been calculated at more than $30-plus-billion. Expensive, undoubtedly. But deducted from that would be $20-plus-billion in provincial welfare spending plus billions of dollars more on piecemeal programs related to the costs of poverty, from health costs to prisons.
4. Protections for the Precariat
The growing numbers of workers in precarious employment need full workplace protections and enforcement of employment standards (such as job security, occupational health and safety) and regulations governing compensation and benefits (including wages, overtime, sick leave, payment for statutory holidays and employer contributions to unemployment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan) that are extended to permanent full-time workers. Period. No exceptions.
The fee structure charged by temporary employment agencies to client companies should be transparent. Misclassification of agency-hired temporary workers as so-called independent contractors should be made illegal and be strictly monitored. Government enforcement of labour standards should be equal to the task of ensuring that workers’ rights are met and their full wages are paid.
As for internships for young people — specifically unpaid internships — provincial governments have been appallingly lax in shutting down illegal internships or in informing employers and young people what the law is. They have yet to develop common employment standards across Canada regulating working conditions and health and safety protections. This must be done.
The Big Four recommendations address the main assaults on social cohesion: nonparticipation in democratic institutions and inequality in the workplace.
There are smaller but nonetheless critically important proposals that deserve implementation:
MP Michael Chong’s private member’s bill that would return control of the House of Commons to party caucuses and individual members.
Ideas to rein in inequality by giving low-income people subsidized access to transit and child-care.
A renewed Katimavik funded by the federal government to give young Canadians the opportunity to participate in intensive six-month periods of volunteer service.
A look across the border where a guaranteed basic income is picking up support from both liberals and conservatives — the latter seeing it as a means of simplifying and reducing the size of government.
And one more point must be made: European governments work with labour, business and civil society organizations as societal partners. The Canadian government all but ignores organized labour and has hamstrung civil society organizations by cutting their funding.
The former voice of big business in Canada, the Business Council on National Issues, lamented in 1997 that “Canadians have become highly skeptical about the extent of corporate contributions to the public good.
“Canadian leading corporations have often been portrayed as villains: pursuing a ‘corporate agenda’ of dismembering government and gutting social programs, persisting in layoffs even as profits recovered from recessionary levels, and using freer trade as an excuse for a race to to the global bottom in wages and benefits.”
The BCNI issued a paper on the social and economic role of large corporations, outlining the need to continue working toward deeper global economic integration “without leading Canada into some of the less desirable features of the American experience such as income polarization and the loss of social cohesion.”
There’s no evident references to these thoughts on the website of its successor organization, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. That must change.
So here we are at the end — back to the declaration posed by this series of articles at the beginning: we’re attached to the country but our attachment to each other leaves something to be wished for.
It’s not about ideology or bureaucracy. It’s about harmony, about inclusivity and belonging — about the quality of being Canadian.
We need to work on that.
Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year’s recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an account of poet Sonnet L’Abbé’s excellent adventure in search of Canadians’ souls and thoughts on their nation as wished-for by the CBC and Via Rail that turns out to be a flop in such a successfully interesting way.
The stars of the journey are Canadians who L’Abbé meets in coffee shops, on trains and street corners and elsewhere across the country over two months this summer and who won’t be stuffed into a public-relations sock by rhapsodizing on command about how they want the 150th anniversary of Confederation to be celebrated in 2017.
The star is L’Abbé herself, one of Canada’s most published poets, who teaches at the University of B.C.’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna and accepts a commission from the two Crown corporations to create a ballad of Canadians’ thinking about how best to mark their country’s sesquicentennial.
She winds up encountering social cohesion in Canada in a way no one, including herself, anticipated: spontaneous, sleeves rolled up, raw.
She will write:
“It’s the challenge of the poet
to hold in one voice
a more collective wealth.”
Her sponsors promise her lots of media and public attention. She is expected, in return, to be uplifting, to shape the spirit of 2017, to capture values and the meaning of Canada’s history and the confederation of Britain’s 19th century North American colonies, to write about what Canadians want to honour about their citizenship, what they like about being Canadian.
As she goes into motion — which is how CBC and Via Rail have branded her: Sonnet L’Abbé, Artist-in-Motion for 2017StartsNow — she tells Toronto high school students who interview her online: “Artists have the opportunity to say more about the country or to say something about identities that we share. There’s often a chance to go beyond the person and in this case speak to my country.”
None of the rest of it happens. But her poem, somewhat amazingly, winds up doing just that: speaking to her country.
“What was described at the beginning and what actually happened were quite different,” she says.
The media interviewers don’t materialize. The publicity doesn’t happen. In at least one city — Saskatoon, where she appears at a sesquicentennial “conference” organized by CBC, Via Rail and the city’s community foundation — the announcer forgets to mention she’s there.
She finds as she travels that Canadians do not dance culturally harmonized reels and jigs about their country and its meaning but are in fact quite fragmented.
She finds it hard to be uplifting when she asks people how 2017 should be celebrated, and the most frequent response she gets is a question in return: What will be offered for free? Will there be free train tickets, free travel, people ask when she tells them she’s representing Via Rail. Although L’Abbé makes allowances: “They’re answering off the top of their heads.”
When she presses them a little bit more — “What do you love about being Canadian?” — diversity comes up. They like diversity.
“And then it was often ‘Get rid of Harper, please.’ Like that was the knee-jerk joke across the country, over and over again, can you get rid of Harper. People riding around on trains aren’t Harper people. I guess Harper people don’t take the train; I guess they fly, or drive.
“So those three things — what’s the country going to do for us, like a rock festival or something; get rid of Harper; or the party line which is: Canada’s so diverse.
“None of those particularly inspired me and I didn’t think they were particularly going to inspire any other Canadians, either.
“And I can’t write a get-rid-of-Harper poem for the CBC. That’s not a 2017 poem, that’s a right-now poem, and it’s not about thinking about Canadian identity long-term and reframing Canadian history even though Harper’s got his own reframe-history project.”
Plus the senior Via Rail official who turns up to speak at virtually every sesquicentennial conference co-organized with CBC and community foundations across the country talks about Via as an iconic Canadian company and puts up a slide with the Via logo alongside the logos of Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons — “That kind of Canadianness,” says L’Abbé, “that kind of post-Molson I-Am-Canadian huge testosterone-fuelled capitalist franchise.”
She says: “The kind of interesting Canadian identity that I still have from being a Trudeau kid” — she means a Pierre Trudeau kid, of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and muscular federal government and style and intellect and a canoe with a buckskin-clad paddler on a wilderness river — “I’m an old lady because I have that. That makes me feel very old to have that sensibility.”
Sonnet L’Abbé had just passed her 40th birthday.
As for CBC, she’s told that only old people listen to CBC.
“I feel like a kid when I thought everybody was Catholic. I thought everybody listens to the CBC, no?”
She says: “I think that the Internet does something that maybe hasn’t been articulated around culture.
“Think about how in those Trudeau years, or even in Quebec, how there’s a segment of people who understand that culture is important, culture meaning the arts and culture and language. So we use the medium we have at hand — theatre, radio, TV — to create that culture. The Internet disperses all of that. Where is your sense of Canadianness coming from? Well, the CBC. Well, only old people listen to the CBC.”
She’d been hired after she’d spoken in Vancouver on what she thought was interesting about Canadian identity: being a settler on aboriginal land. “That was my main thing. I’m a settler. It’s happened. We can’t go back and make it not happen and take it out of our consciousness as if it didn’t exist.”
She would write in her poem:
When I give any thought to Canada Day/
beyond the beer tent and fireworks display/
je me sens un peu gênée./
Je me sens comme je ressens
chaque journée d’action de grâces,
(I feel a little embarrassed. /
I feel like I feel/
each day of Thanksgiving,)/
kind of like I’m giving my Thanksgiving/
built on someone else’s loss.
But then it becomes evident, she says, that she was hired because she’s a woman, bilingual and brown, with a French-Canadian father and Guyanese immigrant mother. “They said it at the end,” she says, “it came out of their mouths at the end, they were, like, ‘You’re a woman of colour.’ ”
At the Saskatoon conference, one of the speakers is Omayra Issa, an immigrant from Niger, a well-known cultural consultant to non-government organizations across the West — a woman, bilingual, black.
Issa says sweetly what an honour it is for her to be speaking at the conference, and then makes clear that the organizers should ask themselves why she gets invited to such events. And L’Abbé, in the audience, goes “Yes! I’m not the only person saying this,” and tweets that Issa is being mildly critical of what’s going on.
“But CBC would not retweet that. If I’d said something like, ‘We love Omayra Issa and look at diversity in Canada,’ then they would retweet that. So that became obvious pretty quickly, that if just stayed at the PR level of we-are-diverse-and-happy then it would get retweeted.”
So the summer unwinds and L’Abbé finds herself with a problem:
She has thoroughly — for the most part — enjoyed her adventure.
But she has not exactly harvested a voice of collective wealth. “The spirit of 2017 hasn’t been imagined yet,” she says generously. “The only thing that people can wrap their minds around at this point is bigger fireworks, more commercials saying its our 150th, more flags on the main streets of towns. They can’t imagine it as anything other than more money poured into the same format.”
She abandons her plan to construct a crowdsourced poem to present in Ottawa’s War Museum, with the voices of Canadians live-streamed in.
The organizers have to make room for so many dignitaries to speak that her presentation is cut to eight minutes. The Governor General has been been invited, so have the mayors of the local municipalities. There’s a full house — nearly 250 people in the room and another 30 backstage. L’Abbé is still working on her poem a few hours before speaking.
Her poem, she’s told her CBC overseers, is “not interactive, it’s just going to be intimate, just going to be me, one voice, and I’m going to write my thing.”
She is asked several times if it will truly be reflective of what Canadians have told her.
“So I said, ‘If you want me to take the mean — as in the most frequently given response — the first thing people talk about is ‘What can I get for free?’”
And so there is no more questioning.
On the stage of the War Museum she takes her few allotted minutes to tell the story of her excellent adventure with dignity and high purpose and the voice of a woman who fiercely loves her land. She says,
We hunger for a vision
“de ego à éco”
both epic and circadian
both our morphing cyborg dreams and our raw mammalian
What holds us together
is this arc of sky we’re moving in,
la tranche de continent
(the slice of continent)
So — que pensez-vous? — in 2017 can we embrace
a longer memory of what this land has seen?
Behind the maple-leaf-flag saris
and inukshuks and poutine,
could there be, has there ever been, an autochthonous Canadian dream
dont on pourra collectivement et publiquement rêver?
(which can collectively and publicly dream?)
She says: “I think that I produced a poem that more people should see. And I don’t know how to make that happen. I really wrote it with everybody in mind and the response in Ottawa was amazing.”
Canadian physician William Osler, known as the father of modern medicine, once soared into the heavens of rhetoric in the early 20th century to describe work. The “master word,” he called it.
“It is,” he said, “the ‘open sesame’ to every portal, the great equalizer, the philosopher’s stone which transmutes all base metal of humanity into gold.
“The stupid it will make bright, the bright brilliant and the brilliant steady. To youth it brings hope, to the middle-aged confidence, to the aged repose. Not only has it been the touchstone of progress, but it is the measure of success in everyday life.”
And until recently, maybe 30 years ago, most Canadians would have believed that. No longer.
Today, for more and more people — in particular immigrants, older workers, the young and women — work brings anything but equality, hope, confidence and repose. Rather, it is becoming the fearsome cave of economic insecurity and the place where dignity and a sense of meaningfulness and self-worth are left at the door.
To seek out who gets excommunicated, says Franklin, go look at the workplace. Which is what more and more scholars, agencies and institutions are doing.
From the Law Reform Commission of Ontario to the United Way Toronto and the Wellesley Institute, from social scientists at Ryerson, McMaster and York Universities to precarious workers lobby organizations such as the Workers Action Centre — to cite some of the work being done in the Golden Horseshoe — researchers are producing a wealth of data to show how the workplace, the crucible of our sense of personal meaning, is being devalued.
It is a phenomenon surfacing throughout the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rich countries club.
But as Citizens for Public Justice, the well-regarded Toronto faith activist organization, says in its recent labour market survey: “The good news is that, unlike many other countries, Canada has the fiscal capacity to invest in well-designed measures to support employment that target those most in need. What we need now is the political will to move forward.”
The question posed by the organization, by Franklin and by others is this: What do you do to a society when you strip away its members’ anchors, strip away their identities, strip away their sense of being meaningful? What if you don’t replace it with anything?
More and more jobs are being outsourced to temporary employment agencies where pay is low, security and benefits non-existent and liability under provincial laws governing workplace compensation and occupational health and safety is murky.
Companies claim these practices as necessary to improve flexibility in an increasingly globalized world.
But, says a Workers’ Action Centre report, “workers’ experiences show that outsourcing, indirect hiring, and misclassifying workers takes place in sectors with distinctly local markets: restaurants, business services, construction, retail, warehousing, trucking, janitorial, home healthcare and manufacture of goods consumed locally.”
The Ontario government recently has moved to address some of the regulatory gaps but there are still holes to fill. Other provinces are further behind.
Dropping out forever
Since 2008, the labour market has become more volatile and both long-term unemployment and the duration of unemployment have grown. Citizens for Public Justice says the average duration of unemployment is much longer than it was before the recession, rising from 14.8 weeks in 2008 to 20.2 weeks in 2012, an increase of 36.5%.
“Long-term unemployment is strongly associated with social exclusion and growing income inequality. It is especially significant for vulnerable workers who are at high risk of losing marketable skills and dropping out of the labour market altogether.”
At the same time, the phenomenon of large corporations with fat profit balances putting young Canadians to work at unpaid, possibly illegal internships has become commonplace while their unemployment rate is more than double the national average.
For young people, says Citizens for Public Justice, “they have always struggled to establish themselves, (but) times may well be harder now. Diminished job security, growth of temporary work, rising costs for the basics (education in particular) and record debt levels are threatening the economic security of a generation and could leave a permanent gouge in the national economy.”
Now, in growing numbers, they are giving up on the search for work.
Says Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, who coined the One Per Cent label to describe the uber-rich, “We could have recognized that when young people are jobless, their skills atrophy. We could have made sure that every young person was either in school, in a training program or on a job.
“Instead, we let youth unemployment rise to twice the national average. The children of the rich can stay in college or attend graduate school, without accumulating enormous debt, or take unpaid internships to beef up their resumés. Not so for those in the middle and bottom. We are sowing the seeds of ever more inequality in the coming years.”
As for recent immigrants, a just-published study by Toronto’s Wellesley Institute says too many of them “are stymied at the edges of the economic mainstream, despite the skills for which they were recruited to come to Canada. Newcomers survive by participating in parallel economic activities, working under-the-table or ‘on the side.’ Often, they face exploitation in substandard work conditions even in established businesses.”
Or in the words of welder Wally Syme: “Not recyclable” — his explanation of why he’s on the margins of employment, why he’s been pushed to the side, turned into a temp worker asking for crumbs from the labour market after a 30-year career with benefits, job protection, union security.
“You’re not reyclable,” he says in a basement room in a tired strip mall on Oakville’s west side down by the lake. Pale lighting, pale walls. Tinny music from a radio. Metal tables, folding chairs, a coffee machine, a dead man’s photograph, poster-sized, pinned up: an icon for a martyr.
“He was calling me, he can’t find a job,” says the manager of the room, a former local president with the Canadian Auto Workers, talking about the dead man. “He just passed away, at 61, his picture’s on the board there.” Not recyclable.
The room is the gathering place — the men call it their sanctuary — for what’s left of a community of 400 blue-collar workers who built transit buses at Daimler AG’s Orion plant in Mississauga, until Daimler decided it was no longer profitable to make buses in Canada. It shut down the plant a year ago and moved across the border.
The average age of the men left without jobs was 55. Their median length of employment was 22 years. Their pay was between $22 and $30 an hour. Maybe a half-dozen at most — six out of 400 — have succeeded in finding new work at comparable pay.
For the rest?
“After 20, 30 years, you feel like you’ve served your purpose and now you’re trash,” says the union man who asked to speak anonymously. “You Google me, my picture comes up with (former CAW president) Ken Lewenza and my affiliation with the union and all that, and it makes it hard for me to get a job. They look at me as a troublemaker.”
Not recyclable — and undesirable if you’re connected to a union.
So some of you might say to yourself: An average age of 55, the guys at Daimler who lost their jobs? Well, they had their innings.
They also have mortgages still to be paid, sons and daughters still to be helped through post-secondary education, groceries and clothes still to buy, houses to repair, cars to fix, years to wait for full pensions, a status still to maintain in their communities of being useful, worthwhile, productive citizens, their dignity still to hold on to of going out their doors in the morning to work.
From the company, about $30,000 in severance pay, which Ottawa and Ontario taxed. Then 15 or16 weeks of unemployment insurance, which they had paid into for 20-plus years (the proportion of jobless workers covered by unemployment insurance is the smallest since 1945). Then nothing.
The union man recites a catalogue of suicide attempts, divorces, rampant depression, alcohol abuse, cancer and sickness without health benefits, houses lost because mortgage payments couldn’t be maintained. Men hide in their homes and won’t come out. Men are too ashamed to tell friends and former co-workers they’re delivering flyers, delivering pizza. Men go for a job that’s been advertised and a thousand guys have already applied for it.
Many of these men are now temps — dependent for employment on the temporary work agencies that have become the engines of Canada’s labour market, delivering just-in-time, roll-on-roll-off workers for a cut. Flexible employment, it’s called. The new norm.
You want a welder? There are men like Wally for a few bucks over the minimum wage, a fraction of what they earned at Daimler Bus, no benefits, no job security, no union protection. Sign them up for as long as you need them and then wave goodbye.
These former Daimler employees have joined the precariat along with hundreds of thousands of their fellow Canadians.
The precarious proletariat
Precariat — an amalgam of precarious and proletariat — has been given widespread currency by British labour economist Guy Standing, a former senior researcher for the International Labor Organization, whose 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, has become the touchstone for what’s happening in the Western world to industrial workers, the young and racialized immigrants (that is, visible minorities).
“In many countries,” writes Standing, “at least a quarter of the adult population is in the precariat. This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labour protection, although all this is widespread.
“It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations of those who saw themselves as belonging to the industrial proletariat or the salariat had come to expect as their due.”
It is a critical — and ominous — element of social cohesion because sociologists and economists believe that barriers to economic participation in society contribute far more to social fragmentation and social exclusion than differing values and personal attitudes.
It is very much linked to inequality.
Standing labels the precariat “the new dangerous class” because it is contributing to political instability throughout the developed and almost-developed world. “Chronically insecure people easily lose their altruism, tolerance and respect for nonconformity. If they have no alternative on offer, they can be led to attribute their plight to strangers in their midst.
“It is a class in the making, approaching a consciousness of common vulnerability. It consists not just of everybody in insecure jobs — though many are temps, part-timers, in call centres or in outsourced arrangements. The precariat consists of those who feel their lives and identities are made up of disjointed bits, in which they cannot construct a desirable narrative or build a career, combining forms of work and labour, play and leisure in a sustainable way.”
In the basement room in the Oakville strip mall, the men talk about the temp agencies that have entered his life. “They’re identity thieves,” says one.
“I came from a poor family but we called ourselves middle class. There wasn’t anybody you knew who didn’t either work at Ford, Westinghouse, Stelco, Dofasco. We all had an identity. We had jobs for life. “
He talks about the osteoarthritis creeping into his knee. When he goes looking for employment now, lining up behind younger workers to compete for jobs, “I got to walk so it doesn’t show I’m limping.”
Eric Schuppert’s realization that he had left the middle class did not occur in 2008, when his $75,000-a-year salary with full benefits, pension and five weeks’ paid vacation vanished along with his job as a public-service manager for the municipality of Caledon.
It did not occur when, at age 46, he had to borrow money from his parents to meet his monthly living costs. It did not occur when he was forced to sell his house in nearby Alliston.
It did not even occur when he found himself behind a counter at his local Tim Hortons — “Standing there in that crappy uniform with that dinky little hat on serving my friends coffee” — at the minimum wage of $10.25 an hour, taking direction from kids 20 years younger.
It occurred when the fear came to him that he would never be back to where he had been, that he was looking at a slammed-shut door to anything that resembled progress.
And with that fear, Schuppert, now 51 and working in Toronto as a night-shift college porter earning $30,000 a year, became part of a new phenomenon in Canada that social scientists haven’t previously encountered: he self-deselected from the middle class.
Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, says his firm’s surveys show that since the start of the 2000s, Canadians identifying themselves as middle class have declined from 70 per cent to about 60 per cent of the adult population and possibly much lower.
What that means is not something that can be calibrated simply by the metrics of median-income statistics. It is not really about numbers, and the bromides being offered by politicians in the U.S. and Canada about a healthy middle class being good for society miss the point.
Middle class is a state of mind, an emotional state, a feeling of optimism, a feeling of belonging to the great swath of Canadian society that has been resolutely marching forward in the sunshine for decades. It is an important element of social cohesion.
When the level of income inequality rises — in tandem with a stagnant economy, which is what is happening in Canada — the relationship between income and class identity becomes stronger, says University of Toronto sociology doctoral candidate Josh Curtis, who studies class awareness and its links to political behaviour.
Inequality above all else is a profound social circumstance, a subjective sense of one’s status both in comparison to others and in relation to what one expects from oneself. Thus, especially in rich societies, a substantial income loss in an environment of inequality is more than apt to be construed as an assault on class identity.
And what EKOS finds, as inequality has risen, is powerful evidence that middle-class optimism that existed as recently as the end of the last century has crashed and burned, to be replaced by a pervasive, dark pessimism and a loss of faith in the ethic of progress.
Says Graves: “The dominant challenge of our time is to reverse this infectious belief that progress is over and produce a vibrant new liberal capitalism for the 21st century. Growing and invigorating the dormant middle class is task number one in any blueprint to a brighter future.”
A North American survey by EKOS and partner research firms in the U.S. and Mexico found that Americans who identified themselves as members of the middle class had declined from roughly 62 per cent in 2002 to 46 per cent at the end of 2013, a more precipitous plunge than in Canada, where the figures are 67 and 48 per cent respectively. But this isn’t grounds for complacency. Graves says rising inequality and a declining middle class in Canada have been driven by what’s going on in the U.S., and Canada is now sliding faster down the slope than its neighbour.
“When you don’t have people moving ahead, you have trouble,” he says. “And the trends in Canada are very, very clear. It’s the Acemoglu thesis.”
He is referring to the 2012 book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, in which economist Daron Acemoglu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that societies fail when they move from an inclusive to an extractive economy, meaning an economy “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society (the masses) to benefit a different subset (the governing elite).”
Inequality, in other words.
And when EKOS asked Canadians which groups they thought had moved ahead, fallen behind, or stayed the same over the last 25 years, the results were a rabbit punch in the midriff.
Nearly 90 per cent of respondents said the CEOs of large companies had benefitted most; 63 per cent identified financial sector employees as the winners; 40 per cent chose public servants; 18 per cent chose blue collar workers, and just 8 per cent picked middle-class households.
Eric Schuppert’s narrative, to be sure, is about income and struggling to earn enough money to survive. But primarily it’s about a place in society and his links to the connecting points of middle-class existence.
He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful, well-read man. He tells his story without complaints, and yet a listener can hear very clearly the pain he’s experienced over the past five years.
He’d worked 22 years for Caledon, population 50,000, rising up the ladder from manager of aquatics to a senior recreation position to manager of customer services with a staff of 10. His job included being in charge of the municipal cafeteria, overseeing the municipality’s office supplies and managing the public reception services.
One the day he was fired — “restructured” in the language of the municipality’s human resources department — he asked his boss, the chief administration officer, if he’d done anything wrong and was told no, the municipality just figured they could do his job better and cheaper without him.
“It wasn’t a fun day,” says Schuppert. “But you can’t let something like that ruin 22 years associated with a wonderful community.”
The CAO sent out an email to the staff saying he was leaving “to pursue other opportunities.”
It was a bad time in the fall of 2008 to be out of a job.
Initially Schuppert says he felt marginalized but not hurt — an interesting word he chooses: without a job, he felt pushed to the sidelines of life.
In the first six months after being restructured, he sent out about 100 resumés and got three interviews, none of which led to anything. By August 2009, he had run out of money and needed financial help from his parents. He realized at the same time he was going to have to take whatever job he could find and not wait for something commensurate with his skills and experience.
Within a week he had a job at a Tim Hortons outlet a five-minute walk from his house in Alliston, just north of Toronto. When his friends and neighbours came in, “I could see the click in their eyes when they recognized me, and then they moved on pretty quickly.”
In addition to standing for an eight-hour shift taking orders, Schuppert had to move boxes around. He has a bad back. The work gave him constant pain. He lasted a month and then quit.
The local McDonald’s offered him a job. He asked if there was a chance to move into management, was told yes, and was then assigned to be the overnight cleaner starting at midnight. He declined.
At this point he started to cut off his social connections.
He went to work for Swiss Chalet, again asking for an opportunity to move into management. He was told yes. He worked for nine months, was given periodic management training but never got beyond minimum wage.
He then went to Harvey’s, where he was actually offered a management position. He asked the owner for $16 an hour but never was paid more than the minimum wage of $10.25. Meanwhile, he had to put his house up for sale because he could no longer afford the mortgage payments.
“George saved me from full-blown depression,” Schuppert says. George was his dog, arthritic and going blind, and Schuppert loved and cared for him.
He’d saved for 20 years to buy his house. His house was part of who he was in his community, in his circle of friends. His house was where he once gave parties and cooked dinners until he could no longer afford to do either. The For Sale sign stood on the street in front of his house for eight months, proclaiming his downward journey.
“My emotional state was pretty bad, but I faked it,” he says.
And then the house sold and he decided to move to Toronto and live in the Beach neighbourhood because he had heard it was a good place for dogs.
Before he left, a neighbour offered him a one-month job building kitchen cabinets. “That was as fulfilled as I’d felt in a long time,” Schuppert says. “It was meaningful. In aquatics I had taught kids to save lives. That was meaningful.”
That’s what work is about. Either meaningful or not meaningful.
Schuppert found an apartment in the Beach where he could take George for long, healthy walks. He kept looking for a job. He was turned down for a City of Toronto posting that involved working on its 311 municipal service, which irritated him, because he had led the project to design the service at Caledon.
And then he got the college porter’s job.
The college staff, he says, are wonderful. The students he enjoys. He likes the opportunity to help people. He’s provided with dinner. “I’m underutilized but there’s dick-all elsewhere.”
There’s also the night shift. “I didn’t realize just how lost you are. I live at home alone. I get up in the morning and everyone else has gone to work. By the time I get home, it’s 11 o’clock and everyone else is in bed. I spend the whole day alone and that’s depressing.
There’s the fear — the fear that’s made him say he’s no longer middle class. “I still don’t see anything more than $30,000 a year in my future. That’s not a lot of money for a single person in Toronto. My biggest fear now that is that I’m going to wind up on the street. I’ve just got to get back to trying to find jobs. If I don’t I’m going to be well on the path to the working poor. I think progress has passed me by.”
There’s what Eric Schuppert identifies as the middle class things that are gone.
“I used to go out for dinner
“I used to throw dinner parties at home. I love to cook.
“I used to have parties all the time.
“Dating. How can I take someone out at 14 bucks an hour?
“I don’t get to see concerts and events any more. I used to see live music all the time.
“I have lost the ability to buy new clothes of some quality. I did get used to wearing a jacket and tie for 10 years and looking sharp. It is definitely a status thing.”
All things that middle class people do in middle class society.
Middle class people own houses, or at least a condo.
“I’m wondering if I’ll ever have a meaningful job using my skills and experience again.”
Middle class people have meaningful work.
George died two months ago. Schuppert is now looking for a smaller apartment “down the chain.”
Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year’s recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at email@example.com
Young people are lazy. Young people are victims. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the parents’ fault. Those are the tentpoles of an emotionally charged conversation sparked by Michael Valpy’s story featuring Andrei Mihailescu, 22, and headlined “The young will inherit a future they see as a sham.”
The story was a part of the 2013 Atkinson Series.
Here’s a cross-section of the hundreds of comments the piece has inspired:
1. I used to teach industrial woodworking at Humber College, and my boss used to say our job was to make “taxpayers.” We took in 30 students at that time and maybe 15 per cent of them would actually end up working in the field. Even back then, in the early 2000s, manufacturing jobs were starting to get scarce in Ontario. Now the same program has increased the numbers to 80 students per semester, and manufacturing jobs are all but gone. The graduates end up working at Home Depot as associates. Is it really any wonder they are jaded? – Shmizer
2. Here is a reality check for the young man that this teary-eyed article is writing about: You are not special. Nobody owes you a job, social status, the girl/guy of your dreams, a house, a nice car, etc. These are things that previous generations had to work for. . . Get to know some successful people, study them, and try to emulate them. And get off the computer, stop whining, learn what it is to be a man. Change a diaper. Change the oil in someone’s car. Volunteer. Help an elderly person carry their groceries. Find out what skills are in demand in the job market, and accept that the job market doesn’t care what your interests are, or what you majored in at school. Best of luck. – Peter Anderson
3. I am appalled at some of these comments. They are written by people who had all the advantages or disadvantages of these young people, the difference being that they came out into a society that still had jobs to offer in their fields and the society had not yet become completely dominated by money and one that becomes more environmentally eroded by the day. I am glad they do not want to share our values. I just wish that they would find the motivation to fight for something better. And it is anything but nonsense to say it is an important shift. –paham
4. I have an idea: Since filling out a census form is mandatory, why not make voting mandatory? – StinkingToe
5. Mandatory voting will not help engage an uninterested public. If people are forced to vote out of a fear of punishment, all it will do is give political parties a false mandate. When you have political parties claiming a “strong stable majority” with less than 25 per cent of the total eligible vote, you have a problem. If anything, I would like to see a “none of the above option” on the ballot. – Shmizer
6. At the risk of getting rotten eggs thrown at me, when you go for an interview, take off the baseball cap, take out the facial piercings, don’t get tattoos that are visible in the first place and pull up your pants – you do realize you’re scaring off your prospective employer? Oh and one other thing? Act like you give a . . . rant over. –debinmiss
7. The group of people disenchanted with the values of those who came before them is likely much larger than is identified here. Even among the “middle” group, many people slightly older, slightly more successful, and more likely to vote than the “Spectators” are haunted by the certainty that they will not be able to provide a life for their children at all comparable to that which they themselves had growing up. It seems to me the only difference between the two groups is that instead of the crushing apathy engendered by “Spectator”-ship, those just above are able to just barely coast by on the momentum afforded by, well, just barely getting by with the trappings of the life they’d imagined having. They vote, but their values are rarely if ever reflected in policy outcomes. They pay incredible sums for housing, but few can afford decent homes. If you’ll still be paying off your own education when you’re 50, how will your children afford college or university? The future seems very bleak. – Greg Smith
8. Sad times. I think of a song Sly Stone wrote called “Babies Makin’ Babies.” Those kids grew up to form a leadership base that is emotionally stunted, lacking apathy, and chronically self serving. The escapist culture of the young today isn’t helping, nor is the coddled parenting and teaching of them. Thinking about writing my own song about modern times and calling it “Babies Being Babies.” – llitronic
9. It’s interesting how many of these comments play out exactly the same as the young vs. old conflict described in the article. It’s easy to blame Andrei and his video game habit, but the fact is the actual jobs numbers for young people today are worse than they were in past generations. That doesn’t reflect people who are “too lazy to work;” it reflects an economy that hasn’t created enough jobs. – phys
Now it’s your turn. Join the conversation here.
You can call it a quirky location for an exploration of Generation Y’s place in the national character: Massey College in the University of Toronto, cut from the same tweed of Upper Canada’s WASP establishment (Hogwarts gowns and port wine and snuff after high-table dinners) as its founding master, Robertson Davies.
Pretty much the last place in the country to contemplate nihilism.
Who knows what Davies, the celebrated Jungian playwright and novelist, eyebrow gothically arched, would have made of the conversation in his college’s upper library: six thoroughly postmodern Canadians in their early 20s beginning a two-hour discourse by talking about whether the Facebook lives of themselves and their acquaintances are different from their real lives or merely an extension of them.
‘If there’s a million different choices, your chances of making the right choice are one in a million.’
The business of constructed lives Davies would have got.
But the rest? The participants’ expedition into what holds them together or doesn’t, their sense of collectivity, their notion (those who consciously have one) of Canadianness, their jettisoning of national institutions that don’t operate at the same speed and with the same flexibility as they do, their struggle with the freedom of endless options and scant rules?
This is the reality and the presence of young, cosmopolitan, university-educated, contemporary Canada, assembled at a table in Massey’s library to talk about social cohesion — Tina Yadzi and Aftab Mirzaei, whose parents emigrated from Iran; Elizabeth Heller, whose background is Hungarian Jewish; Karen Zhou, first-generation Chinese-Canadian, Zeeshan Syed, whose parents came from Pakistan; and Karim El Rabiey, Canadian-born son of an Egyptian diplomat.
They belong to the mystery generation, their collective identity as much an uncertainty to themselves as to others. They are Gen Y, the Millennials, the largest population cohort to come down the demographic highway since the Boomers, and their behaviour and attitudes (in counterpoint to the Boomers) are polarizing Canadian society more profoundly than anything the country has known in decades.
Unlike young Boomers who distinguished themselves in the Sixties and Seventies by their radical political engagement, the Millennials are radically disengaged, radically antipolitical. Not apathetic, as we’ve come to realize, but radically disconnected.
Social scientists have been watching them withdraw from formal democratic participation for nearly two decades, not just the alienated and the angry, the so-called Spectators that David Herle identified in his study of segmented Canadian society, but an entire generation.
Their values are the antithesis of the social-conservative values of older Canadians, who elect Stephen Harper’s government and who champion moralism and certainty over reason and knowledge, champion religious faith (the greatest single determinant of who will vote Conservative), champion respect for law and order, tradition and belief in family as society’s most important social institution.
Yet because Millennials choose not to vote, they’ve handed the country over to a gerontocracy whose political values they find almost meaningless.
They believe, rightly, that government and public institutions favour the old.
They are the product of Western society’s overall shift from the more communal to the more individualistic. Their feeling of national identity has diminished as the state has withdrawn from Canadians’ lives over their lifetimes, says University of Calgary Yvonne Hébert, who studies issues of youth identity.
They have become unhooked from the state nationalism that’s been the benchmark of Canadian identity since Confederation, a state nationalism shaped by what governments do, shaped by Canadians’ dialogue with their national institutions such as transcontinental railways and the CBC, medicare and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, official bilingualism and multiculturalism.
In fact, the last — multiculturalism, seen by so many older Canadians as their country’s signal postwar achievement — is largely unimportant to them for the simple reason that they live it.
“Human migration is a tale as old as time,” says Karen Zhou, who plans a career as a writer. “Maybe because of technological advances you can have this happen now in quicker real time, but I think multiculturalism is a ridiculous notion.
“I think for some reason people feel the need to categorize the degree of diversity as something special but there is no human society that’s ever in my opinion had the same genetic code, the same hair colour. I think it’s just a ridiculous cultural construct.”
Karim El Rabiey nuanced her answer: “I moved here when I was 21 (about two years ago). For the longest time the only thing I attached to my Canadian heritage was my passport, which enabled me to travel more easily than my Egyptian passport. But then I moved here and started noticing things; I think multiculturalism does exist but it’s not something that should be held in high regard or low regard. It’s a fact that there’s many first-generation and second-generation immigrants here and that’s what it is.”
So that’s where we are.
The Millennials are the most ethnically diverse generation Canada has ever had. They are the best-educated generation. They are the first generation to have more women than men obtain post-secondary credentials.
In so many ways — something that their older fellow citizens don’t adequately appreciate — they are pioneers. They have different attitudes to community, privacy and authority than their older fellow citizens. They are more secular than previous generations. They do represent a widening generational gap on core values. They grew up digitally.
Thus, it’s not accidental that Tina Yadzi, who with her new undergraduate degree recently started working for a global advertising company in Dubai, began the conversation on her generation’s sense of its collective identity by talking about the role social media plays in their lives.
“Digital media,” she said, “is where people can act” — sparking a 30-minute conversation that ranged across social media protocols of etiquette and the construction of artificial online existence to whether social media enhances or detracts from meaning in life and what responsibility has to be taken for statements posted online for the world to see.
This is what pioneering is about. Facebook materialized as recently as 2004.
Aftab Mirzaei, planning on graduate school in psychology, said: “You build this entire other self (on Facebook), you display what you want, you display your happiest times. ‘This is what I did, this is what I look like, this is what I ate, these are the books I read, these are the films I watch.’
“You pick exactly what you want to show to people. You build this, and the problem is that people start identifying with that self. They kind of forget. They get their virtual self mixed up with their real life and they stop the introspection of working on themselves because their pictures are looking good.
“And it’s so sad — I see it in people’s mums. I think, ‘You know, you should be wiser than that, you’ve had three children, been through all of life, you forget that that’s not real life.’ ”
Zeeshan Syed, who at age 23 runs a web development and design company with his partners, talked about the artificialness and emotional detachment of what’s been termed clicktivism, the click of a mouse on a validating “like” as a vehicle of social interaction.
Said Syed, “Say I’m in a room with all 600 of my Facebook friends, and if I said ‘I did this,’ everyone would go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ ” In comparison, on Facebook, he said, in response to the same announcement — a status update, in Facebookese — they might comment on it with a “like.”
“But I’m wondering if that emotional aspect is still there. I don’t think it would be as possible.” So the question: what gets lost in this human interaction?
Elizabeth Heller, a graduate in philosophy from University of Guelph, quoted the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, that to be authentic and have a meaningful and valuable life, you have to become active in meaningful interaction with people.
“It would be a mistake to overlook the impact of social media,” said Heller. “I think it detracts in some sense from our ability to engage in a real life. There’s a distance that’s implied by social media that we haven’t maybe thoroughly examined.”
Then she makes the connection between Arendt’s words and political disengagement. “The idea of your identity being linked to the nation you’re a part of, that’s inherently a meaningful link,” she said. “And our age group is essentially politically inactive.”
They have such shining promise.
And yet they are afraid, most of them, very afraid, for their economic futures.
Around the table in the library of Massey College, Zeeshan Syed and Karim El Rabiey are economically confident. They both work in software. Tina Yadzi has at least temporarily left the country to find full-time work. Aftab Mirzaei says candidly she’s pessimistic. Karen Zhou and Elizabeth Heller aren’t planning on being materially successful.
The Conference Board of Canada ranks Canada no better than ninth out of 16 peer countries in dealing with joblessness among young people (which only marginally declined, according to the latest statistics, because so many young Canadians have given up and withdrawn from the labour market).
Youth unemployment has not budged since the 2008 recession — the most severe recession since the 1930s — and virtually no federal government programs have been created to target youth joblessness.
Young Canadians have tried hard to adjust to the labour market that confronts them. They’ve delayed marriage, delayed children, acquired more and more education. None of it is helping. They’ve concluded that theirs will be the first generation not to do better than the previous generation.
They find a job market cluttered at the far end with entrenched Boomers immersed in morphing freedom-55 into freedom-75 and beyond. Those still in school increasingly find only one means — borrowing — to move up the social-class rungs, and their belief is weakening that post-secondary education is worth the ever-mounting debt associated with its achievement.
Canadian employers are not giving them the crucial work experience needed to make them appealing for full-time employment, with the result that what skills they do have are in danger of atrophying the longer they go without work.
And Canada trails most peer countries in spending on active labour market programs such as training and skills development.
The Conference Board reports that Canada has not improved its ranking on absorbing young people into the labour market for over three decades.
It facilitates the training of far fewer skilled trades workers than the economy requires. In 2010, only 6 per cent of upper-grades secondary school students were enrolled in vocational or prevocational programs, the lowest rate among peer countries from which data is available (in nine peer countries, more than half of upper secondary students were in vocational programs) while Canadian businesses press government to allow skilled trades workers into the country who have been trained elsewhere, thus sparing Canada the cost.
All of these differences place young and old Canada in conflict.
The young don’t see the old reaching across the age divide in intergenerational solidarity — offering investment in young Canadians and their pursuit of education and jobs in return for their obligations to finance the home care, health care and pensions for the old.
Thus what generational tensions may mean for the future of social cohesion in Canada is unknown, but they point to politics being highly suspect as a tool for meeting the challenges of the 21st century and holding Canadians together.
“Formal institutions that have been respected in the past are too large and too inflexible to adjust quickly enough,” said Karen Zhou. “I know the federal government is designed not to be able to be changed too quickly so it doesn’t destabilize anything, but I just think that’s part of the problem.
“I have unprecedented access to critical views of every single structure around me, and I don’t have to take anything at face value, not religion, politics, government, corporations. I think this is related to my future prospects for employment and the traditional ideas of this have not gone unquestioned, unnoticed in our generation. I don’t see my future employment being dictated by family or religion or corporations or what society expects of me as a woman.”
Mirzaei calls it a shape-yourself world. “You will do best building your own package,” something she says may be problematic in training to be a clinical psychologist, which is her goal.
A new shape-yourself world is something else that may not sufficiently register with older Canadians.
“One thing I find very threatening about our contemporary situation is the vastness of opportunity and potential that arises out of all these things like social media,” said Heller. “Like everything is so much more possible. One of my instructors described it as, say you get a menu and you can pick between macaroni or steak, but imagine you get a menu that just keeps going and going and going, and to decide what you do want on a menu like that — because that’s so threatening and disorienting, you realize you have so many opportunities — it almost makes you delirious, makes your head spin.”
Said Mirzaei: “There’s not enough structure for you to make decisions properly, with values. There’s so much leeway with everything. You need some limitations to play the game. I want limits on my choices: If you do this, these are your options.”
The disappearance of religion, she said, had helped denude her generation of models. It was not a statement that found much agreement.
And Syed: “If there’s a million different choices, your chances of making the right choice are one in a million. If I don’t get it, what will my parents think, what will my friends think, I’ll never get married, I’ll never have kids, my life is ruined, I’ll just be homeless on the streets. I think there’s fear when people have all these different choices.”
And no guides. The absence of guides is an absence of intergenerational social cohesion but because the millennials are in so many ways pioneers they’re inherently short of guides.
Mirzaei, after reflection, said: “I don’t know if having fewer choices is any better. I like having choices because the limits of possibility are greater. Having that fear pushes me forward.”
“Do you know,” asked Heller, “how many vast hours just get poured and poured into staring at a screen pressing Wikipedia links? Your time just disappears and I think that in some sense detracts from our ability to see ourselves and become aware of our perspective.”
The conversation, as it wound down, slid back to Canadianness and multiculturalism.
There seemed a kind of awkward reluctance to talk about the former, but Yadzi came through with a perfect mythological response:
“I spent a lot of my adolescence travelling and living in Iran and I always felt like having a Canadian identity let me present myself as liberal, open-minded, tolerant. It’s a little bit elitist because of how Canadians are perceived in other countries: ‘Oh, you’re Canadian, not American.’ I think that Canadian society has a sensitivity to different identities and different feelings.”
Syed said he was called a Paki growing up and found that offensive. Now he treats it as a joke — “In my homeland of Canada I just brush it off; it doesn’t mean anything to me any more” — and smiles when he’s referred to as the brown bald guy.
Here’s what is new on the multicultural agenda:
A black man and a redhead girl walking down the street hand-in-hand, no one notices, said El Rabiey. “But I’m ashamed that I notice two guys or two girls walking down the streets holding hands. You think to yourself I wish I hadn’t noticed that.”
“I don’t think I should notice that two guys are holding hands,” said Aftab Mirzaei. “I register that and yet I try to rein it in. It’s a disconnect between your values and your visceral reaction.”
Mirzaei joked about being called exotic and said she wasn’t sure whether she found it offensive. Then she said: “If you look at us around the table any one of us could be called exotic.”
Heller asked her: “What’s your frame of reference from which to regard other things as “other” and therefore exotic? You have to have some definitive context in order for you to regard something as “other” enough in order for it to be exotic.”
Such a cool, useful generation.
Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year’s recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
His name is Andrei Mihailescu, he’s 22, and he stands on the lip of one of the biggest chasms Canadian society has ever known, symbolizing a profound fracture in the country’s social cohesion.
He fits into a population cohort that David Herle, one of Canada’s best known political strategists and a corporate consultant on branding and reputation, has labelled the Spectators, so-called because its members aren’t engaged — at least in traditional ways — with the society around them, and see little point in trying to influence the course of events unfolding in their country and the world.
Mass media, built on the assumption of shared values and aspirations in society, don’t reach them.
Civic engagement, which assumes that people working together can change society for the better, doesn’t attract them.
Their engagement has been branded “clickivism” — social involvement confined to the click of a mouse or to the tap of a track pad.
They are inclined to see mainstream Canadian society as alien. A pack of cards. A sham. According to Herle’s research, they share few if any of the life goals or aspirations as their fellow citizens.
They have little sense of belonging to a community. Says James Edward Lee, 27, a liquor-store clerk who feels detached from the greater Vancouver community of New Westminster where he lives: “You go to your block and every house is the same, everyone has the same yard, the same coloured house … it’s just depressing seeing rows and rows of blue wooden houses.”
They tend to dislike their work and do it only for the money.
They put a higher value on being alone than other segments of Canadian society — a finding that has resonance to recent research showing Canadians are shifting out of their more traditional collectivist society toward a more individualistic society.
“The net result is a gerontocracy that reflects the exaggerated and imagined fears of older Canada precisely at a time when the country urgently needs the more optimistic and innovative outlooks of the relatively scarcer younger portion of our society.”
At the core of the Spectators’ alienation, says Herle, is a feeling of a lack of control over the direction of their lives. They do not think that life has offered them many opportunities, and they do not feel they can influence their financial or personal direction. “They see themselves as corks bobbing in the water, pushed and pulled where the tides take them,” Herle wrote in Policy Optionslast fall.
The Spectators — who comprise as much as 25 per cent of the population — are the extreme end of a profound faultline in Canadian society defined by age and education.
On one side of the divide is a de facto governing gerontocracy of older Canadians — another 25 per cent of the adult population — with social conservative values, a strong sense of moral certainty and an inclination toward religiosity. They march militantly to their polling stations on federal election days to vote for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (and, in the future, perhaps Justin Trudeau). Canada never before in its history has had such a high proportion of old people, leading perhaps to a culture of wisdom but also to a culture of fear and crankiness. How Canadians collectively will deal with this demographic tilt is unknown territory.
In the middle of the divide are the remaining cohort of older Canadians, but predominantly the great majority of the population under 45. They deeply distrust government (nearly three-quarters of Canadians think the Harper government is moving in the wrong direction) and Canadian politics in general. In sum, they are withdrawing from formal participation in Canadian democracy and think social conservative values such as respect for authority are irrelevant. This view is particularly pronounced among those who are young, university-educated and Quebeckers.
In less than a decade, the percentage of Canadians calling themselves non-ideological has shrunk from 50 per cent to 30 per cent, leaving 70 per cent polarized between small-c conservative and small-l liberal (the latter being as much as double the size of the former).
The impact on social cohesion can be imagined.
An EKOS Research poll done for this series shows only 15 per cent of younger Canadians trust the older generation, and only 25 per cent of older Canadians trust younger Canadians. The poll also shows that 40 per cent of young Canadians (and 36 per cent of all Canadians) would consider breaking or ignoring federal laws with which they disagreed. Forty per cent also indicated that whatever public life Canadians have in common is determined by its elites. Seven out of 10 young Canadians report they have little or no influence on their communities.
And while Generation Y, the so-called Millennials born after 1980, are the largest cohort to come along since the post-war Baby Boomers, they are still a relatively scarce resource — as well as a valuable resource — and, to say the least, it makes no sense to have them sitting on the sidelines while their older fellow citizens run the country in their own interests.
Hand in hand with political mistrust is economic pessimism — the fear of middle class and young Canadians that their futures are dark, that the Millennials will be the first generation of Canadians to do worse economically than their parents. And, as a corollary, that inequality is becoming the norm in Canada, with a small group of uber-rich grabbing an ever-increasing share of the country’s wealth while everyone else either goes nowhere or slides backward.
In its most recent survey of Canadians’ values, EKOS reports that for the first time in the history of its research, economic issues are twinned with concerns about fairness and inequality.
“These are not the traditional and more modest concerns we have seen in the past about the gap between rich and poor. This new and more potent linkage is the perceived gap between the uber rich and everyone else, and nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in what can only be described as the crisis of the middle class,” the EKOS reports says.
This is a society losing its glue. How far down the road before it bubbles to the surface? British sociologist Michael Mann once wrote that social cohesion is not marked by a society of common values but by a society that can tolerate conflicting values.
“Can I be very brutally honest?” Spectator exemplar Andrei Mihailescu, an odd-job worker with a community college degree in sound engineering, asks in an interview. “Our generation are pussies.
“I mean, think about it. When we go out for, say, Occupy or whatever protest there is … we just go to a certain place and hold up a sign and yell. Great. But they have tear gas, riot gear, those rubber bullets they shoot into crowds. So you got to think about it from a very basic point of view. How much is a sign and a voice going to (win the) fight over (someone) with weapons they aren’t afraid to fire?
“I’m a strong believer that our system has gotten to such a point — the North American system and generally in the world — that (people) are caught in a yoke by the richies … The gap between the rich and the poor is getting bigger and the rich are putting in mechanisms to stop anybody else from getting rich.”
John Zabala, 20, who lives in Mississauga with his parents and has plans to go to culinary school, has a similar view: “As they raise your wages up, they raise the cost of living up . . . the rich keep getting richer and the middle class keeps getting smaller.”
Research reflects that these are not the rantings of isolated social misfits.
The values and goals of mainstream Canada do not intuitively appeal to Spectators. They are not generally happy. They don’t feel particularly optimistic about their own lives or the lives of future generations. If they worry less than others about falling behind, it is because they do not expect to get ahead. Their lives have not been filled with opportunity.
According to Herle’s study, Spectators are under 35, mainly male, mainly living in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas and mainly third-generation Canadian or beyond (Mihailescu is in the so-called 1.5 generation but otherwise fits the template rather well).
What’s truly interesting — and even spooky — about them is that, for the most part, it is not apathy, not ignorance, not the generational aberrations that accompany being young, that shape their beliefs and values but a concrete rejection of established social institutions coupled with fear that the Western idealized dream of progress forever is dead and that what’s coming down the road toward them, economically and socially, is not nice.
Samara, in its study on the politically disengaged in Canada (“The Real Outsiders”), has found a widespread parallel feeling of powerlessness and rejection of the current institutions of Canadian democracy as effective instruments of the people’s voice.
James Lee of New Westminster doesn’t vote. He says: “It’s hard to see how electing somebody different makes any substantial changes over time. It’s hard to see how the votes mean anything.”
And like others interviewed as Spectators, he is not involved in his community.
“Honestly, all my spare time is taken up by practising guitar and playing music. I don’t want to make time to volunteer for stuff. I could, but I don’t want to. I’m so driven by my music. I did think about volunteering for an animal shelter once, but it was kind of one of those things where you get distracted and a few months goes by . . . ”
Graves predicts that the voting rate among the young may slip into the teens-percentage in the next couple of elections and never recover. Moreover, he suggests the ranks of the young and the economically insecure and precariously employed may soon coalesce.
(Young Canadians’ unemployment rate is resolutely stuck at more than twice the national average, they’re humiliated with unpaid internships, they’re told on a regular basis they have the wrong skills and education for the jobs they seek and many increasingly fear they’ll never be able to afford to live in the cities where they grew up.)
Herle asks: “What does it mean for democracy when so many people believe any attempt at making a difference is pointless and lack faith that political change can create meaningful outcomes?”
For one thing, it makes the interview responses from Luc-Olivier Boulet, 22, and Louis-Philippe Dumas, 27, two web developers who live in the suburbs of Quebec City, a rarity. They fit the Spectator template in so many ways but not when it comes to voting.
They’ve voted in the past; they intend to vote in the future. Boulet is certain he’s voted in every election in which he’s been eligible. Dumas thinks he may have missed one.
Why do they vote? “Because it is a citizen’s duty,” says Boulet, “even if I think that my vote might not make a difference among thousands of others. It is mostly a privilege in our country, so I make the most of it.”
Dumas echoes this: “Duty. Luc-Olivier gave a great answer. What more is there to say?”
What perhaps was most revealing — and depressing — about the EKOS poll results for this project was that so few Canadians — young and old — felt they had the same values as their fellow citizens.
Keep in mind economist Judith Maxwell’s definition of social cohesion: The process of “building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, and generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise.”
Scant signs of that.
Only 14 per cent of poll respondents felt the federal government represented their values — and the gulf was massive between younger and older Canadians — and 37 per cent said they would be likely to break any law that morally offended them.
Or as Mihailescu put it: “To be honest, I don’t think it would be breaking the law. Morality is a different issue. (And) when you look at how many laws have been broken, how many constitutional rights have been completely swept aside in the name of money … at the scale we’re being stolen from all the time …”
He spends 60 hours a week producing electronic music. He “warms up my brain” in the morning playing online strategy games and “cools down my brain” in the evening doing the same thing.
Herle found that Spectators — the Clicktivists — spent more time than the average Canadian online. “(But) our research showed that … they are not using that time to connect to causes or organize for change. Many of those online remain stubbornly beyond the lure of politics or social activism.”
A case in point: David Speare, 23, who lives in Barrie and has a college computer-programming degree but works as a janitor in a resort, plays video games four hours a day on weekdays and all day on the weekends.
The actions that Mihailescu and Speare and others like them take over the next two decades will shape the country’s state of mind, its political stability and the future of its democratic behaviour in ways Canada almost certainly hasn’t experienced before.
Canadian society has two groups withdrawing from formal democratic participation — the young and the economically vulnerable — while changes are rapidly taking place that impact negatively on their lives.
In this century, second-generation immigrants have rioted in the suburbs of France. The young have rioted in London. The middle class have rioted in Brazil.
What happens if Mihailescu and his cohort take to the streets 10 years down the road and feel the need to do more than just yell and hold up signs?
There are roughly four times as many votes registered by seniors as by younger voters. This effect is compounded by dramatic differences in political preferences with seniors being more than twice as likely as younger voters to favour conservative choices.
“In a decade or two,” says Graves, “the younger voters will be in the prime of their lives and paying for the political choices of their now departed grandparents which are not likely to reflect the priorities or, one could speculate, the needs of next Canada.”
In other words, the young — or youngish — Spectators who now dismiss as severely flawed and even irrelevant the country’s political and democratic institutions may likely possess a vengeful hostility toward them 10 or 20 years from now.
“In the case of the economically vulnerable,” continues Graves, “disengagement from the political world no doubt worsens their positions of relative privation. Dealing with the burgeoning gap between rich and poor has clearly not been a priority for upper North American governments over the past 30 years and that inequality has escalated beyond the levels seen in the gilded age of the early 20th century.”
For the young, the prospect of years of stagnant economic growth (or worse) due to global economic troubles may make their current economic difficulties a more permanent problem.
The purpose of Herle’s project was to poke into Canadians’ values and aspirations and segment them into groups that would help marketers shape their selling pitches: “Much of marketing communications,” wrote Herle in Policy Options, “is based on aspirations considered to be universal. If a group doesn’t share those aspirations, how can we create advertising that finds affinity with them?”
Which was precisely the problem with the Spectators. They don’t believe in status buying. Or consuming for the sake of consuming. They also don’t believe in many of the touchstones of Canadian society — like democracy. And Parliament.
And so Herle lamented: “Where are we headed when a quarter of our population, whose incomes are roughly in line with those of the rest, tell us that the Western ideal of progress is not making them happy or satisfied?” (They don’t believe in progress, either.)
And then the clincher: “The problem is we don’t know what to say to them.”
That’s the chasm.
Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year’s recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at email@example.com . The series continues next weekend. With research from Vicky Fragasso-Marquis, Luke Savage and Liz Vossen.
Canadians are more attached to their country than the people of any other advanced democracy on Earth, says Ottawa’s EKOS Research Associates, which for decades has gauged the glue that holds the nation together.
We beat out the Americans, who rank second, and are strides ahead of the Mexicans, according to a North America-wide survey compiled by EKOS last month.
We’re hooked on the place we call home and so, very quickly, are new arrivals. First comes belonging to family and then comes Canada. Indeed, research by EKOS, which has worked side by side with a year-long Atkinson Foundation project examining the state of social cohesion in Canada, finds that foreign-born Canadians have a marginally stronger attachment to the country than do native born — 77 per cent versus 75 per cent.
In any event, the bond has been high across all demographic cohorts for at least the past 15 years except for a modest decline among the young, says EKOS president Frank Graves.
In a testament to how well our multiculturalism still works, EKOS finds no differences in values held by native-born and foreign-born Canadians.
Indeed, it finds that the percentage of Canadians attached to ethnic identities is dropping dramatically — down 20 percentage points over the past 20 years despite rising barriers to integration posed by a diminishing supply of good jobs and the fact that virtually all newcomers belong to so-called visible minorities.
In fact, if Quebecers’ and aboriginals’ lukewarm feelings toward Canada are factored out — less than 40 per cent of Quebecers report a strong attachment to the country — Graves says Canadians’ bond to their land would very likely lead the world.
But now for the dark side.
What EKOS and the research project sponsored by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, in partnership with the Honderich family and the Toronto Star, conclude is that the bonds that hold Canadians together are unravelling, leaving a nation profoundly polarized along fault-lines of age, education and the workplace.
Young, highly educated and progressive “next Canada” is disconnecting itself from formal participation in Canada’s democracy. The percentage that voted in the 2011 federal election was under 40 per cent and Graves predicts it may well slip into the teens by the next election or two.
“Next Canada” sees a nation shaped by public institutions, chiefly governments, that favour aging Boomers who vote en masse and heavily en bloc for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
“The net result is a gerontocracy that reflects the exaggerated and imagined fears of older Canada precisely at a time when the country urgently needs the more optimistic and innovative outlooks of the relatively scarcer younger portion of our society,” says Graves.
Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research, has been exploring Canada’s social and political attitudes for 35 years. In addition to being an adviser to this Atkinson Foundation exploration of social cohesion, he has provided original polling for the project. This conversation has been edited for length.
The first thing to do is put a definition of social cohesion on the table.
At its most basic level, social cohesion refers to the glue or solidarity that keeps societies integrated and healthy, which is a modern interpretation of what classical theorists have variously called community, folk ways, organic solidarity and so on. The key drivers are trust, empathy, mutual respect, fairness, inclusion and participation. When societies lose a critical amount of social cohesion they and their economies fail. We haven’t got there yet but the possibility is now plausible. History is littered with examples of such failure.
What’s the state of social cohesion in Canada and where are the trouble spots?
We are moving from a more collectivist ethic to a more individualistic ethic. That seems to be one of the most important transformations that’s going on, and it is producing a declining sense of trust and confidence.
The role of public institutions and the role of the state as agents for producing social cohesion is a question that really has to be looked at very carefully because we’ve seen a relative withering of many of those institutions and an atrophying and diminishing of the role of the state.
We’re also seeing a breakdown in the perceptions of what the role of public institutions and the state and collectivism would be for the new generations that are emerging, Generation Y and Millennials.
And that’s not clear yet, is it?
It is clear in that just about everybody thinks we should be going for a more active rather than a less active state. That’s linked to a general societal epiphany that the whole recipe of monetarism, minimal government, lower government, less taxes was a cruel hoax.
It’s clear that this idea of let’s get rid of government and universal social programs and so forth and ideally have this night watchman state that does just the bare necessities — security and whatever other things must be done — and leave the rest to individuals or communities or the corporate sector is a failure.
We’ve seen unprecedented stagnation and a declining middle class. If you separate out the gains of the uber-wealthy, then basically everyone else has stood still or fallen backward.
What has changed? Well, when our standard of living was No. 1 or 2 in the world, we had much higher tax rates and much more active government. We had universal social programs, we had trust in government and democracy, we had a very different relationship between citizens and public institutions.
All Western economies haven’t suffered the same pain, some of them are moving forward — and the most notable are places that continue to have an active state, industrial policy, national planning. I’m thinking of Denmark, Norway, even Germany. These guys are doing better.
What else is different is that levels of inequality have also risen quite steeply. If you look at places like the United Kingdom and the United States, they both have the highest levels of inequality in the West and the lowest levels of social mobility. They have the highest levels of intergenerational inequality and they also have arguably some of the most moribund economic sectors.
The places that have been doing relatively well are the places that have higher rates of intergenerational social mobility and they also have lower rates of inequality. So when you get societies where people feel their efforts aren’t rewarded, the state is no longer the honest broker but is actually larding the interests of the uber-wealthy while everyone else stands still. You have a collapse of confidence and trust that to some extent seems more pronounced in the younger generation.
So all of this is a direct assault on social cohesion. What kind of troubles can it get us into?
Well, we know that as inequality rises, the agility of the economy declines, the sense of fairness about how the economy works goes down.
We also know that there’s a huge raft of very expensive societal problems that arise. All of these are manifestations of declining social cohesion, much more inordinately expressed in the younger portions of society who are finding no real connection or participation in democracy, a very weak participation in the labour market and economy. What jobs they’re getting are occurring later and are of weaker quality.
And when you’ve got a society that has drifted into being a much older society, it’s precisely at that time that you need agility, innovation and ebullience that comes from the younger portion of society. And they’re sitting on the sidelines both in the economy and in the democracy.
It’s a huge problem.
You end up with an older cranky society hunkering down, focusing on its real and imagined fears, and if you look at the positioning of Canada it’s in relative decline. And you ask what is going to disrupt that. We used to be No. 2 in the world in standard of living. We’re now 17 or something like that. What are we going to do differently that’s not going to make us No. 35 in 10 more years?
There are some pieces of good news — for example, the fact that people still feel strongly attached to the country, which is a proxy for the society — though the young are slightly less attached than the previous generation.
The other piece of good news is that one of the huge fears about multiculturalism is that immigration would have a corrosive impact on social cohesion. It really hasn’t happened. There are some issues, but we find that people are not withdrawing into their own communities.
The other thing that is interesting is that Canada has been relatively less ravaged by what University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak calls “How to slide backwards on the Gatsby curve” because we made the investments in the 1960s and 1970s to enable access to university for people lower on the socio-economic scale.
The main agent for inequality in the United States and Britain, but particularly in the United States, is the education system, and that’s not so true in Canada. We’re now kind of moving more in that direction, but we did avoid some of that threat to social cohesion through sound public policies like universal access to post-secondary education and multiculturalism.
That competitive advantage, do we actually see it at work in our society?
Yes, we do. We still have more generational mobility than the Americans. You want to live the American dream, you go to Denmark. But it’s still more available in Canada than it is in the United States.