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Generation of young workers grappling with job market built for baby boomers

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TORONTO - Conventional wisdom would suggest that Jonathan Glencross has a bright and secure future ahead of him.

Anyone who completed an undergraduate degree from McGill University, established and developed a $2.5-million sustainability fund for the school while there and received national honours as an environmental advocate might well seem destined for the sort of career that would make any parent proud.

But Glencross believes conventional wisdom is no accurate gauge for the economic challenges he and his generation are facing. Since his graduation in 2011, the 25-year-old Montreal resident has not been able to carve out a niche on the traditional career path.

Jobs that make use of a modern-day skill set don't pay the bills, while roles with greater financial security don't address the priorities that the current generation holds dearest, he said.

"When I look around at all the amazing people I know and I look at what's available to them, to do anything meaningful or innovative that allows them to even come close to paying the bills, it's like wizardry," Glencross said in a telephone interview.

"You have to be incredibly comfortable with ambiguity. You have to be incredibly resourceful, and you have to learn a bunch of skills that school didn't provide you with most of the time."

Glencross' dilemma is a common phenomenon for youth navigating a system designed by and for the generation that came before them, experts said.

Young people often bear the brunt of economic upheaval, according to Statistics Canada, whose recent data shows that Canadians between 15 and 24 have long been struggling under more adverse conditions than their older counterparts.

The most recent example came in Statistics Canada's November unemployment data. The youth jobless rate stood at 14 per cent, down from the 14.7 per cent posted the month before but still nearly double the national average of 7.2 per cent.

The lack of available jobs only tells part of the story, according to a report from Community Foundations of Canada released earlier this year.

The survey of youth across the country highlighted a litany of issues that make for a perfect storm of discontent.

Young job-seekers must compete with baby boomers forced to delay retirement, and the report suggests they rarely get the upper hand in such contests.

Obtaining the post-secondary education widely believed to enhance career opportunities is an increasingly costly proposition that leaves most students grappling with an average debt load of $28,000 before they've received their first full-time paychecque, the report said.

And finding a position that could help alleviate that financial burden is made more difficult by the dearth of summer jobs and other roles that could help build a young person's resume.

The result is a demographic grappling with unparalleled stress levels and foundering in a system that only exacerbates their challenges, said Ian Bird, president and CEO of the Community Foundations of Canada.

"Much of our public policy-making takes on board a set of assumptions that the boomer generation has experienced," he said.

"That's still the case. I don't think we've caught up where young people are at, and we better do so soon, otherwise there'll be a cohort that we just miss."

Youth taking part in the report repeatedly expressed a desire for new systems to take the place of the old ones, Bird said, adding they don't share the same priorities as their parents did.

Financial security often ranks below other motivators such as social impact, work-life balance and an emphasis on sustaining sound mental health.

Bird said employers would be well-advised to reconsider their hiring approaches if they hope to attract and retain workers of the new generation.

"It used to be, 'how do you find the most talented?' Give them a job. Here's a desk, here's work to do, compensate them well and off they go," Bird said.

"Now it's more, 'what's the environment we create? What are the social health supports they're going to need? What other burdens are they carrying?'"

That's not to say that it's all bad news for Canada's youth. The Certified General Accountants Association of Canada recently issued a report arguing youth unemployment rates during the most recent recession were well below historic highs of 19.2 per cent during the economic downturn of the early 1980's.

The Community Foundations of Canada report argues that the adverse conditions that dog today's young workers have helped create a generation of particularly adaptable, civically-engaged people who are eager to bring about change.

Glencross hopes his generation will take concrete action on that desire. While acknowledging today's youth have high standards for how their future ought to look, he contends they must be the ones to help make it happen.

He issued a challenge to his peers to become more proactive in carving out a path they'd be content to follow.

"Most youth, if it's a play on social change, they're not casting themselves in the lead role," he said. "Why? Why does no one believe they can do it?"

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