At 27 years old, Simarpreet Singh feels the future is beyond his reach.
For many Manitobans in their 20s, the prospect of owning a home or starting a family had long seemed improbable.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, making the economic clout of millennials even more limited, compared with earlier generations.
"The gap is huge," said Singh, a University of Manitoba PhD student in chemistry.
Young Canadians are reporting the worst economic stress and the hardest hit to mental health of any other demographic.
Those under 35 are disproportionately losing full-time jobs, short-term gigs and overall paid hours.
"There are intergenerational tensions that COVID has created, and also that COVID is just illuminating," said Paul Kershaw, a University of British Columbia professor in public health.
"The virus is most risky to those who are older; the social distancing required to prevent the spread of the virus is most risky for those who are younger. We have not focused on the latter as much."
An intergenerational rift was growing well before anyone in Canada had heard of the coronavirus.
Living costs have outpaced earnings in multiple industries, while rising house prices have multiplied the years it takes for millennials to save up for a downpayment.
Kershaw, who founded the non-profit advocacy group Generation Squeeze, has documented federal and provincial governments focusing much more on retirees than younger adults.
Between 1976 and 2016, governments increased spending on Canadians aged 65 and older at a rate four times that of people under 45.
The 2016 census found a rise in boomerang kids, adults aged 20 to 34 who live with their parents, including those who had moved out for post-secondary education.
A year ago, as Canadians started working from home, teenagers lost part-time jobs working in restaurants. But even in white-collar fields, adults under 25 often seemed the first to lose jobs and hours when companies started downsizing.
As of last month, women in Canada aged 15 to 24 had a 14.1 per cent drop in employment, compared with a year prior, a gap that stands at 7.3 per cent for young men.
Canadians aged 25 to 54 faced a similar gap in the first few months of the pandemic, but it narrowed to a few percentage points months ago.
Kershaw said having nearly twice as many young women out of the workforce than their male peers speaks to a longstanding need for child care spots.
Meanwhile, people working from home have abandoned their rental apartments to buy suburban homes with yards, driving up prices in a market that was already shutting out first-time buyers.
"The response to the pandemic has disproportionately eroded what you might call the social determinants of health and the financial circumstances for a younger demographic, as we work hard to prevent the spread of a virus that disproportionately harms an older demographic," Kershaw said.
Cheques for seniors
Last May, Premier Brian Pallister announced every senior in Manitoba would get a $200 cheque to help them weather the pandemic.
That same month, universities announced layoffs, with the province asking them to cut as much as 30 per cent of costs. The Pallister government reversed that policy, but tuition is still set to rise over the next five years at levels that far exceed inflation.
"Everybody needs help during the pandemic, but that money definitely could have gone toward other resources," Singh said of the $200 cheques.
He said young people, many of whom work on the front lines, increasingly need higher education to get decent jobs but end up with debt that takes decades to pay off.
Precarious and contract work makes it hard to secure a mortgage, so people end up renting without building home equity.
"Starting a family is out of the question at this point," said Singh, who says he’s otherwise emotionally and mentally ready to have a kid.
"If you can’t even afford to survive by yourself, then you can’t really think about bringing another person onto this planet."
Kershaw said Manitoba’s cheques for seniors is an example of governments pandering to an older demographic that tends to vote, whose income is less dependent on shifts in the labour market.
"Pre-COVID, the most robust part of our social-security system, in terms of delivering income to ensure people are not poor, is oriented toward seniors," he said, noting they have the lowest poverty rate among all age cohorts.
"The only place we have a guaranteed income in Canada is through Old Age Security," said Kershaw, who argues the solution is to fold in more people instead of taking away from seniors.
The Progressive Conservative government defended the cheques, which cost about $45 million, saying it would help seniors order groceries and buy devices to connect virtually with people.
The PCs noted they implemented a $120-million subsidy for summer jobs and froze student-loan collection for the current fiscal year.
"Our government recognizes that a successful post-COVID recovery is one that supports all segments of Manitoba society," PC spokesman Blake Roberts wrote. "More initiatives related to Manitoba’s post-COVID recovery will be outlined as part of Budget 2021 in a few weeks’ time."
Other provinces have implemented similar programs, often to make up for federal shortfalls.
Last year, the Trudeau government discarded advice from public servants to ramp up its existing summer-jobs program, instead attempting a paid-volunteer scheme that fell apart in the WE Charity scandal.
Payments to students were one of the last federal benefit programs to roll out last spring, and Ottawa only matched the amount to CERB payments after arm-twisting by opposition parties.
Meanwhile, the federal CERB payment is uniform across the country, despite youth clustering around cities where jobs are plenty but affordable housing is sparse, Kershaw noted.
Economists and advocates keep testifying to Parliament that there needs to be a plan to get younger Canadians back on track.
Hassan Yussuff, head of the Canadian Labour Congress, made that point earlier this month.
"Prior to the pandemic, we finally got youth unemployment into the single digits. Now it’s back up in the double digits," Yussuff told the House labour committee.
"We don’t want this to be another lost generation that doesn’t come back."
UNICEF Canada warned last fall of a triple whammy of lower earnings, a tighter labour market and barriers to accessing education.
"Young people hoping to enter the labour market will face a grim outlook. Without an urgent action plan, the crisis could steal their prospects for employment and prevent a successful transition to adulthood, particularly for those already falling behind," an analysis published last October states.
That’s somewhat poignant for Singh, who has lived in Manitoba for 15 years, since his family moved to Canada to achieve social mobility the country is known for internationally.
"The province and this city have given my family and I a lot, and I’m very grateful for that," said Singh.
That’s why he’s troubled by the idea that people born abroad, in most Indigenous communities or in low-income households can’t build the same lives as people with intergenerational wealth.
He knows many of them who ended up leaving the province after struggling to find adequate work, especially when they don’t inherit a nest egg from their parents.
"We’re not creating those opportunities for students graduating from here."
A moment of solidarity
Economists are watching to see if Canada will repeat the trends from its last recession in 2008.
People 30 to 54 years old at the time of the crash generally recovered within two years, but it took twice as long for the unemployment rate to return to normal levels for Canadians aged 22 to 26.
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"Even after they ventured into the labour market, unemployment rates for this group remained persistently high long after things had improved for older workers," an analysis from RBC Economics state.
The federal government says its budget next month will focus on "building back better," and Kershaw is watching for signs it will deliver for young people.
To him, that would mean getting youth back into the job market, reigning in house prices, making childcare affordable across Canada, and mitigating the impacts of climate change for the coming decades.
Kershaw said that’s doable while not losing sight of issues harming older Canadians, such as understaffing and loose regulation of personal care homes.
"People are seeing massive transitions in society," he said. "They can hope that we build on this intergenerational solidarity, in addressing these gaps."
Youth also at back of vaccine queue
Across the western world, younger adults at the back of the line for COVID-19 vaccination, leading to fears of an added privilege for older adults in countries with limited supply.
A month ago, French President Emmanuel Macron noted that middle-aged adults and seniors are likely to get vaccinated well before millennials, which he said will pose problems for deciding who can access things like pools, cinemas and music festivals.
“If we manage to reopen some of these places at some point in the spring, we cannot make access conditional on vaccination when we haven’t even offered vaccination to the youngest among us,” Macron said. “It would be unthinkable.”
In Britain, the hospitality industry is lobbying to get more young people vaccinated, saying bars and clubs can’t rely on 15-minute test kits to screen younger customers while allowing baby-boomers to jump the queue.
The Trudeau government insists every adult in Canada who wants a shot will get one by this fall. But almost all vaccines have so far come from the European Union and India, both of which are clamping down on vaccine exports to inoculate more people at home.
Heidi Tworek, a public-policy professor at UBC has compared different countries’ COVID-19 communications approaches, wonders about the same age schism emerging in Canada.
“This is an ethical, social-cohesion question: do you disadvantage the young people who have suffered the most economically, and who are going to be patiently waiting their turn, because in reality they're least likely in terms of age to die from this disease — and yet they would be the last one to have the vaccine and therefore to enjoy any of the benefits of that vaccine,” Tworek said.
“I’m honestly really worried about it.”
Already, provinces have also faced criticism for how they’ve placed front-line workers in their vaccine prioritization. There has been near unanimity in inoculating health care workers and personal-support staff, but only some have said a supermarket cashier in their twenties should be put ahead of anyone else that young.
Canadian governments are already under pressure to curtail restrictions on vaccinated seniors, despite that group making up a sliver of the general population.
“It makes it very complicated to have strategies for opening things to only people who have vaccines. Because then you disadvantage a group that has given so much over the past year, and potentially will suffer economically for the rest of their lives,” Tworek said.